The preseason means nothing.
The preseason means nothing.
The real games are upon us. The Cowboys have done an amazing job of turning over the roster and the team's defensive philosophy after a 6-10 meltdown in '04. What can we take from the preseason games and what might they tell us about tomorrow's game? Here's what I think I believe after seeing three exhibtions and the last week of camp.
When the Cowboys Have the Ball
The offense is ready to pick up where its running game left off at the end of 2004. That's because rookie Julius Jones ended that campaign with a seven game streak where he averaged 115 yards rushing. Jones brought speed to the running back position, a luxury the Cowboys had not seen since Emmitt Smith was in his prime in the mid '90s. The plodding of Troy Hambrick made way for a back who could not only get through the hole quickly, but could see and set up defenders on different levels simultaneously.
In the process Jones made the draw his signature play. It became so effective over the last seven games that Bill Parcells gained total confidence in running Jones on third and seven, third and eight or third and nine plays and having a reasonable expectation that Jones would convert the play.
The objective in 2005 is making the rest of the Cowboys running plays match the effectiveness of the draw. Dallas was a wildly inconsistent and one sided team last year. It had some success running left behind LT Flozell Adams and LG Larry Allen but could never muster any push on the right side. What's worse, this one sidedness prevented the Cowboys from being effective in running short yardage plays to either side; teams knew Dallas would run to its left and would overshift to that side. They had no fear the Cowboys could beat them by going against tendency and running right.
In the hope of improving its right side, Dallas spent heavily to lure Pro Bowl right guard Marco Rivera away from Green Bay. Rivera is a punishing run blocker, with a long games-played streak to his credit. What's more, he can count the sacks allowed in the past half dozen years o the fingers of one hand. He provides an immediate upgrade at the RG spot and should allow the team to offer help to rookie RT Rob Petitti. The sixth rounder from Pitt was the surprise of camp, stepping in to cover the hole left when Jacob Rogers dropped out of the starting lineup due to a bum knee. Petitti stuggled against blitz packages but did improve as the summer wore on. He will be one player to watch, however. The Chargers run a 3-4 as their base defense and might run some games at Petitti to see how he responds.
One factor in Dallas' favor is that Chargers LOLB Ben Leber is better known for his coverage skills and run defense than he is as a rusher. If the Chargers want to make things interesting, they will give rookie OLB Shawne Merriman some snaps opposite Petitti. Merriman sprained a knee a couple of weeks ago, but carries a bruised ego that he blames on the Cowboys; Merriman contends that Dallas told him it would draft him were he available at pick 11 and went against its word when the team selected Demarcus Ware. He's been telling anybody who would listen that he will make Dallas regret the decision.
When Dallas runs the ball, they might find some opportunity on the right side. Petitti will be matched up most of the time against LE Jacques Cesaire. Cesaire is considered a meat-and-potatoes guy who does his job without much spice. Another potential matchup in the Cowboys favor is Rivera against strong side inside backer Randall Godfrey. The former Cowboy is a tough customer against the run and is not afraid to mix it up with guards. However, he gives away 70 lbs. to Rivera and has lost a step after nine years in the league.
The real potential headache for Jones and the Dallas running game comes right over center, where the Chargers sport 345 lb. Jamal Williams. Williams is the biggest reason the Chargers were ranked third against the run last year -- literally. He is nimble for a big man and has the strength to overpower most centers. The Cowboys have been rotating Al Johnson and Andre Gurode but the 320 lb. Gurode may get more snaps over the 300 lb. Johnson. If Dallas cannot get Williams turned or at least stalemated the inside game will sputter. The Cowboys practiced a lot of what John Madden calls "wham" plays, a formation brought into favor by the Panthers two years ago, during training camp. In this formation two backs line up in the backfield in an offset-I. Before the snap a tight end comes in motion and lines up next to the fullback, giving the halfback two lead blockers on inside runs. Look for Dallas to run some plays from this package at Williams, in an attempt to loosen up the middle of the Chargers line.
If Dallas can lock down Williams -- no easy feat -- they have some matchup advantages in their favor. Larry Allen blew up linebackers for fun during camp and will line up much of the time opposite Donnie Edwards. Edwards is smart and highly productive. He's also 225 lbs. and will give up at least 110 lbs. to Allen. The key will be getting Allen past Williams and into space. Othewise, Edwards will be able to run free and chase down plays.
Allen has a matchup problem of his own in handling the Chargers WOLB Steve Foley. Getting outside and blocking Foley will be Allen's responsibility on passing downs. Blocking in space has not been an Allen hallmark for years and if he struggles tomorrow, Drew Bledsoe will pay a price. Foley led the Chargers with 10 sacks and he's a threat off the corner.
Parcells mentioned this week that he expects to see the Chargers stack eight men in the box in an attempt to stop Jones. This could allow for the Cowboys to take a pass-first, run-second attitude tomorrow. For its strength against the run, the 2004 Chargers were poor against the run, in all ways. San Diego only posted 29 sacks as a team and has only added Merriman to its rushing arsenal. The Chargers also ranked 31st in passing yards allowed. The only addition to this leaky secondary was free safety Bhawoh Jue, who arrives from Green Bay's maligned coverage team. The Chargers have a young unit, with recent first round picks Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis manning the corners. San Diego clearly feels they will get better with experience.
The team was especially weak against intermediate routes and could be exploited by tight end Jason Witten. Look for the Cowboys to also challenge the corners, especially Jammer with Terry Glenn. The veteran shows no effects from a serious foot injury that ended last year prematurely. He abused the Cowboys corners regularly and will take his chances tomorrow. Glenn spent a lot of extra time working on timing with Bledsoe and the effort showed some signs of working; the two combined a couple of times on deep strikes during the Cowboys final preseason game. Do not be surprised to see the Cowboys run a lot of play action three man routes with max protection to cover Petitti on the right and to help Allen against Foley on the left. If San Diego is cheating to stop Julius Jones, all three of Dallas receivers will have single coverage. Witten and Glenn should win these duels more often than not.
When San Diego Has the Ball
The Cowboys were handed a gift by the Chargers front office last month. The organization got into a contract dispute with Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and suspended him for the first three games of the year. Gates reported shortly after being suspended and the team rescinded the punishment. However, he is not in game shape and will not play tomorrow.
This is a blessing for the Cowboys pass defense, which has struggled all preseason with short zone coverage. The linebackers and safety Keith Davis have had trouble coordinating drops and have allowed lots of passing room in the middle of the field. Gates was a terror last year for even the best pass defenses and could have ripped the Cowboys coverage schemes.
Chargers QB Drew Brees is an intelligent player coming off a breakout year in which he threw 27 TDs and only 7 interceptions. He is very accurate and could still make life hard for Dallas, even without his favorite weapon. On the other hand, Gates was the linchpin of the scheme and the unit of Keenan McCardell, Eric Parker and TE Justin Peele does not strike fear into anybody. Look for Dallas to roll corners Terence Newman and new Cowboys Anthony Henry up tight and ask them to jam the receivers at the line.
Dallas will take a similar philosophy into the game as the Chargers -- stop the running game. In Dallas' case, the man with the target on his back is perennial All Pro LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson is at the top of the league right now, a punishing runner with the speed to go the distance and a talented receiver as well. (Tomlinson has never had fewer than 53 receptions in a season and snagged 100 passes in 2003.) With Gates absent, Tomlinson might have to carry the burder of being the Chargers running and passing game. Expect Dallas to bracket him with two men on all passing plays.
The bigger chore will be holding Tomlinson's runs to a minimum. Here, expect DC Mike Zimmer to return to his freewheeling philosophy of 2003; look for Roy Williams to shadow Tomlinson all day.
Another big subtraction from the San Diego cause would not even have been on the field. I'm talking about offensive line coach Hudson Houck. The former maestro of the Cowboys' championship lines had performed a remarkable job cobbling together a bunch of castoffs, old vets and youngsters into a powerful unit that opened holes and protected Brees. The QB was sacked only 21 times last year, ranking fourth in the NFL. (Only Denver, Indy and Green Bay were better.) However, Houck left this offseason, joining Nick Saban's staff in Miami. Houck's place has been taken by Carl Mauck. The former Oilers' center is a decent coach who has produced solid units in San Diego and Detroit. Cowboys fans learned the hard way how their offensive line could go to seed once Houck left town. Mauck is good, but changes in philosophy can disrupt a line's rhythm and performace. The Chargers line is not known for having an abundance of talent. If its cohesion is compromised, for any reason, Brees could have a hard year.
The other big question for the Cowboys will be the performance of the new 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys will have the same issues the Chargers will in their 3-4. The key will be the play of nose tackle LaRoi Glover, who will get most of the snaps with free agent signee Jason Ferguson slowly working back from an injury. Glover was stout against the run in preseason, but never played far into games. Will he be able to handle the double teams for four quarters? How many quality snaps will Ferguson be able to provide?
Another question mark is RE Greg Ellis. Ellis is a proven vet, but he looked lost a times against the run in the 3-4. Fortunately for him, his opponent, Roman Oben, is better known as a pass blocker than as a mauler. Oben is light for an NFL tackle, at 303 lbs. and should offer a better matchup for the 271 lb. Ellis on running plays.
A question for Dallas fans is how quickly their rookies respond to the speed of the NFL game. Rookie Demarcus Ware will start at weak OLB and fellow top pick Marcus Spears should get some extensive time at left end. Ware shows signs of brilliance in the preseason, getting sacks and causing turnovers. However, he also blew assignments with frequency, allowing almost as many big plays as he created. The speed of his learning curve will likely be a factor in whether the Cowboys win or lose this game.
Both teams stress special teams play and the winner of these matchups could also decide the game. Parcells has been optimistic about his return units, but the Cowboys coverage teams gave up a frightening number of long returns this summer. Punter Mat McBriar could find himself among the league leaders if he can kick consistently. The x-factor is place kicker Jose Cortez. Cortez earned the job by default after regular Billy Cundiff was injured. His accuracy is in question.
I have a theory about week one. It is the most overanalyzed game of the year. It makes a powerful first impression that leads many people astray. It also often bears little resemblance to the rest of the season. How many recall the 37-7 whipping the '97 Cowboys put on the Steelers in week one? Or that that team finished the year 6-10?
Week one tends to resemble the last week of the previous year more than it does the rest of its year. For that reason, for all the potential matchups I see in Dallas' favor, I see the Chargers gaining a narrow victory. I see this being an old school field position game, the type someone like George Allen would love. Both running games will struggle. The game will turn on passing, special teams and turnovers. The Chargers only lost one game by more than seven points last year, so I don't see Dallas pulling away. Now do I see the Chargers outclassing the Cowboys. Dallas has a lot more talent on the field. But that talent is inexperience. What's more, the Cowboys are plugging a lot of new people into a lot of key positions. It's a lot to expect all of them to mesh right out of the box.
I see Bledsoe having some big plays. I also see some costly mistakes, by all the units. Parcells has lost both his openers in Dallas and I think that trend continues. That does not mean the season is sunk, but tomorrow may well be.
San Diego wins a battle of the field goals -- Chargers 19, Dallas 17