The Dallas Cowboys first-team offense finally got rolling in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals. With more opportunity to play and to find a rhythm, they managed two excellent scoring drives, but did have a few duds, too. This was a good test because the Bengals have a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball, especially along the defensive line. So with all that in mind, I reviewed the first half of the game breaking down each play. Here are the top themes coming out of that.
Offensive line - The experiment with Doug Free at guard and Jeremy Parnell at tackle offered up some mixed results. On the positive side, Free did a credible job of being a starting guard. The Cowboys could use him there and not be too anxious. He did have some problems - when asked to take on his man in the running game he occasionally got stood straight up or even pushed into the backfield. This is not his strength. He was good in pass protection (except for a couple plays) and very good when getting to second-level blocks on running plays. But you probably don't want Free playing guard because Jeremy Parnell isn't ready to play tackle yet. Whether it's rust from injury or he's just back-up caliber, Parnell had a rough game. He was late getting to blocks against lineman allowing them to make tackles in the backfield or disrupt the play. He was late getting out on a screen pass and wasn't sure about who to block in pass protection on a couple of plays. If Ron Leary isn't ready for the opener, there are questions about Parnell's ability to get it done at tackle at this point.
The two best linemen on Dallas right now are Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Smith was good in the game, only losing his man on a couple of plays. Frederick is manning the center like a champ. I'm still no fan of the play of Mackenzy Bernadeau, just watch the first offensive play from scrimmage for an example. When asked to zone block he can be late getting to his man, he also is not always stout on straight ahead run blocking. Then again, he did have some plays in the game where he busted up his man, leading to good runs. He still bears watching in the regular season, if another team cuts a competent guard in the final cuts Dallas should take a look.
Running game - DeMarco Murray didn't look good on the first couple of drives, Phillip Tanner did look good on the next three drives. Why the difference? Blocking, for one. But Tanner was also very aggressive in finding the hole on zone-blocking plays and hitting the hole with bad intentions. He's creating extra yards on his own after contact.
The Cowboys are leaving the backside defensive end unblocked on a lot of running plays. The idea is you hit the hole on the other side of the line so that defensive end doesn't matter. But the Cowboys are not opening the holes up quick enough and for a few games now the backside defensive end has crashed down and hit the ball-carrier in the backfield. They need to look at correcting this, maybe by trap blocking the guy with a TE or something.
Tony Romo - Romo looked sharp, and smart. When the Bengals blitzed on the Cowboys first offensive play and Bernadeau lost his man around the edge while the running back and tight end did nothing to stop a blitzing middle linebacker, Romo was in trouble. Smartly, he just hit the deck. He did that a couple of times in the game and threw it away on another. But when he was throwing the ball, he was really on target with zip. He looked fantastic, and looked calm in the pocket. Credit the offensive line for doing a good job of protecting him on most plays.
Dez and Miles - There's a lot to like about that combo. 'Nuff said.