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Preseason Week Five, Cowboys vs. Dolphins: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Answers to my pre-game article on what to watch in last night’s Cowboys-Dolphins game. . .

1.  How long will Dez Bryant play?

I asked this questions when it appeared as though Bryant was going to get some reps.  Thankfully, he didn’t get any.  I wrote a blog post about why this was a good idea.  See you in Washington, Dez.

2.  Which starters will get playing time?

My pre-game prediction that only “starters” who are actually backups but are on the first-team due to injuries ahead of them–Montrae Holland, Alex Barron, etc.–came to fruition.  I think this was the smart move by Dallas.  The team will be well-rested and generally healthy heading into the first regular season game.

3.  How will Stephen McGee perform as a starter?

Tremendously.  The kid earned himself a roster spot last night.  He showed off a wide range of physical tools and looked much more comfortable mentally.  From my initial post-game notes:

  • The most impressive player on offense was undoubtedly Stephen McGee.  He played sensationally tonight and locked up a roster spot.  His arm strength and athleticism were never in question, but tonight he made good reads and got the ball downfield.  He stood tall in the pocket in the face of pressure–something he had yet to do on a consistent basis.  His 43-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hurd was a thing of beauty.
  • I also loved the passion McGee displayed tonight.  He got in Jesse Holley’s face when the receiver didn’t run the right route in one play, letting everyone know who was in charge.

4.  Will Jason Garrett call plays differently in an attempt to get the Cowboys on a roll?

Actually, yes.  While he didn’t fully open up the playbook, the Cowboys were undoubtedly a bit less conservative in their play-calling.  They ran their first counter in two games, attempted some playaction passes, and most importantly, aired the ball out downfield on a handful of occasions.

Garrett’s choice to be slightly less conservative was probably not only about getting on a roll, but also seeing what Stephen McGee is made of.  This makes me think McGee’s job really was on the line tonight.  Otherwise, why not give Jon Kitna at least a few reps?

5. Will Dallas line up in “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” and which plays will they call from it?

I have yet to complete my film study, but I do not recall the Cowboys lining up in the formation at all last night.  I will let you know for sure in my final film observations.

6. Will Danny McCray or Michael Hamlin get reps at nickel linebacker?

Both players got some reps there.  Hamlin looked the best of the two, as he is more natural in coverage.  McCray didn’t make many plays last night, but luckily for him, neither did Barry Church.

7. How will the Cowboys’ defense, which has struggled against the run of late, hold up against Miami’s rushing attack?

With the exception of a 42-yard Ricky Williams run, the Cowboys have to be happy about the way their second-team defense performed against Miami.  They did yield an unimpressive 6.4 yards-per-carry, but only 4.0 if you take out the Williams run.

I know you can’t just make one run disappear to improve an average, but the point is that the Cowboys didn’t get consistently gashed by the running game as they did in the past two contests.  Instead, they performed relatively well with only one hiccup.

8. Can Sean Lee rebound from an awful performance on Saturday night?

Lee certainly played better.  He still needs to work on shedding blocks and not getting trapped inside on outside runs, but he looked improved in pass coverage.  He also showed some really good instincts on a third quarter sack of Tyler Thigpen, initially dropping into coverage, seeing no one threaten his zone, then flying up to nail the quarterback.  He seems to play well when he isn’t “thinking” and just reacting to what he sees.

9. How will fringe players Bryan McCann, Chris Gronkowski, and Travis Bright perform?

McCann was terrible.  I wrote in my post-game notes:

Bryan McCann really struggled tonight.  He got beat continually in man and zone coverage, frequently staying in his backpedal too long. His tackling was also horrendous.  He never wraps up and leads with his head.  Miami knew it and three quick screens at him on one drive.

Gronkowski and Bright, on the other hand, both played their best games of the preseason.  I’ve criticized Gronkowski’s lead blocking a lot, but he really looked pretty good tonight.  Dallas has a tough decision on their hands regarding the status of Deon Anderson, although I do think they’ll keep him.

Gronkowski also adds value to Dallas as a short-yardage runner.  He may be a better option than Marion Barber or Felix Jones on 3rd and 1.

Bright, who was overpowered early in the preseason, showed some explosiveness and better technique tonight.  I still like Phil Costa much more, but Bright may have earned himself a roster spot at a guard position which is rather thin for the Cowboys.

10. Will Cletis Gordon continue to push Orlando Scandrick for possible playing time in nickel packages?

Probably not, at least for a little while.  Gordon had his worst game of the preseason last night (although it still wasn’t that bad).  He needs to be more physical in press coverage and, when he does play off, he is giving up way too large of a cushion.  That’s giving him problems when he has to drive on the football.

Gordon’s ball skills and athleticism are tremendous, so there’s no reason for him to be playing so far off receivers at times.  If he lets receiver eat away his cushion a bit more, he can use his coverage ability and athleticism to defend deep routes, while also then being able to more easily drive on routes such as comebacks, outs, and so on.

Man Coverage with Off Technique

11. Will David Buehler finally get a chance to attempt some field goals and how will he do?

Yes, and incredibly.  To me, Buehler’s play is the most positive sign of the preseason for the Cowboys.  He was four-of-four on field goals last night, including a 51-yarder and a game-winner.  More importantly, he struck every ball really well and his kickoffs are still stellar.  He will open the season as Dallas’ placekicker.

12. Will the team play with more passion?

Yes.  I think a lot of this had to do with who was playing–second and third-string players whose jobs were on the line.  There’s quite a difference between a veteran going through the motions and an undrafted rookie whose only shot at the NFL rides perhaps on just one game, one quarter, or one play.

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Dallas Cowboys’ Five Biggest Weaknesses Heading Into 2010 Season

Last week, I posted the Cowboys’ five biggest strengths heading into the 2010 season.  Those are the primary reasons that Dallas is favored by many to win the NFC.  Here is what could potentially bring them down. . .
5.  The schedule

Playing in the NFC East, the Cowboys’ schedule is always difficult.  Road trips to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are intense no matter the teams’ records.  This year, two of those games (at Washington and at Philly) bookend the schedule.

Further, November and December, as always, are going to be chaotic.  Check out this string of games: @GB, @NYG, DET, NO, @IND, PHI, WSH, @ARZ, @PHI.  Holy crap.  Only one “sure” win in the bunch.

Rebuttal: Each NFC East team plays 12 of the same teams.  They each play each other twice, so only two games really separate each team’s schedule.

Also, the start of the Cowboys’ schedule is relatively easy.  The opener will be difficult, but games against Chicago, Houston, and Tennessee are all very winnable, meaning Dallas has the potential to start off well.

4. Immeasurable pressure

The expectations this season are through the roof.  The last time this happened, Dallas stumbled to a 9-7 finish and missed the playoffs.  As if the regular pressures of playing for the Dallas Cowboys aren’t enough, there’s also the home Super Bowl.  Anything short of a championship is a failure. . .can any other team really say that?

Rebuttal: Every team and every player has pressure on them to perform.  These are professional athletes.  For the majority of them, the most pressure they feel is internal.

Perhaps additional external pressure isn’t a bad thing either.  Extra pressure to practice hard.  Extra pressure to play hard.

3.  Field goals

Making field goals is important.  Very important.  The distribution of talent among NFL teams is more spread out now than ever before, meaning doing the “little things” adds up to big-time success.

The difference between a poor field goal kicker and a great one is huge–about a win per season, according to my calculations.  In the NFC East, an extra win is monumental.

The Cowboys would like Buehler to win the job (against himself), but even if they bring in a veteran, that is no guarantee of accuracy on field goals.

Rebuttal: David Buehler has looked very good in the preseason.  He is six-of-seven on field goals and is still driving the ball through the back of the end zone on kickoffs.  More importantly, he’s got the right mindset to succeed.  His confidence may be unparalleled for a kicker, and that mentality will help him rebound from poor kicks.

2.  Predictability on offense

This is a controversial subject.  Many of you believe that predictability doesn’t matter, or at least not that much.  What counts is execution.

While I don’t discredit the importance of players’ ability and efficient execution, intelligent, innovative play-calling, in my opinion, is just as imperative.  Yes, players could theoretically execute each play to perfection, but that isn’t going to happen.

Instead, each play has a certain chance of working.  It is the offensive coordinator’s responsibility to dial up plays that have the highest success rate in certain circumstances.  It is illogical to blame players for failing to execute on a play with a potential success rate of only 10 percent when another play with a 70 percent potential success rate could have been called.

I’ve previously detailed why Jason Garrett is anything but unpredictable in his play-calling, from his use of draws and playaction passes to his play variation from certain formations to his second down play-calling.  You can’t tell me it isn’t an advantage for a defensive coordinator to know that the Cowboys run a strong side dive 85.7 percent of the time they motion into “Double Tight Strong” or pass the ball a ridiculous 98.4 percent of the time from “Gun Trips.”

Rebuttal: The players must execute, no matter the play-call.  It doesn’t matter if a defense knows what play is coming if they can’t stop it.

Note: I obviously don’t agree with this rebuttal and place an extreme emphasis on the importance of play-calling.  It is very rare for an NFL team to not be able to stop a play if they know it is coming.

1.  Offensive line depth (and age)

In my opinion, the offensive line is the key to the Cowboys’ success this season.  Nearly everything else is in place: the defense is stacked and the skill position players are the NFL’s best.

The age of the Dallas linemen may be showing itself, as right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier are already out.  Kosier will miss at least the first two regular season games as well.

While the starting linemen aren’t awful (despite what others might say, they are still at least adequate), the team will run into a lot of trouble if any of the starters get injured for an extended period of time.

Alex Barron is a solid backup left tackle, but who knows if he has the skill set to man the right side of the line as well.  If not, the Cowboys will have to rely on the unproven Robert Brewster in the event of another Colombo injury (or setback).

In the interior line, the Cowboys are even thinner.  Montrae Holland is decent at guard, but behind him the Cowboys are incredibly weak.  Backup guard/center Phil Costa has played well in the preseason, but that is against second-team defenses.  Do we really want to see him starting at a position as critical as center during the regular season?

Rebuttal: Perhaps we are getting greedy by expecting the Dallas backups to be starting-quality players.  The talent on this roster is so great that, just maybe, we’ve come to develop unrealistic expectations with the second and third-teamers.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys could be in trouble if multiple linemen go down this season.


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Analyzing Pre-Game DOs and DON’Ts for Cowboys vs. Chargers

Jonathan Bales

Before the Cowboys’ third preseason game in San Diego, I published a list of DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas.  Let’s see how they performed:

DO keep tight ends in to help right tackle Robert Brewster in pass protection.

In my original post-game notes, I remarked that it seemed as though the Cowboys actually let Brewster out on an island at right tackle quite a bit.  I was wrong.

The Cowboys threw 11 passes with Brewster at right tackle, and tight end Jason Witten stayed in to block on five of them (45.5 percent).  In my study on why Witten should go out in a route more often in the future, I noted that he did so on 77.1 percent of pass plays in 2009.

Thus, as I suggested, Dallas did leave him in to block more often than usual.

Result: Pass

DON’T play Tony Romo for more than a few series OR use him on playaction when he’s in the game.

Romo did stay in the game for nearly the entire first half, but due to the Cowboys’ offensive woes, that ended up being just 17 plays (and four series).  Good job, Wade.

I suggested that Dallas not run any playaction passes with Romo in the game so that he would never have his back turned to the defense.  They ended up running just two playaction passes the entire game, and only one came with Romo at the helm.  That play involved a rather weak fake during which Romo never turned his head to the defense, so there was no added risk of injury.

Result: Pass

DO attempt a long field goal instead of punting.

The Cowboys never really got the chance to do this.  Buehler didn’t attempt a field goal all night.

Result: N/A

DON’T overdo it with rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

I was surprised at the amount of reps the Cowboys gave to both rookies.  Now, Lee was forced into the game early due to a minor injury to Keith Brooking, but he stayed in until the end.  He did some great things and some poor ones, but the most important thing was that he looked, and stayed, healthy.

AOA got a lot of chances to return.  He looked a bit hesitant on kick returns and needs to secure the ball, but he flashed his skills on a 45-yard punt return that got called back.  As is usually the case with Dallas’ free safeties, he wasn’t “in” on a lot of plays–but he also didn’t yield any big ones either.

Result: Fail

DO give Alex Barron some time at both left and right tackle.

This may have been an option. . .had Barron played.  We will likely see him next weekend against Houston.

Result: N/A

DON’T feel pressured to (necessarily) run the ball in the red zone.

The Cowboys ran four plays in the red zone all night–three with Romo from the eight-yard line, and one with Kitna from the 19-yard line.

I’ve showed why passing the ball in the red zone can still be statistically superior to running the ball (when outside of the 10-yard line and on first down in particular).

Three of the Cowboys’ four red zone plays were passes, and all four were the right call, statistically, for the situation.  The Cowboys ran the ball (unsuccessfully) on 1st and Goal from the eight-yard line, then threw the ball twice following that (the third down play going for a touchdown).

The 1st and 10 play from the 19-yard line should have been a pass, and it was–a touchdown from Jon Kitna to Martellus Bennett.  I give Jason Garrett a lot of crap, but maybe he’s improving.

Result: Pass

DO give Phil Costa a lot of time at center.

Costa did get a bunch of reps at center and he made the most of his opportunity.  There were no muffed snaps and he did a solid job blocking.  In my opinion, he will secure a roster spot (probably at Travis Bright’s expense), barring a total meltdown.

Result: Pass

DON’T give center Andre Gurode a ton of playing time.

Gurode stayed in the game for the first half, but it was just 18 plays.

Result: Pass

DON’T allow Mat McBriar to do much directional punting.

It’s impossible to know whether it was intentional, but McBriar did boom some punts to give the Cowboys’ coverage unit some opportunities to make plays.  Overall, they covered them pretty well.

Result: Pass

DO give Jon Kitna more time with the first-team offense.

Kitna got some time with the first-teamers, but not exactly as much as I was hoping: one play (a strong side dive) before the end of the first half.

Result: Fail

DO run some dive plays behind Montrae Holland.

It looked like the Cowboys made a conscious effort to run behind Holland.  Of the seven first half runs by Dallas, Holland was at the point-of-attack on four of them.  The Cowboys gained only eight total yards on those plays, although Holland didn’t appear to do an awful job on his blocks.  He also performed well in pass protection.

Result: Pass


Seven ‘passes,’ two ‘fails,’ and two ‘N/As.’  Overall, the Cowboys did a solid job of using this game to accomplish the task which I believe to be the most important in the preseason: analyze your unknown commodities.


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10 Dallas Cowboys Under Most Pressure This Preseason

Jonathan Bales

This preseason is the most intriguing in years for Dallas due to the abundance of position battles and uncertain roster spots.  Many players are under a lot of pressure to perform well in these exhibition games, whether it is for a starting spot or to simply make the team.  Below are my top 10.

10.  FS Alan Ball

Ball’s roster spot is obviously secure.  The same can probably be said about his starting job, although that is still somewhat debatable.  Nonetheless, Ball is under a lot of pressure to prove the Cowboys made the right decision in cutting veteran Ken Hamlin.  He must show he is physical enough to play safety and hold off the up-and-coming second-year man Michael Hamlin. I previously posted an in-depth breakdown of the Ball/Hamlin battle.

9.  LT Alex Barron

Barron probably won’t play tonight against the Raiders after injuring his ankle in the Hall of Fame game.  It is unclear when Barron hurt himself and how that affected his play, but he sure didn’t perform well.  His roster spot isn’t in jeopardy, but fans want to see enough from Barron to know the Cowboys got the best of the Barron/Carpenter trade.

8.  FB Deon Anderson

Anderson’s legal troubles have prompted some to dismiss him from their 53-man roster projections, but I’ve been saying since the end of last season that Anderson is extremely valuable to the Cowboys offense.  He’s in my latest 53-man roster projection, but his chances actually took a slight hit with the John Phillips injury.

Phillips moonlighted as a fullback, but his loss increases the probability of H-Back/TE Scott Sicko and FB/H-Back Chris Gronkowski making the team.  Both players are more versatile than Anderson, but I think the Cowboys value Anderson’s blocking ability enough to retain him.  Still, he needs to play well.

7.  TE Martellus Bennett

Bennett was in a tight battle with John Phillips for the No. 2 tight end job before Phillips was lost for the season with an ACL tear.  In my opinion, Bennett was going to lose that battle.  He is an excellent blocker( I gave him a “B+” in my 2009 Tight End Grades), but Phillips’ blocking appeared to improve enough that he may have overtaken Bennett.

Some of the pressure was lifted off of Bennett’s shoulders when Phillips went down, but there are still questions about his maturity, work ethic, and commitment to football.  He does appear to be working harder this offseason than in prior ones, but he still needs to show the coaches he can be counted on as the primary backup to Jason Witten.

6.  WR Sam Hurd

Hurd has always been a valuable special teams player in Dallas, but there are some talented wide outs behind him (Jesse Holley, Manuel Johnson, Terrell Hudgins) who may offer more potential on offense.

Further, there is no guarantee the Cowboys will keep six wide receivers.  If they only retain five, Hurd will be battling Kevin Ogletree and the three aforementioned youngsters for that final spot.

5.  NT Junior Siavii

Siavii didn’t perform terribly last season, racking up a tackle percentage that was actually over two times that of Jay Ratliff.  Siavii only racked up two pressures in 189 snaps, however, and didn’t even record a quarterback hit or sack.

The pressure on Siavii just skyrocketed with the supplemental draft selection of Josh Brent.  Brent has a tremendous motor and showed a lot of potential on Sunday night despite just arriving in Dallas.  His play-making ability appears to be greater than Siavii’s.

The Cowboys also selected DE/DT Sean Lissemore in the seventh round of the draft this year, so Siavii has a lot of competition for his roster spot.  If he doesn’t step up, he’ll lose it.

4.  LB Jason Williams

Williams said he learned more in one year from watching Brooking and James than he did in his entire college career.

Williams has so much athleticism and speed that you sometimes wonder if he relies on it too much.  In the NFL, a misstep in any direction spells disaster for any player, regardless of his speed.

Williams did okay in run support in the Cowboys’ first preseason game, but he looked lost in coverage at times.  That is a big problem since he is fighting to become the team’s nickel linebacker.

His battle with rookie Sean Lee will have to wait another week, as Lee is out for tonight’s game against Oakland.  Williams has a big-time opportunity tonight (and the rest of the preseason), and his roster spot is really on the line.  Don’t dismiss the idea of the Cowboys keeping a player like Leon Williams, who has already made some plays this preseason, ahead of Jason.

3.  RT Robert Brewster

Coach Wade Phillips half-heartedly praised Brewster’s play in Dallas’ initial preseason game, but that may have been to boost his confidence.  I intently watched Brewster multiple times on each of his plays, and he really struggled against Cincinnati.  He displayed poor footwork, even at his more natural right tackle position.  At left tackle, he was severely over-matched.

It will be difficult for Dallas to release a second-year player with so little game film, but with roster spots basically guaranteed for Doug Free, Marc Colombo, and Alex Barron, Brewster may be in a competition with rookie Sam Young for a roster spot.  The Cowboys could potentially move Brewster to guard.

2.  CBs Jamar Wall/Cletis Gordon/Bryan McCann

I’ve detailed the fourth cornerback battle in the past.  Gordon is leading the pack right now, but the gap between the three players isn’t enormous.  With Alan Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah at safety, the Cowboys have two “extra” cornerbacks at another position.  Thus, I predict only one of the three cornerbacks listed above will make the final roster.

All three players look uneasy on returns, so the winner of the battle will probably be whoever displays the best combination of coverage ability–both on defense and on special teams.

I personally like McCann to win the job, but his recent injury (along with Gordon’s) has opened the door for Wall (opened the door for Wall, get it?) to step up.  Frankly, Wall has looked awful in coverage in practices and the first game, but the Cowboys did invest a draft pick in him.

1.  K David Buehler

This shouldn’t be a surprise.  In fact, I’ve talked about the pressure on Buehler so much in the past that I’m not even going to add anything here.

If you’re curious about my thoughts on Buehler, click here.  Or here.  Or here.  Or here.


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Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders: 13 Things to Watch

Before reading the Cowboys vs. Raiders preview below, take a look at our initial game notes from the Hall of Fame game, what we learned about the Cowboys, and our final player grades from Sunday night.

1. How much will the starters play and will they erupt against Oakland’s second-team defense?

The playing time for the starters will really be a situation to monitor in every preseason game.  Coach Wade Phillips said the starters’ overall playing time will remain steady despite an additional preseason game.  When you combine that with the fact the Cowboys will be coming off of just three days rest, you probably won’t see the starters too long.  A full quarter is standard for the second preseason game, although it wouldn’t surprise us to see the No.1 guys leave a little earlier than that.

Don’t forget that this is Oakland’s first preseason game, meaning their starters will be out of the game before you know it.  It is very possible the Cowboys’ first team offense (and defense) will still be in the game against Oakland’s second-team defense (and offense).  Expect domination.

2. Will the first-team offense score a red zone touchdown?

They didn’t on Sunday night despite four plays inside the five-yard line.  Roy Williams was targeted on two of the team’s three pass attempts in that area.  Tight end Jason Witten didn’t get a look, although Dallas is sure to use very bland plays in preseason.  In fact, look at some of the trends we noticed from the Bengals game.

3. What will the Cowboys do at tight end?  Will they run more three-receiver sets and offbalance lines?

Sicko probably won’t suit up (concussion), but he hasn’t been ruled out just yet.  If he plays, he will probably get a lot of work. Whether it is this week or next, it will be interesting to see how Sicko performs knowing his chances of making the squad just skyrocketed with John Phillips out for the season.

With John Phillips out for the season, Scott Sicko will need to prove he is a capable blocker to make the 53-man roster.

Backup tight end Martellus Bennett is expected to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury.  Bennett could theoretically more value to the team now than ever, but not so if he is on the bench.

The Cowboys recently signed tight end DajLeon Farr to fill a vacancy at the position.  Farr and Jason Witten are the only tight ends on the roster available to play Thursday.

The big questions is, with Farr having just been signed, how much will Witten play?  It is unlikely the Cowboys will force Witten to play due to a simple lack of depth, so Farr is going to have to learn the offense quickly.  Fullback Chris Gronkowski could also see some time at tight end.

No matter who plays tight end (and how much), expect the Cowboys to run a lot of three-receiver sets and offbalance lines to combat the tight end depth issue.

4. Will Doug Free come out on fire as he did in Week One?  Can Alex Barron rebound after a disappointing start to his Cowboys career?

Free looked sensational in pass protection and strong in run blocking against a worthy adversary in the Bengals’ Antwan Odom. Meanwhile, Barron gave up a sack and struggled on a bunch of other plays.  If Barron plays (he tweaked an ankle on Sunday night), how will he do after losing a ton of ground on Free?

5.  How will the starting receivers do against Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha?

We think Asomugha is the best cornerback in the game.  We even listed him as the fourth-best player in the NFL in our list of the league’s top 105 players.

Asomugha generally mans one side of the field, so Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Patrick Crayton could all get cracks at him.  Austin played fairly well against Asomugha on Thanksgiving last season.

6. Will the second-string offensive line perform better on Thursday?

Other than Barron, the rest of the second-string linemen were below average as well.  Robert Brewster struggled at both left and right tackle and Pat McQuistan was awful at guard.  Quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee were running for their lives, meaning an injury to any of the starting linemen could spell disaster for Dallas.

In our first “Grading the ‘Boys” segment of the season, we gave Barron, Brewster, Travis Bright, Pat McQuistan, and Mike Tepper grades of D, D, C-, D-, and D, respectively.  Wow.

7.  Will Robert Brewster get flagged for illegal formation?

We noted in our post-film study observations that right tackle Robert Brewster was very close to lining up in the backfield on a few occasions.  Let’s see if the coaches noticed it and correct his alignment by Thursday.

8. Can Stephen Bowen continue the success he had in Sunday’s game?  How about Victor Butler and Brandon Williams?

Bowen was a monster against the Bengals.  He displayed incredible burst and really gave the Cowboys a lot of confidence about their defensive end situation.

The same can be said for outside linebackers Victor Butler and Brandon Williams.  The Cowboys didn’t address the position in this year’s draft because of their confidence in these two players, and it appears to be paying off.  We were particularly impressed with Butler, whose run defense looks much improved.  He made multiple tackles after running across the backfield from the weak side of the formation.  He really had a tremendous night.

Consistency will be key for all three of these players, so let’s hope they carry their success into Thursday night’s match-up.

9. Jamar Wall has struggled all preseason.  How will he play against a less-intimidating Raiders receiver corps?

We would now label Wall a longshot to make the roster.  He hasn’t played particularly well during any phase of the offseason or preseason.  He made poor decisions in coverage, looked less-than-stellar on punt returns, and badly missed a tackle on Jordan Shipley’s long punt return.

He needs to pick up his play immediately to have a chance at cracking the 53-man roster (and perhaps even the practice squad at this point).

10.  How will rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah perform in their first live game action?

Both players will probably suit up after returning to practice.  Pay close to attention to Sean Lee’s coverage, as his primary role this season figures to be as a nickel linebacker.

Meanwhile, ‘Kwasi could return kicks and should see some time at free safety.  Let’s see if the small-school product has NFL-caliber game.

And just because we can’t get enough AOA. . .

11. Will the starting defense contain Raiders running back Michael Bush?

This is important because a few of the starting running backs the Cowboys will face this season are somewhat similar to Bush.  Brandon Jacobs and Larry Johnson are both big, bruising backs who still have decent speed.  The Cowboys’ big 3-4 defense usually comes out on top against those types of backs.

It is small, shifty backs that typically trouble the Dallas defense.  Raiders running back Darren McFadden is out due to a hamstring injury, though, so the ‘Boys might see a bit more of Michael Bush.

12. How will David Buehler respond after a shaky start to his NFL field goal kicking career?

We have predicted Buehler will win all kicking duties and discussed why we think this would be the right move, but Buehler didn’t do much to help his case in Week One.  His kickoffs were again sensational, but his accuracy on field goals (and even his extra point) left much to be desired.  He will get another shot to prove himself Thursday night, but a similar performance would probably force the Cowboys to add a veteran.

13. Can the Cowboys fix the problems that plagued their punt coverage unit against Cincy?

Jordan Shipley’s punt return to the Cowboys’ two-yard line was the result of poor punt coverage and a few missed tackles.  The play of the special teams was a major reason for Dallas’ 2009 success, so that problem has to get fixed this week.


Five Big Question Marks for Cowboys Heading Into First Preseason Game

Jonathan Bales

1.  Is Alan Ball ready to be a starting free safety?

Ball is more of a playmaker than former Cowboys free safety Ken Hamlin, but he has yet to show it during training camp.  Up to this point, second-year safety Michael Hamlin and undrafted rookie Barry Church have both outplayed Ball.  Of those two players, only Hamlin is a legitimate threat to Ball’s starting job, although both players will also eventually have to fend off rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

I previously detailed Ball’s battle with Hamlin.  If Ball continues to struggle, there is certainly a possibility that Hamlin overtakes him.  Ball’s play in the preseason games, starting this Sunday, will be critical.  Mission No. 1 for Ball: Improve upon his 22.2 percent missed tackle rate in 2009.

2.  Can David Buehler handle all kicking duties?

Buehler has been magnificent so far in training camp.  He has consistently been 6-for-6 (or at least 5-for-6) on field goals each day. As I’ve said before, Buehler’s only competition right now is himself.

The Cowboys aren’t going to allow poor kicking demolish their chances of a deep playoff run this season, so Buehler is on a very short leash.  Veterans John Carney and Matt Stover are on speed-dial in the event that Buehler folds.  Making kicks in practice is one thing, but Buehler will need to convert on basically every opportunity in the preseason to retain all kicking duties.

3.  Will Alex Barron make a push for the starting left tackle job?

Just about everyone believes Free has the starting job pinned down, but I’m not as convinced.  Free is certainly an overwhelming favorite, but Barron’s talent is so outstanding that anything can happen.  Barron has looked great thus far in training camp, especially since he has limited the false starts that plagued his career in St. Louis (although false starts aren’t as costly as they appear).

Neither player is particularly mauling in the run game, but both will be an upgrade over ex-Cowboy left tackle Flozell Adams in pass protection.  Take a look at my analysis of the Free/Barron battle.

4.  Will Jason Williams’ athleticism be enough to overcome rookie Sean Lee for the nickel linebacker position?

After struggling last season and in the early portions of this year’s training camp, Williams has come on of late.  His athleticism and speed are undeniable, but he has suffered from mental mistakes.  Further, the Cowboys certainly view Lee as a player who can start immediately (considering they had such a high draft grade on him).

This positional battle may be the Cowboys’ closest, as both players hold advantages over the other.  Williams is a playmaker and Dallas may want his talent on the field in their effort to maximize takeaways.  Lee, however, is probably the future at inside linebacker.  Perhaps the Cowboys want to get him experience as early as possible.

5.  What will be the distribution of touches among the running backs?

Many pundits (including myself) predicted Felix Jones would overtake Marion Barber for the starting running back job, but the Cowboys have said “not so fast.”  Barber is still No. 1 on the depth chart and looks to be rejuvenated in the early portions of camp.

Whoever starts, however, is less important than the distribution of touches.  Jones looks to see an increased role in every aspect of the offense, particularly the passing game.  Tashard Choice has also shown that he deserves more work, so it will be tough to justify more than 200 or so touches for Barber–whether he starts or not.

The truth is that we probably won’t learn much about the Cowboys’ intentions regarding this situation until the regular season. Choice may lead the team in preseason carries in an effort to “save” Barber and Jones and limit their chance of injury.


Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VIII: David Buehler vs. Himself

Jonathan Bales

In the first seven parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft tacklewide receiver, tight end, and cornerback positions.

Today, I will analyze the oft-overlooked, yet extremely critical kicker position.  A couple years ago, I conducted a study on the importance of kickers. I found that the difference between a 70 percent kicker and a 90 percent kicker is about one extra win per year–a pretty big deal in the context of a 16-game season.

Thus, it is imperative for the Cowboys to secure a reliable kicker, whether it David Buehler or somebody else.  The inherent lack of season-to-season stability at the position could mean Buehler is the right guy for the job.

Recently, however, Peter King reported the organization seems “worried, really worried” about the kicker position.  Veterans John Carney and Matt Stover are still free agents.  King believes the ‘Boys will sign one of them by Week Three of the preseason if Buehler doesn’t show he can handle all kicking duties.

As of now, however, Buehler’s only true competition is himself.

Scouting Report

I’ve never really scouted a kicker, but Buehler must be the most athletic one in NFL history.  He ran a 4.57 forty-yard dash at 6’2”, 222 pounds and performed 25 reps on the bench press.  That would be an impressive weight/strength/speed combination for a running back, much less a kicker.

None of that really matters if Buehler is to be the Cowboys’ placekicker, of course.  Obviously he has a ton of leg, leading the NFL in touchbacks as a rookie.  His issue will be accuracy (as is the case with just about every NFL kicker).

Perhaps being an athlete will help Buehler in his quest for accuracy.  Kicking is as much (or perhaps more) mental as it is physical, and Buehler, as an athlete, has the confidence and mindset to rebound from a miss.  Anyone can get on a roll, but the best kickers don’t allow previous misses to negatively impact future kicks.

Pros/Cons of Using Buehler at Placekicker. . .

The biggest advantage to using Buehler for all kicking duties is the “extra” roster spot that would be saved.  Buehler will make the squad as a kickoff specialist whether he tanks field goals or not, so the addition of another kicker would mean the disappearance of a positional player.

On the bright side, Buehler can again participate on the coverage units if he is retained solely as a kickoff specialist.  In this way, Dallas wouldn’t be losing a full roster spot–more like half of one.


I predicted Buehler would win all kicking duties in my last 53-man roster projection.  I am not as confident in him now as I was then, however.  He is certainly on a short leash.  If he performs perfectly in preseason, he should retain his job.  The first sign of trouble in either the preseason or start of the regular season, though, would likely result in the Cowboys signing a veteran and moving Buehler back to kickoff specialist/special teams ace.


Cowboys News and Notes: 6/17/10 (Ken Hamlin Signs, More on Austin/Kardashian)

Hamlin will have to again prove his worth in an effort to land one last big payday.  Hamlin was in a similar situation during his first season with Dallas and played quite well.  He obviously had a down year in 2009, but we still maintain he played better than most people (or everyone) is giving him credit.  We gave him a “B-” overall grade, including an “A-” in run support.  He missed tackles at about one-half the rate of Gerald Sensabaugh and one-third that of Alan Ball, and he also received the highest Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating.

As we reported earlier, however, Cowboys fans need not yet worry.  A source very, very close to Austin tells us that while the two have spent time together, they are no more than friends at this point.  Too bad–Kardashian is about the only new “tight end” we’d like to see in Dallas.  Note: That joke is 100% stolen from Amber Leigh.

“I like what’s happening with Buehler,” Jones said. “I like the direction. Is that something I don’t think about? It is something I think about, but I like the way it’s going.”  Buehler led the NFL in touchbacks last season.  His accuracy is essential to the Cowboys in 2010.  We’ve already discussed the extreme importance of having an accurate field goal kicker.

Andre Gurode spends some time with the kids

OLB Victor Butler showed he has great potential last season (at least as a pass-rusher), but Williams probably has the better all-around skill set.  He has been outstanding in offseason workouts thus far.  We think he will ultimately receive more snaps than Butler in 2010, particularly on running downs.

What we learned from this defense is. . .there is so much talent that if they can find a way to force more turnovers, the Cowboys are going to be extremely difficult to beat.  Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett gets a lot of flack for the offense’s poor yards-to-points ratio (we admit a lot of it comes from us), but the number one way to improve that number is for the defense to provide the offense with a short field.

Don’t forget to visit CowboysCorral.com if you live out of town and would like to book a Cowboys vacation package.


Dallas Cowboys Redshirts: Potential Impact of Second-Year Players

In our eyes, the Cowboys have two rookie classes coming in this season: the 2010 class, and the 2009 class which was decimated by injuries.  In effect, the Cowboys obtain the best of both worlds from the second year players.

A good chunk of them (Michael Hamlin, Robert Brewster, Jason Williams, Stephen Hodge, Brandon Williams) played either zero or very fews snaps last season, meaning they have the same upside and “unknown” quality about them as the true rookies.  These redshirt players, however, were able to go through an entire season of mental reps.  They know what it takes to play at the NFL level, at least in terms of the cerebral aspect of the game.

In this article, we will detail the potential impact of most of the Cowboys’ second-year players–in 2010 and beyond.

Jason Williams, ILB

Williams is an athletic freak.  He ran a 4.4 forty-yard dash at his Pro Day.  Had Williams had all of 2009 to learn, that kind of speed could have really helped Dallas.

Instead, Williams will compete with rookie Sean Lee this year for nickel linebacker duties behind starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking.  We are in the minority in believing Williams will win the job.

Eventually, the Cowboys hope Williams and Lee can step in as starting inside linebackers, although that day is at least a couple years away.

Final Forecast:  Williams will compete for nickel duties this year and a starting job as soon as 2011.

Robert Brewster, OT

Brewster never really got started in 2009, tearing his pectoral muscle before the season began.  At this point, he is as much of an unknown to Dallas as any of the rookies.

With the addition of free agent offensive tackle Alex Barron, Brewster will likely receive the majority of his reps at right tackle.  We believe right tackle is a far better fit for his skill set than left tackle anyway.

It will be interesting to see what happens if starting right tackle Marc Colombo gets injured again in 2010.  Most likely, the team will groom Barron as a swing tackle, giving Brewster little opportunity to see the field.

Nonetheless, we will learn a lot about the Ball State product during training camp.

Final Forecast:  Brewster probably won’t get much playing time this year, but he will likely move up the depth chart in 2011.

Victor Butler, OLB

Butler had a decent rookie year in 2009.  He showed great initial burst when rushing the passer, racking up a .038 sack-per-rush number that was better than both Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer (albeit on just 125 snaps).

He received an overall grade of a “C,” though, because his run defense was rather poor.  He will have to bulk up and improve significantly versus the run to be considered a viable backup at the outside linebacker position.

This year, Butler will compete with fellow “redshirt freshman” Brandon Williams to be third on the depth chart.

Final Forecast:  We expect Butler to be the primary pass-rushing backup at outside linebacker.  As long as Ware and Spencer are in town (which will be for awhile, we presume) and healthy, Butler will not get a chance to be more than a specialist.

Brandon Williams, OLB

Williams, like Brewster, is a total mystery at this point.  The Cowboys are excited about his potential, but it is only that right now–potential.

Like we said above, Williams will compete with Butler for the third spot at outside linebacker.  The Cowboys surely don’t want Ware and Spencer playing 1093 and 1112 snaps, respectively, every season, so the winner of the Butler/Williams battle could see a decent amount of action this season.

Final Forecast:  We actually predict that Williams will receive more snaps than Butler in 2010.  Williams will likely be more stout against the run, and the Cowboys will be far more likely to spell Ware and Spencer on non-passing downs.  Expect Williams to see around 150 snaps this season.  Like Butler, however, his upside in Dallas is limited due to the presence of the two monsters outside.

Click below to go to page 2 of our analysis.


History Shows David Buehler Right Man For Cowboys’ Field Goal Kicking Duties

History Shows Concerns Over Field Goal Kicker Non-Issue At This Point

Contributed By Vince Grey

Many fans, and more than a few sports personalities, have been ringing the alarm bell ever since Dallas announced that David Buehler would inherit the job of kicking field goals for the Cowboys.  This concern over having a reliable kicker may be justified, as a top-notch kicker is of extreme value to a football team, as evidenced by this study.

And to be sure, at this point, Buehler has offered little or nothing to give the fans a warm and fuzzy feeling about his ability to kick a football straight while being rushed hard by 11 angry men.  Far, oh yes.  The man can do far.

Accurately?  Ah. . .well. . .therein lies the rub, doesn’t it?

Fear not my friends, for history teaches us much, if only we are willing to listen and learn.

Before the 1992 season, an ever-improving Cowboys squad looked primed and ready for a division title and a run deep into the playoffs.  Dallas was young, talented, fast, deep, and well-coached by Jimmy Johnson and the gang.  JJ firmly believed that in order to win a football game you had to win at least two of the “big three” phases (offense, defense, and special teams), so there’s no question he placed a strong emphasis on the performance of his special teams, including, obviously, field goal kicking.

After the `91 playoffs, Johnson went into that off-season intent on making a change at kicker. Ken Willis had been the man for the past two years, but after making an okay-but-nothing-special 72% of his attempts in 1990, he slipped to under 70% (69.2) in 1991.  That, along with his weak leg, sealed Ken’s fate as a Cowboy. (After short stints in `92 with the Bucs and Giants, his NFL career was over.)

So, in need of a better option at kicker, how did Jimmy proceed to fix the problem?  Did he spend one of his many draft picks on a college All-American?  No.  Did he trade for a talented, strong-legged vet with ice water in his veins?

Uh, not quite.

JJ decided that he would go into a season of high playoff expectations with a rookie free agent “nobody” named Lin Elliott, a man whose only proven skill prior to the start of the season was that he had a stronger leg than Ken Willis.

It would be a nice addition to the tale to say that Johnson used his keen eye for talent to uncover a future Pro Bowler who would go on to kick for many years with the Cowboys and others, but that’s simply not the case.  Lin had a shaky start, but ultimately finished that season a solid 24-of-35, including 3-of-4 from 50+ yards.  Dallas won its third Super Bowl.

In `93, things changed.  Elliott began by connecting on just 2-of-4 FGs and an extra point, and then made the tactical error of informing Johnson that he had lost his confidence.

Oops.  Two games in, Elliot was cut and no longer a Dallas Cowboy (he went on to have two very forgettable seasons with the Chiefs, and then he too was out of the league.)

So, once again, in a season where Dallas was attempting to win back-to-back Super Bowls, who did JJ pick for the all-important job of kicker?

Why, he brought 38-year-old Lions, Chiefs, and Bucs castoff Eddie Murray in off the streets, of course.

And the Cowboys won another Super Bowl.

Lucky you say?  Perhaps once, but twice?  In a row?  No, that’s skill.  That’s understanding kicking and kickers.

Catch my drift?  Arguably the best coach of his time, loaded with Super Bowl-caliber teams, went into not one, but two seasons without anything remotely close to a “sure thing” at kicker.

Because there’s no such animal as a sure thing at kicker.

Folk proved last year that just as a rookie free agent can come along out of the blue and have a great year, a supposedly great kicker can suddenly lose his confidence and be cut.  It’s the nature of the position.  As a kicker, you’re only as good as your last game, and sometimes your last kick.

However, that can work both ways.  It would not surprise me in the least to see Nick Folk rebound this season or next with a great year.

So, please don’t get all worked up over the Cowboys’ field goal kicking.  Certainly not until the real games start.  Buehler will probably do just fine.  If he doesn’t,  the Cowboys will simply bring in the next kicker on their list.