We've now seen the Dallas Cowboys for two games in the 2011 preseason. One contest was a stirring comeback from the second and third stringers, the other was a sloppy game that ended up in loss. In general, the actual results of preseason games don't really matter, although learning to win is always nice. But looking inside the game - the things we need to see to make forward-looking statements about the Cowboys 2011 season - there are some general impressions you can take away.
On the positive side of the ledger, the offensive line has been a real surprise. No other position has seen such a shake-up this offseason. Think about it. We ditched two of our starters from the last few years. We've moved our left guard to right guard. Our starting center missed most of training camp and saw preseason action for the first time on Sunday. We're starting a rookie at right tackle, and we're rotating rookies at left guard. That is a lot of movement, with a lot of reliance on rookies.
And yet, that part of the team has looked very good. One of the most promising aspects of the Cowboys preseason play in my opinion. Of course you can throw in the caveat of 'vanilla defenses in the preseason', but even playing this well against base defenses gives me hope. Everything else becomes subservient to the play of the offensive line, and Dallas was taking a pretty big gamble for 2011 with all the changes. So far, it's working.
Tony Romo hasn't been sacked yet. He hasn't been under constant pressure, either. The TD he threw on Sunday to Jason Witten was the result of plenty of time to survey the field. For the most part, the Cowboys pass-protection has been excellent with the starters.
And, our running game is getting the job done. That's more praise for the offensive line, and brings us to the second impression - Felix Jones looks good, real good. Felix has 10 carries for 79 yards so far. Much of that yardage has been between the tackles. The commitment was made to Felix as the #1 back, the guy who needs to run inside as well as outside, so far the results are positive.
With Felix, we need two things for success. One, stay injury-free, we're knocking on the wood there. Two, an offensive line that gives him time to hit a hole. Felix is showing nice patience in hitting the hole, some of his runs have been of the cut-back variety, which is a very effective run against today's uber-aggressive defenses. The key, though, is no defenders in the backfield disrupting the play. The back needs time to survey his options, and pick his hole. Felix needs that, because he's not going to be able to slam into traffic and break free, he's just not built for that. Even thoguh he'll be running between the tackles a lot more, he still needs to find space. The Cowboys line is accommodating him thus far in the preseason.
In addition, Phillip Tanner has looked good, too, even though most of his opportunities have been with the second and third string. Maybe the Cowboys are going to have a powerful run game this season. And we haven't even seen DeMarco Murray yet.
It's not all Kool-aid though. The defense has not looked good, at least not consistently. There have been times when the Rob Ryan mad-scientist approach has paid off, and you can see some of the potential for the future. But, in all honesty, the defense is on the negative side of the ledger so far. I think there are two main reasons behind that. One, they are a long way from being comfortable in this new defensive approach. Two, they are missing a couple of guys that they need to be good to make this work.
It's easy to see the Cowboys defense is not acclimated to the new schemes just yet. Watch how much confusion there is before the snap of the ball. There were so many plays where the Cowboys defenders had their heads turned and were talking to each other when the ball is snapped. Corners and safeties were late making their first steps in coverage because they were late reacting to the ball being snapped.
Yes, the Ryan defense involves a lot of pre-snap movement, and it's supposed to look like chaos to the offense, but there's a difference between simulating that and knowing your assignments - and living the real thing. Right now, on too many plays, the defense is actually in chaos, not just faking it. The good news? Time will help, so this should only get better as we move on through the season. The key is to do enough early in the year on defense to keep us in games, and keep the overall record on the positive side, then hope by midseason they really start to grasp it all.
The second issue on defense is the health and play of Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman. This defense needs them to be healthy, and playing at a high level. We've haven't been able to evaluate that yet in preseason, and it's going to be key. If Ryan is going to blitz safeties and nickel corners and the like, then he needs Jenkins and Newman to lock-down receivers. All I can say is keep your fingers crossed on that one.
That's my general take on the Cowboys so far in preseason. This next game should very instructive as the starters should see a lot more time. This is a work in progress, but so far I'd say they are moving in the right direction. We'll see if I'm still saying that after this next game.