The best part about the preseason, even if it isn't perfect and sometimes is nearly unwatchable, is that these games are real. This is real football, even if most of the game is played with players on the field who have little to no shot of actually making the football team. It's a great test, however, and we're able to start to get a feel for how these players are able to carry over the lessons learned in training camp practices and apply them when the game lights come on.
One of the biggest emerging stories heading into this game was the battle for the third running back position. With Tashard Choice out for most of training camp so far, reports coming from San Antonio were saying that Lonyae Miller was coming on strong and would be pushing Choice for that third spot. When I watched him at camp he displayed stunning quickness and would hit the hole hard and fast, using an aggressive slashing technique that is reminiscent of what made all those Broncos backs great a few years back. Yet that was in practice, when the game was only being played at about 80% max.
Unfortunately, Miller could not carry over that aggression to the game. Given a few chances to run behind the starting offensive line and the second unit, Miller finished with just 11 yards on nine carries. He was tentative hitting the hole and showed little of the speed that had heads turning down in San Antonio. Holes along the line of scrimmage are only open for so long in the NFL and Miller failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity. He also was underwhelming in pass protection and did little, in this game, to really threaten Choice for that final spot.
This is why the games are played, even if they can get a bit boring from time to time. Miller did not rise to the occasion, while Philip Tanner averaged nearly five yards a carry on nine runs in the second half. Miller was not the only player to show a big difference between training camp and this game, with some players showing more than expected while others were overall a bit disappointing.
More after the jump.
For the Dallas Cowboys, this was the first chance for Rob Ryan to get a good look at what his defense would start to look like. He stayed fairly conservative throughout the game and only on occasion came with a heavy blitz. The Broncos and Cowboys must have discussed this beforehand, as both teams decided to get creative with their defenses from time to time and actually challenge the offenses for both sides with a number of heavy blitzes throughout the game.
A skeleton of what Ryan's defense would become was on show during the only series with the starters on the field. Several plays had the linebackers drop back into coverage at the last second, sometimes with the inside linebacker and on one play both Ware and Anthony Spencer fell back into coverage. In a scheme like Ryan's, however, the secondary must remain disciplined and not have simple mistakes allow players to run free downfiield.
On Orton's big play on third down, the Cowboys brought heavy pressure up the middle and had several players beat their blocks and get into the backfield. Gerald Sensabaugh was caught looking into the backfield, however, and missed a wide open tight end coming free. With the defense playing man coverage on the play, Sensabaugh missed a simple assignment on a hot read by the offense and allowed a big gain on third down.
While we could get a bit of a feel for the scheme, it's tough to really lay judgement after just two weeks of practice. The starting safeties only had a handful of practices under their belts before this game and I have to believe the breakdown is due more to rust than a flaw in the scheme or the players. Later in the game the safeties played much better aside from a simple mistake by Barry Church on a play-action pass.
We can still judge the individual players, however, and the first drive was a good example of how it matters very little what scheme is being used if the defensive linemen cannot win their battles. Lack of a any sort of push by the defensive line allowed the Broncos linemen to get to the second level of the defense with ease. This hampered the linebackers from playing aggressive in the run, with Broncos linemen getting upfield and opening up wide lanes for their backs. On several plays the running back wasn't touched until three yards down field.
Just like Miller, Josh Brent failed to show the positive progress he had made in training camp. Brent's game is much different than that of Ratliff, and he uses his power and motor to cause disruption along the line. That was not on display last night as he was easily pushed off the point of attack by a single blocker, allowing the Broncos to open up with several big runs.
It's not all bad news, however. This was just one series, the very first of the preseason. While the individual shortcomings are worrisome, there were several good signs from the backups. Sean Lissemore was pushed around at times yet showed an ability to get into the backfield on a regular basis. Jason Hatcher was absolutely beastly and for nearly an entire drive was near unblockable. Seeing the way that Igor Olshansky was manhandled on that first drive, I wonder if we'll be seeing more of Hatcher and Lissemore in the future.
What I don't want to happen is for Cowboys fans to overreact and freak out over one series by the starting defense. No Terence Newman, no Mike Jenkins, no Ratliff and Sensabaugh and Elam playing their first game together with just a handful of practices. Yeah, it's frustrating to see mistakes but I never expected them to be perfect. It's tough not feel discouraged, especially with what happened last season, but it was just one series.
For this game, there were several key points I wanted to pay attention to. While I would love to go through and grade each player individually, I wanted to really focus on a couple of areas that will be important for the Cowboys this season, and not just important for depth or the chances of some fringe player becoming the 53rd player on the roster.
Rookie offensive linemen:
This was the biggest positive for the Cowboys from this game, even more so than Stephen McGee's clutch plays throughout the game. There is a very good chance the Cowboys will be playing two rookies on the offensive line when the season starts against New York. The Cowboys made a late change on the line in preparation for this, moving Kyle Kosier to right guard so that David Arkin and Tyron Smith weren't playing against each other.
In their first real NFL action, I must say that there was nothing but encouraging play from both rookies.
The knock on Arkin, supposedly, is that he's a raw talent that needs more time with the strength coach to build up his ability to drive and sustain blocks. He's a very smart lineman, however, and he's mobile; while his strength supposedly isn't where it would need to be he's able to make up for it in other areas. In every play I broke down with Arkin at left guard, I only saw him get beat once -- and he wasn't even really beat. Arkin failed to turn his block to the inside which led to a short loss on a running play designed to go behind his block.
Other than that, Arkin looked like a starting NFL lineman. He consistently was able to drive his man downfield in the running game, showing great jump off the snap and good strength while engaging a defender. With Doug Free at his side, the Cowboys were not afraid to run behind left guard and the biggest running play of the day -- an 18-yard burst by Felix Jones -- came right behind a block by Arkin. I did not see Arkin get beat once in pass protection and he showed good awareness against several blitzes, even if they weren't all that exotic.
Tyron Smith is just incredible to watch. The fact that this young man doesn't turn 21 until December is astounding, as he resembled a veteran lineman both against the run and in pass protection. If he was able to get his hands on a defender, he wasn't going to be beat. He showed great recovery ability as well - even if he didn't get a full block on a speed rush to the outside he was able to fall back and get enough on the rusher so as not to allow a real threat against the pass.
The Cowboys didn't run any stretch plays or screens to his side of the field so I wasn't able to see his foot-speed in action, something I was really looking forward to. What did stand out was how Smith was able to easily engage and block Elvis Dumervil, one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL, who finished with just a single assisted tackle in limited minutes. The Broncos ran stunts and blitzes to his side and he was able, with the help of Kosier, to read the play and pick up the appropriate rusher.
It wasn't all perfect, however, as Smith showed a bit of a weakness. On two occasions he came out of his stance instantly opening up wide, which allowed the rusher to get free inside and into the pocket. Both times, the rusher went by Smith untouched as he was set up outside and the rush came right up the middle. These are simple mistakes, made by a rookie in his first game and are are easily correctable.
Battle Of The Receivers
It always feels good to see that what you observed in camp and practice was not a fluke.
Throughout camp we kept hearing about Raymond Radway, a big receiver with outstanding speed who was turning heads in San Antonio. When I attended camp, I saw a very young and raw receiver who had trouble running routes and had trouble catching the ball, even if he was a big and fast guy. Cowboys fans were excited about his potential and there have been many calling for him to make the team, even though he had yet to suit up for an actual game.
On Thursday, Radway showed us the good and the bad he can bring to the field. He is a very smooth and fast runner and had a couple of very nice kick returns. He also was able to get open across the middle for a touchdown reception, although I'd say it's not very impressive to catch a ball that hits you right between the numbers. After that catch, Radway showed us just how raw he really is. Several times McGee looked his way, yet Radway had run the wrong route or stopped on his route -- and on one occasion didn't even run a route -- he just ran and then stopped, before mis-timing his jump to miss a high but catchable ball.
On the other hand, Dwayne Harris showcased why he's the rookie receiver to be truly excited about. He knows how to get open and he catches everything, to go along with good speed in the open field. He's the future slot receiver on this team and there's a good chance he pushes Kevin Ogletree for playing time when the season starts. His route running is still raw but he has that natural instinct any receiver needs when working the middle of the field and he knows where to go in order to get open. His leaping snag for the game-winning touchdown on 4th down is a perfect example of just how good he can be.
Harris is going to get time as a kick returner and fill-in punt returner and he does a good job on special teams as a whole. He's just a pure football player, and that's the difference between him and Radway. I know many like to compare Radway to Miles Austin, but he's much more raw than Austin was at this stage and there was a very good reason that Bill Parcells kept six receivers in 2006. I highly doubt that Radway forces that issue on Garrett, although there is plenty of preseason left.
Who wins the fullback job?
I don't know. Chris Gronkowski played with the first and second units while Shaun Chapas played primarily with the third. Both showed decent pop in the running game and both showed the ability to be useful in the passing game. To be honest, in this game, nether did anything to distinguish themselves from the other and both looked nearly identical in how they played.
Both Chapas and Gronkowski have a good ability to lead into the hole and get a decent block, but neither has that resounding "pop" you'd like to have from your lead blocker. Both are able to stand up the rusher yet neither seems capable of really driving through the block. There were no missed assignments from either, however, and at this point it seems as though it's Gronkowski's job to lose. He just looked to be the most comfortable one out there.
Various other thoughts:
-- I thought that Alex Albright was disappointing. This was a guy who stood out day after day in camp, yet he finished with just two tackles and failed to play with the speed and aggression he showcased in camp.
-- On the other hand, Kenwin Cummings took full advantage of extended playing time against the second unit of the Broncos. He was aggressive, fast and physical at the point of attack and was everything you'd want from a backup ILB. He looked like Sean Lee at times on the field, which is far from a bad thing.
-- Jesse Holley may be a special teams darling, but he did little to establish himself as a receiver. He was solid, but on a night when Harris was incredible, just being solid might not be enough. The good news is that there doesn't seem to be much competition for that 5th receiver spot, unless you count Radway.
-- Stephen McGee is a very accurate passer when he decides to calm his feet and stand strong in the pocket. Good job by Jason Garrett in getting him out of the pocket at times, as he is suddenly a very accurate passer when he's on the run.
-- Felix Jones looks to be back to his old, speedy self. Great burst both between the tackles and in the open field.
-- Tough to really judge the corners in this game, but Josh Thomas had a couple of "welcome to the NFL" moments. He was tentative with his aggression at times and allowed too much space for the receivers, yet also showcased great ability to react to the ball and make a play on the pass.