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Freshmen First -- Rookies Lead Dallas to Win Over Seattle

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Some early returns on the Cowboys 2005 draft are in and they look good for Dallas. The team got solid to exceptional play from nearly all of its rookies Monday night in an 18-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Here, in reverse order, is a rundown of the rookies and some other key "on the bubble" players, as they appeared to my highly distracted eyes.

  • Rob Petitti -- He wasn't perfect, but he played well enough for the experiment to continue another week. The problem for Petitti is not athletic. When he was able to get his hands on an opponent, he did a solid job of locking out on pass protection. The Cowboys gave him a lot of help, keeping backs and tight ends in to block on his side and rolling the pocket towards him. He was clean, for the most part, but early on, he singlehandedly short circuited a promising drive with two mental breakdowns. The Cowboys had ended the first quarter by converting a fourth and one run near midfield. On the next play, the Seahawks stunted an end from the right side all the way across the formation at Petitti. The OT followed his man down the line and did not switch, allowing Drew Bledsoe to be sacked for a seven yard loss. Two plays later Seattle ran two blitzers at Petitti. He froze, not able to distinguish which man to block. Both came free and Bledsoe had to bail to his short option on a third and long.
  • Whatever was said to Petitti worked, because he was much more assured in his play afterwards. He still makes you nervous, but it is clear that he's got talent.

  • Jay Ratliff -- Got a lot of work in the middle of the game as a LDE. Didn't see anything that stood out. I still think he's a strong bet to make the team because of his versatility.
  • Justin Beriault -- Crash is back. Beriault is tall and skinny, and looks like a high schooler next to Roy Williams. But the man loves to hit. He sealed the game with a blitz early in the fourth quarter that drove Seattle QB David Greene out the back of the end zone, pushing the Cowboys lead from 16-10 to 18-10. On the next defensive series, he timed a safety blitz perfectly and nailed Greene for another loss. He spent the rest of the fourth quarter blowing up tight ends and receivers. He still has a noticable limp from a knee that has needed to be drained a couple of times this preseason. You wonder how his range would improve if he could get the knee to calm down.
  • Chris Canty -- He got a lot of early play after Greg Ellis got an early hook. He was mostly stalemated by Seahawks Pro Bowl LT Walter Jones, but Canty held his ground.
  • Marion Barber -- The guy would make great plays in practice, then do something stupid like dropping an easy pass or fumbling the ball. That was Barber in the game. He shows an ability to hide in the pile and drive outside. He made a nifty dive for a first down that was marked incorrectly by the refs. He made another submarine move to convert a third and four that fooled the ABC cameramen. Barber has some run skills.
  • However, he made an unbelievable unforced error, fumbing the ball while trying to switch hands and bounce outside. The Cowboys were lucky an illegal block in the back was called because the fumble was run back for a touchdown that would have cut the lead to 18-17. Barber got an earful from Bill Parcells and was much better at protecting the ball on the Cowboys final drive. He'll stick because he's got too much talent, but he won't last too long if the silly mistakes continue.

  • Kevin Burnett -- Got a lot of early series spelling Al Singleton and was very active. He finds the ball and has some zip. Looks a lot like a prototype Jimmy Johnson linebacker. I would be surprised if he wasn't the starter by midseason, if not sooner.
  • Demarcus Ware -- Wow! What didn't this kid do tonight? He showed raw athleticism and made plays against the run and the pass. He's a very quick study, because he didn't look like this in coverage last week.
  • Ware blew up the Seahawks first series with a prototype 3-4 WOLB rush. It's been so long since I've watched a good 3-4 work I forgot that the guy responsible for trying to take on the OLB in most blocking packages is the guard and not the tackle. Since most guards are good at pulling and running but not as adept as OTs at pass blocking in space, we can start drooling over Ware's sack potential right now. On the third play of Seattle's first series, RE Greg Ellis took a hard inside drive pulling OT Walter Jones with him. Ware blitzed in the vacated lane at QB Matt Hasselbeck. LG Steve Hutchingson took a run outside to cut off Ware, but Demarcus simply cut inside him and attacked Hasselbeck from the blind side. He swatted the ball from the QB's hand and recovered the fumble, setting up a Dallas field goal.

    Two series later Hasselbeck ran a bootleg to his right. The TE on the right side was covered so the QB looked for his second TE, running a drag across the field from his position outside the LT. Ware followed the TE, put on a burst of speed, cut under his man and intercepted Hasselbeck's pass, killing a second Seahawk drive.

    Later in the half, Ware ran down a scrambling Seneca Wallace and forced a second fumble. Ware got some playing time in the fourth quarter but it took only about 20 minutes of game for him to prove his point. He's sure to get better, but he's really good -- already.

    Other players of note:

  • Patrick Crayton -- Showed good hands and field awareness, twice catching passes on third and long a yard short of the marker and then bulling he way to the first down. He has an alarming tendency to carry the ball like a loaf of bread at times, but he made a convincing case for being the third WR.
  • Lousaka Polite -- Two steps forward and one step back. He made a nice catch and run to score the Cowboys TD. His blocking was solid. But the Lousaka I watched last week would make two good plays and then drop an easy pass. Today, I saw more of the same. He dropped a third and four pass that would have given Dallas a first down and let them seal the game. Still, his odds of being the lone FB just got better tonight.
  • Keith Davis -- repeat after me: he's the free safety. Broke up two passes in the first half and made some big hits on Seattle receivers.
  • Game Impressions: Dallas showed some effective 3-4 blitzes, getting pressure on the Seattle QBs throughout the game.

    On the other hand, the coverage on Seattle's early TD drive was soft. Both corners were victimized for big gains. The real vulnerability appeared to be at the ILB positions. Seattle tight ends and receivers were running free in the middle of the field early. The coverage tightened as the game progressed but I'd like to see more third down stops from the first team back seven against a starting NFL unit before I start feeling comfortable with the defense. Overall, however the emergence of a pass rush is a giant step forward from last week.

    Offensively, I think the Cowboys are still far from tipping their hand. All week long Drew Bledsoe looked for, and found, Jason Witten and Terry Glenn. Today, he worked the left side, where Keyshawn, Polite and Crayton were lined up. Parcells mentioned after the Arizona game that they still "haven't shown what Bledsoe does best." I don't think we saw that tonight either. Bledsoe had a slow start, but improved rapidly and was solid Dallas' long TD drive.

    The one concern I have is his tendency to lock in on receivers. It almost resulted in an INT early in the game. Dallas lined Witten up wide left, with Keyshawn in the slot and called a deep out and up to the TE. Johnson was supposed to draw the free safety to the deep middle by running a post. The safety turned to follow Keyshawn but quickly pulled off him and ran to cover Witten. He almost intercepted the pass. My guess is that he didn't fall for Keyshawn's pattern because Bledsoe locked on to Witten and the safety was able to follow Bledsoe's eyes to the ball.