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Mailbag, 8/27/10: Could Felix put up Chris Johnson-type numbers?


Q:  Do you think if Felix Jones got as many carries as Chris Johnson that he’d put up the same type of numbers?

Blake Scurlock, Houston, TX

A: Without looking at the statistics, I can tell you  the answer is no.  Even though Jones is a bigger running back, his running style and skill set make him more prone to injury.  Johnson is able to handle a rather hefty workload because he rarely takes big hits.  His quickness and elusiveness are his weapons against the big boys.

While Jones is very quick, he isn’t nearly as elusive as Johnson.  In a short area, Jones is much more likely to take hits.  I just don’t think he’d hold up with a workload of more than about 15 touches a game.

Nonetheless, I always look at the statistics.  So let’s check ’em out. . .

Over his two-year NFL career, Johnson has rushed for 3,234 yards on 609 carries (5.31 yards-per-rush).  Over that same period, Jones has rushed for 951 yards on 146 carries (6.51 yards-per-rush).  Obviously Jones’ yards-per-carry is sensational, but the question is whether he could maintain such a high figure after rushing the ball four times as much as he already has.

In my opinion, the answer is no.  Not only is it likely that Jones would break down before reaching the 300 carry-per-season mark, but his efficiency would plummet with the extra work.  Right now, the Cowboys use Jones in situations with high upside–in between the 20-yard lines and on runs such as draws, counters, and tosses.  Actually, Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on counters last season.

It is truly remarkable that Johnson has been able to maintain a 5.31 yards-per-carry mark over such a large sample size of runs.  Even when LenDale White was in Tennessee, Johnson frequently remained on the field in goal line and other short-yardage situations, particularly last season.

Jones doesn’t stay on the field for Dallas in those scenarios.  One of the most incredible stats I came across this year was that Jones has never carried the football inside the opposition’s five-yard line.  Let that sink in.

So, while Jones is certainly an awesome running back and a very vital cog in the Cowboys’ offensive attack, he isn’t on the same level as Johnson just yet.

Q:  Why do the Cowboys use Robert Brewster at left tackle sometimes?  He isn’t athletic and was meant to play right tackle.

Greg Driscoe

A: Actually, I really don’t know.  Brewster has gotten a lot of reps on the left side during the preseason, and I’m assuming it is because they want to see if he can be their swing tackle of the future (if he doesn’t prove he can start at right tackle).  Alex Barron probably isn’t a long-term solution for the Cowboys, meaning they would probably like Brewster to be the primary backup tackle at both spots by next season.

However, I agree that his skill set is not suited for the left side.  He isn’t exactly agile and his quickness leaves something to be desired.  He played well in the Cowboys’ last preseason game when on the  right side, and I agree that is where he should stay.

Barron is going to get the start at right tackle tomorrow night against the Texans.  His play will be very indicative of Dallas’ future moves at the offensive tackle position.  Brewster is currently running with the second-team at left tackle, but I think you’ll see him move back to the right side (for good) if Barron struggles.

Q:  What kind of play-calling can we expect from Jason Garrett against the Texans since we play them during the regular season? He probably won’t give away much.

Timothy Solt via Twitter

A: Vanilla.  Very, very vanilla.  Garrett has already said as much:

Preseason games are used primarily to evaluate talent and to set your roster.  Also, you don’t want to show too much, particularly in a game like the one upcoming against Houston because we play them in the regular season.  So you certainly hold things back. Things that you want to do. . .you’re almost chomping at the bit to say, “Hey, this play would really work.”  But we can’t use it because we play them during the season, so you become very vanilla, very basic.  You’re still sound, there are still good plays but they’re base plays, they’re common plays that almost everybody has but you’re still using them to evaluate talent.

The stats show that Garrett has indeed been very “simplistic” (not necessarily a bad thing) during the preseason.  The Cowboys have motioned on just 26.8 percent of plays, down from 42.5 percent during the 2009 regular season.  You can expect the number of pre-snap motions and shifts (of which there have been zero) to increase dramatically come September 12.

Dallas has also continued to run the same plays from the same formations, including a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong” 85.7 percent of the time.

The predictability of Garrett’s preseason play-calling really means nothing since teams aren’t game-planning particularly hard for the Cowboys during this time of the year.  Garrett wants to see the fringe players simply react and play football instead of worrying about assignments.  Thus, the basic plays are dialed up again and again.

The Cowboys’ last game against the Chargers is a perfect example of this.  Although the Cowboys ran the aforementioned strong side dive seven times in that ballgame, it was not called once with the starters in the game (the first 18 plays).  And what was play number 19–the first play for the second-teamers?  You guessed it. . .a strong side dive out of “Double Tight Strong.”

Against Houston, you can expect a lot of the same from Dallas.  Strong side dives, little motion or shifts, and whole lot of ‘base’ personnel.

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“Grading the ‘Boys”: Preseason Week Three, Cowboys vs. Chargers

Jonathan Bales

I’ve done a lot of analysis of the Cowboys/Chargers game (what to watch, DOs and DON’Ts, initial post-game notes, what we learned, final film study observations, and so on).  The Cowboys really played quite awfully, although there were some good signs (the offense scored a red zone touchdown and Sean Lee showed flashes of play-making ability, for example).

Today, I will grade the players.  In my first two “Grading the ‘Boys” segments, I explained that it would be impossible for me to study every player as closely as I deem necessary for grading.  Instead, I watch a select group of players in great detail and report back to you on their performance.

WR Miles Austin: A

He and Romo have the potential to be unstoppable on those back-shoulder fades.

FS Alan Ball: A-

Not sure if I mentioned this, but Ball looks much better tackling this season; brought down Darren Sproles in open field and looked solid elsewhere

RB Marion Barber: C

Barber’s first preseason grade; don’t see the added explosion and burst others are raving over

TE Martellus Bennett: B+

Showed why the Cowboys drafted him with freaky athleticism; always a great blocker; committed one false start; may have gotten “A-” if not for horrid post-touchdown dance

OT Robert Brewster: B+

Shocking performance; did receive some help from tight ends/running backs, but technique was much improved; one false start

LG Travis Bright: C

Just not seeing the same level of dominance from Bright as from Costa

S Barry Church: B+

He’s an “in-the-box” guy, but his tackling ability really stood out; if he can show adequate range, he’s got a shot



G/C Phil Costa: A-

Very impressive film; versatility will grab him a roster spot

RB Herb Donaldson: D-

Hesitant on runs and dances in hole; poor receiver

CB Cletis Gordon: A

Underestimated this guy; tremendous technique and coverage ability; displayed athleticism and ball skills on one-handed interception; also an emergency return man; will likely be Dallas’ fourth cornerback

FB Chris Gronkowski: D

Just can’t see how Cowboys will keep him on 53-man roster; loses balance and lunges at defenders; light years behind Deon Anderson

DE Jason Hatcher: B

Nothing extraordinary, but playing well this preseason against both pass and run; could unseat Spears for starting gig

LG Montrae Holland: A-

Really nice job in both run game and pass protection; showed good balance and is a “scrapper” inside

WR Sam Hurd: B

Stepped up with roster spot in question; probably more potential as a receiver than Jesse Holley

CB Mike Jenkins: C

Nothing to worry about, but got beat a few times inside; showed poor technique by losing leverage, missing on press

QB Jon Kitna: B

Others hate, but I am comfortable with Kitna as backup; has checked out of four plays this preseason, all with good results

LB Sean Lee: B-

Up-and-down night; lost track of ball a few times early (two run plays and a screen that I noticed), but responded well and made some tremendous plays to close out game

S Danny McCray: C-

Still not as impressed with this guy as others; blew assignment in third quarter to yield huge play; special teams ability could save him, but I prefer Church

RG Pat McQuistan: F

Next.

FS Akwasi Owusu-Ansah: C+

Hesitant on kickoff returns but showed burst and decisiveness on punt return; no obvious mental errors

QB Tony Romo: C-

By my count, was off-target on four of 11 passes; analysis of 2009 off-target passes shows he’s missed about twice as many this preseason; also made poor decision on interception

NT Junior Siavii:  B

Arrival of Josh Brent has lit fire under Siavii; would be nice to see him improve in pass rush

RT Sam Young:  D-

Really poor game after solid outings earlier; yielded only sack of game and got beat other times due to poor technique and lack of quickness; lined up off of line of scrimmage twice in period of a few plays

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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

Conclusions

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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Preseason Week 2, Cowboys vs. Chargers: What We Learned

Note: I am having some trouble securing the game film for this contest.  Hopefully, I will have it by tomorrow.

Jonathan Bales

Before the Cowboys’ third preseason game in San Diego, I gave you 12 things to watch.  Here is what we learned.

1. How much will the starters play?

Fairly long, actually.  Tony Romo was again the first player out on offense, and backup quarterback Jon Kitna got some reps with the first team.  That’s just what I wanted to see and, despite public opinion to the contrary, Kitna is an above-average backup.

On defense, most of the starters played nearly the entire first half.  Shoulder injuries to Gerald Sensabaugh and Keith Brooking may have been blessings in disguise, as it gave us an opportunity to see more of rookies Barry Church and Sean Lee.

2. How will the offense execute against a 3-4 defense?

Terribly.  Dallas’ first team offense (and defense) was dominated.  They did score a red zone touchdown, but it was set up by a fumble return to the San Diego eight-yard line.

The good news is that both Montrae Holland (left guard) and Robert Brewster (left and right tackle) played well.

3. Will Robert Brewster, starting in place of the injured Marc Colombo, step up after a lackluster start to the 2010 preseason? Can he contain Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips?

Well, Merriman ended up not playing, but Brewster still held his own.  He looked really comfortable on the right side of the line.  His footwork was light years ahead of where it was in the Cowboys’ first two games this preseason.

4. With his roster spot possibly on the line, how will receiver Kevin Ogletree respond after two poor games?

Despite a solid week of practice, Ogletree was rather quiet in San Diego.  He did make a nice catch on a terrific comeback route (his best route, in my opinion), but he also got ripped into by special teams coach Joe DeCamillis.  His roster spot isn’t a lock at this point.

5. Will the offense continue to use so much Shotgun?

I will have to watch the film again to know for sure, but Dallas certainly ran less Shotgun plays than last week.

6. Will Dallas be more effective on their draw plays?

Again, I will have to break down the film.  The Cowboys did appear to not lean on the draw play as much in San Diego, though.

7. Will we see the debuts of rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah?  If so, how will Lee perform in coverage and will AOA show something special on returns?

We did see action from both players.  Lee was over-matched initially.  He got called for a (phantom) illegal contact penalty and looked lost at times through the first few quarters.  He did pick it up at the end of the game though, showing why Dallas drafted him when he took on a block, shed it, and made an important tackle.

Owusu-Ansah looked a little hesitant on kick returns and needs to secure the football, but he also displayed great burst on a 45-yard punt return.  It got called back due to a penalty, but his decisiveness on the return has to make the Cowboys happy.

8. How will the linebackers and safeties perform against one of the league’s premiere tight ends?

Not bad.  Gates was held to just one catch for seven yards.  Linebacker Keith Brooking again looked sensational in coverage, running step for step with Gates before he (Brooking) went down with a minor shoulder injury.

We didn’t get to see much of Sensabaugh, but Barry Church needs to work on some things in coverage.  He doesn’t have a particularly quick first step and blew an assignment in the third quarter to yield a huge play downfield.

9. Will nose tackles Junior Siavii and Josh Brent continue to play well enough to force the coaches to contemplate keeping both players?

Yes.  Siavii was awesome again, particularly against the run.  He still needs to show he can get to the passer though.

This was the most quiet game for Brent, but he did get less playing time than usual.

10. It is a make-or-break game for rookie cornerback Jamar Wall. Will he show something?

Not really.  I will watch him more intently once I receive the film, but he sure didn’t make any big plays.  He is getting outplayed severely by Cletis Gordon and Byran McCann.  I would place the odds of him making the team at about 10:1.

11. Will Leon Williams continue to show he deserves a roster spot?

I’m torn on Williams.  He always seems to be around the ball, but he is pretty poor in space.  He showed that on a screen pass where he failed to properly break down and just flew by the ball-carrier.  He also dropped another interception, although this time he got jacked up as he caught it–by teammate Jason Williams.

Overall, Leon’s roster spot is a 50/50 proposition to me at this point.

12. Can David Buehler continue the success he had against the Raiders?

He didn’t really get the opportunity.  No field goal tries and two extra points.  No news is probably good news for Buehler, though.

Check back later for film obervations (hopefully) and final player grades.

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DOs and DON’Ts for Cowboys vs. San Diego Chargers

Jonathan Bales

Note: Be sure to tune into my live in-game blog tonight, starting at 8 p.m. Central.

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Even though tonight’s game “doesn’t count,” there are still a lot of things both coaches and fans would like to see from the players.  A variety of training camp battles have yet to reach a conclusion, two high-drafted rookies will be making their pro debuts, and a handful of injuries will force perennial backups into the starting lineup.

Here is what Dallas should and should not do tonight versus the Chargers:

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

This is a big one.  There’s been some chatter about possibly sitting Tony Romo with his starting left guard and right tackle out for the rest of the preseason.  That won’t happen.

Since Romo will be playing, extra precautions need to be taken.  Although my stat analysis has shown that the Cowboys should generally send tight end Jason Witten into a route more often, tonight he should stay in to help Brewster in pass protection.

An interesting thing to watch tonight will be the percentage of formations that are “right-handed,” i.e. I-Right, Strong Right, Tight End Spread Right, etc.  An abundance of these would show the Cowboys are intent on aiding Brewster on the outside.

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

I personally think Romo shouldn’t even play tonight.  He is a veteran quarterback and, in my opinion, the huge potential risk isn’t worth the minimal reward.  If he is in, I’d love to see him out of the game by the third series.

That probably won’t happen, though, so it will be important for the Cowboys to give him maximum protection.  In addition to leaving Witten in to block, the Cowboys shouldn’t use much (if any) playaction.  On these plays, Romo’s back would be turned to the defense and he could potentially be in a position where he’s unable to defend himself.

DO attempt a long field goal instead of punting.

Let’s see Buehler attempt a 50+ yard field goal.  Or how about 60+?  It’s preseason–give the guy a shot Wade.

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

No one is more excited to see Lee and ‘Kwasi play more than me.  Having said that, the Cowboys need to scale back the reps of both players.  Both are coming off of injuries and haven’t been involved in live game action in seven months or so.  Even though they are backups and both fighting for roles on the team, I wouldn’t give either guy more than 20 plays, with ‘Kwasi receiving a few opportunities to return.

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

Barron may or may not play tonight, but if he does, I’d love to see him at right tackle.  Owner Jerry Jones has said he will probably stay on the left side, but why?  What if right tackle Marc Colombo has a setback?  Do we really want Brewster as the starting right tackle for Dallas on opening day?

It’s possible the club would move Doug Free back to right tackle and let Barron protect Romo’s blind side, but there’s only one way to find out if Barron is capable of playing on the right side. . .

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

Fans have been critical of Jason Garrett’s red zone playcalling, but I haven’t had much of an issue with it thus far this preseason (last year is a different story).  He did pass the ball three straight times inside the five-yard line against Cincinnati, but one of those was a designed run that Romo checked out of.

Others have disapproved of his decision to call first down pass plays, particularly out of Shotgun, against the Raiders.  However, I’ve showed that passing is actually a superior first down strategy to running when anywhere on the field outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.  Whether that play comes out of Shotgun, to me, is irrelevant.

DO give Phil Costa a lot of time at center.

With Kyle Kosier out until at least Week Three, Costa is now the Cowboys’ backup center.  If anything happens to starter Andre Gurode, this guy needs to be prepared.

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

Let’s hope the Cowboys don’t need to rely on Costa at any point this season.  The best way to do that?  Make sure Gurode doesn’t get injured.  Missing a few reps is worth the guarantee that he stays healthy.

Gurode is veteran who will be ready for the season and, outside of Romo, perhaps the last guy Dallas can afford get injured.  Do we really want to see an opening day starting offensive line containing Montrae Holland, Phil Costa, and Robert Brewster?  Let me answer that for you:  Heeeeellllllll no.

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

We all know McBriar is one of the best punters in the league.  His power, accuracy, and consistency are insane.  Instead of watching McBriar punt the ball near the sideline where it could go out of bounds, let him boom it 60 yards downfield so we can observe the Cowboys’ coverage units.  They improved against the Raiders after a shaky performance in the Hall of Fame game, but with a bunch of new players figuring to get time on special teams, they need more practice.

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

Suppose Romo goes down mid-season with a 4-6 week injury.  To have any shot at making the playoffs, the Cowboys will need to be able to win at least a few of those games.  I like Kitna as a backup, but he needs more reps than he’s getting.  Some of those should come with the first team in an effort to build some sort of cohesiveness.

DO run some dive plays behind Montrae Holland.

Holland actually isn’t that much of a downgrade from Kosier.  He figures to be the Cowboys’ starting left guard for at least the first two weeks of the season, so let’s see what he’s made of.  I’d love to see the Cowboys run a bunch of dive plays in the “1 hole” (right up Holland’s butt).  Hopefully he’ll give us a reason to only be worried about one starter on the offensive line.

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Preseason Week Three, Cowboys at Chargers: 12 Things to Watch


Jonathan Bales

1.  How much will the starters play?

This would typically be the Cowboys’ second preseason game.  Combining that with the fact that Coach Phillips has said the overall playing time for starters will remain steady despite an extra game and I’d estimate the starters will play a full quarter (or perhaps a bit longer).  The goal was 15 plays last week, so this week you might see the No. 1’s in there for 25 or so plays.

2.  How will the offense execute against a 3-4 defense?

After a stint with just a few 3-4 teams in the entire league, more and more squads are transitioning to the 3-4 defense.  This is good for the Dallas offense, as they face one of the best 3-4 defenses (their own) in practice every day.

San Diego will be an excellent test for the ‘Boys after they struggled against Cincinnati and Oakland.  A quick back like Felix Jones can often flourish against a 3-4 defense which typically implements bigger (and often slow) linebackers.

3.  Will Robert Brewster, starting in place of the injured Marc Colombo, step up after a lackluster start to the 2010 preseason?  Can he contain Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips?

Brewster is the primary player I will have my eyes on during this contest.  He has been running with the first team during Colombo’s absence, despite struggling mightily in the first two preseason games.

He will have his hands full on Saturday with the Chargers’ dynamic Shawne and Shaun outside linebacker duo.  Perhaps blocking players who are in a stand-up position will make Brewster more comfortable.  He should already be a bit more at ease on the right side of the line.

4.  With his roster spot possibly on the line, how will receiver Kevin Ogletree respond after two poor games?

Ogletree had two drops last week and has exhibited poor field awareness (and sometimes seemingly poor effort) in both games.  His roster spot is certainly not guaranteed, particularly with a better special teams player in Jesse Holley breathing down his neck.  Ogletree is a more naturally gifted pass-catcher, but that doesn’t really mean anything without production.

5.  Will the offense continue to use so much Shotgun?

Last week, the Cowboys lined up in two formations–“Gun Spread” and “Gun Tight End Spread”–on 28 plays.  That probably had a lot to do with the lack of tight end depth, but Dallas may continue to implement more Shotgun formations once rookie Dez Bryant returns.

6.  Will Dallas be more effective on their draw plays?

They’ve averaged just 3.13 yards-per-carry on draws this preseason.  In my Ultimate Guide to Dallas Cowboys Draws, I explained why running less draws would allow the Cowboys to become more efficient when they do run them.

7.  Will we see the debuts of rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah?  If so, how will Lee perform in coverage and will AOA show something special on returns?

I’m ecstatic to be able to watch these guys suit up and play.  Sean Lee is in a battle with Jason Williams for the nickel linebacker job.  He outperformed him in the offseason, but we have yet to see how he plays in full pads at game-speed.  Here was my initial reaction to the Lee selection.

‘Kwasi was one of about five guys I desperately wanted the Cowboys to draft.  I even had him on my list of 10 “sleeper” draft picks for Dallas.  He has the potential to be an All-Pro return man.

In my opinion, AOA will eventually become the starting free safety in Dallas as well.  He is very cerebral and has outstanding size and athleticism, but there are still some questions about how he will hold up against the big boys after coming out of Indiana of Pennsylvania.

8.  How will the linebackers and safeties perform against one of the league’s premiere tight ends?

The Dallas defense is notorious for struggling against athletic tight ends.  They improved some last season with the additions of Keith Brooking (who is surprisingly effective in coverageI gave him a “B” in my 2009 Inside Linebacker Grades) and Gerald Sensabaugh.

The Chargers’ Antonio Gates is obviously a top-tier pass-catching tight end, so the Cowboys will have an excellent opportunity to prove their linebackers and safeties won’t be a weak spot in coverage.

9.  Will nose tackles Junior Siavii and Josh Brent continue to play well enough to force the coaches to contemplate keeping both players?

I predicted that both players will make the team in my last 53-man roster projection.  Siavii performed well against the run last season (6.52 percent tackle rate) and looks good again so far in 2010.  He could help himself by getting to the passer this weekend.

I’ve personally gone out on a limb and guaranteed that Brent makes the squad.  His motor and athleticism are Ratliff-esque.

10.  It is a make-or-break game for rookie cornerback Jamar Wall.  Will he show something?

Personally, I don’t see Wall as anything more than a cover-two cornerback.  He gives up too much of a cushion due to a lack of straight-line speed and has demonstrated poor footwork and hips, particularly on out-breaking routes.

He’s been heavily outplayed by Cletis Gordon, Bryan McCann, and even Teddy Williams.  He needs to come up big in the next few games to even have a shot at cracking the 53-man roster.

11.  Will Leon Williams continue to show he deserves a roster spot?

Although he’s shown to be a little over-matched in pass coverage, Williams is a strong, physical player who can dominate in tight areas.  He’s competing with guys like Curtis Johnson for a roster spot.  His play on special teams will be critical.

12.  Can David Buehler continue the success he had against the Raiders?

Buehler looked sensational on his field goals against Oakland after struggling somewhat in the Hall of Fame game.  He has kicked the ball quite well in practice since the last game, and right now he’s got to be considered the favorite to win all kicking duties in Dallas.  If Buehler can do that, it will give the ‘Boys a lot of flexibility in their roster decisions, but he must first show consistency.  That starts Saturday in San Diego.

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