After battling through a travel day that consisted of flying over the edge of a hurricane, I was able to sit down and watch the tape from Saturday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. I approached this third preseason game just like I do every other season when the team has its so-called "dress rehearsal", focusing not on schemes and play-calling, but on the overall cohesiveness of the separate units and the play of the individuals who are going to have a significant impact on this upcoming season.
Jason Garrett has never been one to really give away much of his offense in the preseason and at this point the league knows what his passing attack is all about. Instead, he's used the past three games to judge and analyze what he has in the running game, with each contest in the preseason featuring multiple run formations and plays that test the revamped offensive line. He's testing his offense and testing his players in an area that is unknown, as the Cowboys approach this season with a new number one running back and almost brand new offensive line. Because of this, trying to make judgment based on play calls in any situation is not going to be worth much at this point.
Instead, we can look at how the team performed together and whether the team was at least successful in what it was attempting to accomplish. Last preseason the team never seemed to be on the same page -- on offense or defense -- a fact that was troubling considering this was the exact same roster from one year prior. That feeling of foreboding carried over to the regular season and the Cowboys stumbled to a 1-4 record before Tony Romo was injured against the Giants in week six.
Taking the approach of wanting to look at individual success and total cohesiveness and teamwork, I sat down and reviewed the game against the Vikings. The first thing that popped out at me, of course, was just how much a work in progress this defense is going to be...
I know that the players and coaches mentioned "game planning" for the Vikings, but what I witnessed was -- once again -- a team that approached the game in base packages and never really showed their hand, with the exception of only a few schemed plays on third down for both the offense and defense. Therefore, to me, it's impossible to truly judge what this defense is going to look like when they take the field against the Jets, but what I can discern is that while we haven't seen much of Rob Ryan's true defense in the preseason, I doubt we'll be seeing much of it against the Jets, either.
If the defense had had an entire offseason to work with Ryan and learn this defense, then my level of concern might be a bit higher. Instead, I saw a defense that was still not playing aggressive with the exception of a lone few. Right now, this is a defense that is reacting and is not having an impact on the play other than to do their best to stop it. When a defense is slow reacting to a play and not moving with aggressiveness in a positive way forward, then the offense will easily dictate the play on the field and the defense will constantly find itself trying to play catch up.
Against the Vikings, the Cowboys once again lost the battle along the line of scrimmage. Without Marcus Spears, the Cowboys struggle to get a push up the middle either against the run or against the pass. Jay Ratliff was being double-teamed on nearly ever single offensive play, as Kenyon Coleman and Igor Olshansky were easily pushed off the ball by singular blockers. Olshansky in particular struggles once more, consistently being pushed off the ball a good 2-3 yards on each play and never once getting a good push against the pass.
When this happens, the offense can focus on Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware. We can tout the individual play of a few but when the unit as a whole is failing, this affects even the best defensive players in the game. The good news is that Jason Hatcher is proving to be a bigger and bigger force along the line and is showing the athletic ability to do more and more in Rob Ryan's scheme. Hatcher was by far the best player on the line against the Vikings, showing great push against the pass and was as effective as he could be against the run.
The inability of the line to dictate the line of scrimmage is affecting every other aspect of the defense's game. With the defensive line not getting the job done, the Vikings were able to get their guards and tackles into the second level of the defense with ease, which instantly opened up the running game. It's hard for Bradie James and Sean Lee to drive to the ball when they're being met by offensive linemen.
This all gets back to the lack of overall aggression by the defense and how right now this is a "bend but don't break" defense. Without Spears, Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, the Cowboys are far from full strength while also still trying to find their place in a scheme that is very, very different than what was played under Wade Phillips. Once the players start to feel comfortable in their roles then the hope is that aggression returns.
We witnessed signs of that growth in the game against the Vikings, as the Cowboys adjusted to what the offense was dictating and was able to cause some problems for McNabb and company. It also can't be overlooked that Adrian Petersen looked better than he has in two years and the way he was running he'd give any defense fits. That doesn't take away the blame from the Cowboys, however, as they certainly made it easier for the Vikings -- especially in the first quarter.
Overall, there are still some concerns but I am not judging the outcome of this season based on what we saw from this defense in just over two quarters of work against the Vikings. This is going to be a season where the team and the defense grows from game to game and the defense we'll see against the Jets on September 11 is not going to be the defense we'll see in December.
At least, that's the hope.
Other thoughts from the film review (specifically the offense):
** The offensive line had similar problems against the Vikings in this game as they did last season and in the playoffs game from the season before. The Vikings get a great push off the edge and up the middle and use delayed blitzes to try and and confuse the offense, something that worked to near perfection last January in the divisional round of the playoffs. The good news is that for this game, at least, the Cowboys handled the pressure much better.
While there were times that the Vikings had a defender get free into the pocket, Tony Romo was sacked just once and was rarely hurried or hit. The offense as a whole did a great job in picking up the blitz and adjusting to the pressure, with Romo getting rid of the ball when needed and the receivers finding soft spots in the underneath coverage. While the big play was not there, the Cowboys did a much better job of not getting greedy and were able to move the ball more efficiently this game that at any other time in the preseason.
** It's amazing to think that in a game where the Cowboys were able to effectively run and pass, they used an offensive line that had never practiced or played together until just a few hours prior to the game. Kevin Kowalski had never taken a snap with Tony Romo prior to Saturday and as such had not had any real experience with the other four linemen he was taking the field with. Normally, you'd think this would result in poor communication and multiple blown assignments. For this game, the Cowboys acquitted themselves well and showcased an ability to adapt and learn on the fly while still playing effective football.
** Tyron Smith: This was the first game he truly struggled and it comes as no surprise it came against a very potent Vikings defensive line. On several plays it appeared that Smith blocked down against the DT, thus leaving Jason Witten one-on-one against a DE. Both times, Witten was pancaked into the backfield. Witten is a great blocker, but he's not an offensive tackle. Smith was beaten several times by inside moves by the defense, including a nifty spin move by Jared Allen. The good news is that Smith showed that he can recover from a bad play and dominate the next. It was as much of an up and down game as we'll see from Smith, but he hardly looked as helpless as some other offensive linemen we've seen the past few years.
** Bill Nagy: It's obvious that Nagy still lacks the overall power to be a "great" guard in the NFL, but he's far from being ineffective. Instead of providing an anchor and controlling the depth of the pocket, there were times when Nagy was bull-rushed onto his heels while in pass protection. On one play, Nagy was stood up at the line of scrimmage when trying to make a pull block to his right. His defender was able to push through Nagy and stop Felix Jones for no gain. Overall, however, Nagy once again showed his potential to be a very effective guard and while he might not impress much this season, he's going to be far from a liability on the left side next to Doug Free.
** Kevin Kowalski: Now, Kowalski was not going up against the massive Kevin Williams, but he still had his hands full with a quick and powerful defensive line. Kowalski showed that an offensive lineman can play a "bend not break" style and at least be somewhat effective. He was only outright beaten one time that I could see, but on multiple occasions he was driven back in the pocket off the snap of the ball. He needs to get better at driving forward off the snap instead of letting the defense bring the contact to him. He was never fully overpowered, but only Romo's quick release saved the Cowboys from more pressure-related problems.
** Overall, the offensive line improved as the game went on and once again was very effective with the run. This is a line that loves to be on the move and loves to make contact down the field, especially in the running game. I find it interesting that we didn't see more screens, but I have a feeling this is something we're going to see plenty of once the season actually gets underway.
** The effectiveness of the offense overall is partly due to the offensive line, but mostly due to the efficiency of Tony Romo. This is a quarterback who is in control and confident and it looks like he's back to having fun on the football field. That enthusiasm and leadership drives this team forward and after the game several players commented how Romo was actively driving the team in the huddle.
It's no coincidence that with Romo being in complete control, we've seen an overall lack of penalties and mistakes by the starting offense. No holding penalties calling back big plays. No false starts. No tipped balls leading to turnovers. The only mistake was bad holding call against Kevin Kowalski late in the 2nd quarter. Based on what we've seen the past decade or so, I'd say this is significant progress.
Romo is looking more accurate than ever and what really impressed me was how after a very bad throw last week, he only took what the defense gave him against the Vikings. One play in particular really stood out to me, and that was an incomplete: Near the goal line, Romo rolled out to his right and tried to hit Dez Bryant who was coming open behind a defender in the end zone. Romo threw the pass where only Bryant could possibly reach it and while it was incomplete, that outcome is much better than Romo trying to fit that ball into an even tighter space. It was a smart, accurate throw that only played to a positive outcome. The next play the Cowboys ran for a touchdown.
** I'm still not convinced the Cowboys are going to keep a fullback, but if they do it's likely going to be Shaun Chapas. He's shown significant growth this preseason and while he's still not the big driving fullback you'd like, he's become much better at making effective blocks in the hole. Chris Gronkowski took a horrendously bad route on a run play up the middle and completely missed a block; after that play, Chapas received most of the playing time with the No.1 offense -- including getting the ball on a critical third down run.
** For those upset with Anthony Spencer, realize he's playing a much different role than DeMarcus Ware. Spencer played back in coverage on numerous sets and even lined up at DE in the five technique, taking on the interior offensive line and providing a good anchor against the run. I know that people want oodles of sacks from Spencer, but I would much rather have a OLB that can play well in coverage and in the run game and be able to open things up for Victor Butler and Ware. It's very easy to jump to conclusions based on numbers alone but it's important to actually study what the defense is trying to do with each player and right now, Spencer is not playing the same position as DeMarcus Ware.
** Finally, one last thought on the defense. I've seen a lot of instant reactions about this defense and specifically Jay Ratliff. Ratliff has never been the prototypical NT in a 3-4 and hasn't approached the game the way a typical NT would either. However, with Spears not in the game and the defensive line struggling overall, Ratliff is getting double-teamed on nearly every single play. Let's also not forget that the Vikings have a very good offensive line when healthy and it was obvious they were scheming against Rat. When this happens, it's imperative the rest of the line responds and makes them pay for doubling up -- which has not happened.
Josh Brent fared no better against the Vikings, and was in fact turned completely around on several plays that sprung big gains up the middle. Ratliff is struggling, but he still showed the agility and hustle that we've always seen from him as he made several big tackles in the running game -- even if they were a few yards downfield.
Right now it appears the defense is very soft up the middle, but the Cowboys also played very basic sets against the pass and the run. They never loaded the box against the run and on several occasions had linebackers out of box to cover tight ends when the Vikings ran the ball. More importantly, several times the Cowboys only rushed three -- and actually saw significant push. So, once again, take this preseason with a big grain of salt.