So what can we learn from the first preseason game? You can learn a lot, but not necessarily about how the team will perform in the regular season, more about the state of the roster and where the potential problem spots lie.
Watching the Dallas Cowboys play last night, there were some positives and some negatives. It all depends on where you place the most weight. If you want to walk away from the game with some happy thoughts, concentrate on the two big things. The first unit looked good and we didn't have any major injuries. For me, that outweighs any other concern. But, you can't ignore the obvious, our backups were bad.
If you want to get an idea of how the Cowboys offense wants to operate during the regular season, just take a detailed look at the second offensive drive. Jason Garrett was able to use most of his weapons on the drive and did a nice job of mixing up the pass and run. Equally impressive was the job the offensive line did during that drive. Opening holes, protecting Romo and even getting downfield blocks on a screen. The Cowboys have been preaching the spread-the-ball-around offense and they took it to heart on the second drive. Six different Cowboys either ran the ball or caught passes on that drive: Martellus Bennett, Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Felix Jones, Patrick Crayton and Jason Witten. That's impressive, especially considering most of those plays were for double-digit yards and they even overcame a holding penalty that nullified a TD and scored again. That is exactly how the Cowboys would like for their offense to operate this year. Notice the even mix of Barber and Jones on that series, too.
The first unit defense had a few issues but overall played well. Ken Hamlin had what should have been an interception but couldn't secure the ball. That's something they've been working hard on in training camp, getting turnovers. The pass interference call on Gerald Sensabaugh was certainly questionable, but they did let the guy get behind them which is a no-no. On the positive side, they held the Raiders to a FG instead of a TD and Keith Brooking got himself a sack. Jay Ratliff got a pass deflection and an almost-INT.
Oh, and they didn't have any injuries! But the starting units I thought would play well, we have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball. Now, once we got past the starting units...
There's no way to sugarcoat it, the backup units, especially the defense, were just not ready for this game. The rookies have a little bit of an excuse, this was their very first look at live NFL action. They get the benefit of the doubt to improve over the next few weeks. Still, they failed in major areas. They certainly weren't up to Wade Phillips' standards, he was pretty candid about the bad individual play (but not calling out names) of a lot of guys on the backup units. The other guys who have been here for a while and didn't play well last night? They are officially on the bubble with no excuses.
Let's start with the defense. In the secondary, the starting five of Newman, Jenkins, Scandrick, Hamlin and Sensabaugh are solid. Definitely an upgrade over last year. Behind that though, it's not very promising so far. Based on training camp and the preseason game, the only guy I can have any confidence in right now is Alan Ball, and I think he's a better FS than corner. Mike Hamlin has skills and I noted before how he has a knack for being around the ball, but he needs time and experience to really be ready. Courtney Brown and Mike Mickens got toasted repeatedly last night. Wade said they were trying to play more man-to-man and the guys just couldn't get it done. If injury strikes our secondary this year, we have issues.
Jason Williams actually started looking better as the game wore on. You can see the kid has natural talent and athleticism; he just needs to learn the defense and where he's supposed to be on certain plays. Victor Butler had shown some ability to get to the QB at camp, but never displayed it in the game. He also showed he has a long way to go before he can stop the run. Not being able to evaluate Brandon Williams or Stephen Hodge still leaves some mystery to the backup LB position; those guys need to get on the field next week, along with Steve Octavien. You have to remember we were playing very short-handed at LB. We got some other guys still to look at.
Up front, we have no backup NT. The second unit guys on the line weren't great in the game although Stephen Bowen remains very active, and the third unit was just awful. Wade will go back to the drawing board this week to figure why they're failing and how he can correct it, if possible.
On offense, Jon Kitna's problems with the snap and Cory Procter's awful snap in the redzone made for an erratic game for the second unit. The guy who really helped himself was Sam Hurd, who is making his play for increased playing time. Miles Austin's drop didn't endear himself to the coaches or the fans. The rest of the backup WRs weren't impressive. At RB, Keon Lattimore look pretty good, but he's stuck behind a talented trio. Stephen McGee was a rookie QB learning the ropes. I won't even worry about him until much later, if at all this year.
The microscope was pointed at the second string line, and I think we came away with a mixed-bag. Admittedly, I haven't watched the replay yet so I can't really go into detail about their play, but my impression was Doug Free and Montrae Holland looked all right, Procter had some issues including the botched snap, and Pat McQuistan doesn't look like he can be trusted at all.
We also had some good and bad on special teams. Mat McBriar is back and booming. David Buehler got a touchback and the coverage teams did well covering kickoffs. Buehler even covered some punts himself. That was balanced out by an awful opening kickoff return, a blown FG, and a muffed punt. Still work to be done on special teams. I trust coach Joe D. will get a lot of that corrected. And about the penalties...well, let's just say that next week better be a lot better.
Relax, it's only the first preseason game. Yep, there are areas for concern, but that's why they have the preseason - to iron these issues out. Now, if they're still doing them in the next few games, then it gets very dicey. Injuries happen in the NFL, it's the great equalizer of teams. Having competent backups is a must.
Given all that, having the first units perform well and staying healthy made it a mildly successful start. We just need the backups to step up.