I haven't had the privilege of tracking all of the Dallas Cowboys players through training camp like Raf and Aaron, but I have kept a close eye on every report coming from San Antonio. I've also watched Sunday's first preseason game against Cincinnati around three times through, so I think I feel as if I have a good grasp now what -- and who -- to really keep an eye on moving forward and especially tonight.
The Cowboys are taking on the Oakland Raiders tonight at Cowboys Stadium at 8:00 p.m. CDT, and there are some very specific parts of this game I'll be watching.
Some of the players and the stories we anticipated to be big are fading a bit now, replaced by surprise newcomers who are fighting for a roster spot. While all of the starting positions are locked down it certainly appears that there could be some serious shuffling in the backup positions and especially on special teams.
Here's what I'm going to be looking for tonight against Oakland:
Execution by the first-team offense.
I don't care about playcalling right now even if every major news publication and network has spent the past four days tearing apart thee Cowboys approach in the red zone on Sunday night. If that was a real game, I highly doubt that Jason Garrett would have called three straight pass plays from the two-yard line. What interested me more about those plays -- and worried me -- was about the actual execution of the plays that were called.
Jason Garrett can call whatever plays he wants to tonight and I won't care. I don't know if the Cowboys are looking to work on a specific part of the playbook or personnel package; I certainly don't have that sort of insight so I won't read into what plays are called and when. Instead, what I want to see is crisper execution of the offense than what we saw Sunday; no failed communications between quarterback and receiver, no give up throwaways and certainly no defenders running wild in the backfield.
This is Hatcher's moment to shine as he takes over temporarily for an injured Marcus Spears and Sunday he failed to take advantage. He certainly didn't appear to be an upgrade over Spears and was barely a factor in either the run game or the pass rush. It's likely that Hatcher is still feeling the effects of his elbow injury, which would explain his inability to shed blockers against Cincy.
Hatcher won't be replaced by Stephen Bowen, who the Cowboys love in the nickel, but Hatcher is trying to prove that he could possibly be a full time replacement for Spears in the future. I'll give him a pass for one game but I'm looking to see some improvement tonight.
More after the jump.
With the Cowboys losing John Phillips for the season there's been debate as to how the Cowboys will adjust their offense accordingly. Garrett relied on three tight ends on a regular rotation in his offense, with the third TE being a hybrid FB-HB-TE. Phillips was easily perfecting this position, starting last season and into camp this summer. With Phillips out and the team apparently not confident that Scott Sicko can step into that role, it seems the team is contemplating entering the season with two fullbacks and two tight ends on the active roster.
The key to this plan would be Chris Gronkowski. The fullback has shown improvement throughout camp in his blocking technique and power and the word is that he is a smooth route-runner and receiver. So instead of having a tight end take on fullback duties, the Cowboys will be asking a fullback to take on a bit more of a tight end role. Don't expect another Moose out of the backfield, but if Gronkowski can show the ability to perform admirably in this role then the Cowboys won't have to alter their offense as much. His first test is tonight.
The sixth wide receiver
There's a good chance that the Cowboys look to keep a sixth receiver on the active roster this year and there is certainly a good chance that player might not be Sam Hurd. Hurd has been a special teams staple the past few years but his $1.8 million price tag this season could make him expendable, especially if a cheaper and younger receiver proves to be able to do just as good a job.
Titus Ryan is gone and I didn't see Manuel Johnson do anything of note against the Bengals. Who I did notice on more than one occasion was reality TV star Jesse Holley, who made plays both as a receiver and on special teams. Holley has been praised nearly all camp long by those in attendance while it seems that Hurd has failed to impress, including dropping several balls during camp and against the Bengals. Out of nowhere, it appears there is a battle for the final receiver spot and Holley is showing he wants it more.
Once again the backups will see a lot of time on the field tonight and Holley and Hurd will get their chance to prove themselves. It will be interesting to see who shines.
Coming into camp it seemed all of the focus -- in regards to the reserve safety position -- was on Barry Church and whether he could supplant Pat Watkins for that final safety spot. Church has certainly had a solid camp and had an overall solid game on Sunday but it was Danny McCray who I noticed the most.
McCray was all over the field, both on defense and special teams, making plays against the run while intercepting a pass and knocking down another. Apparently McCray has really been impressive in camp and while Church has been solid it's the guys that make the plays in games that ultimately make the team. McCray was perhaps the best player on special teams on Sunday which bodes well for his chances if he keeps it up. I want to see McCray do this consistently and see if the game against Cincy was just a fluke; if he continues to make plays he could be a surprise addition to the gameday roster.
Brent could be considered the defensive MVP in the game on Sunday. He was explosive, he was smart and he showed the power and quickness you expect from a backup nose tackle. In short, he was everything we've been hoping to get from Junior Siavii.
Brent is raw but you can instantly see why the Cowboys took a risk by drafting him with a supplemental pick. He has all the tools you could want in a nose tackle and has the motor and the tenacity that defines the Dallas Cowboys defense. If he can continue to show that aggression and that playmaking ability, while still adapting to playing with a broken finger, then he's well on his way to a roster spot.
I'll be keeping an eye as well on Leon and Jason Williams, David Beuhler (of course) and I am terrified of what is going to happen with Brewster playing for most of the game at left tackle. I am also hoping to see Stephen McGee continue to improve. Who are you going to be watching tonight?