The Dallas Cowboys are almost done with the abbreviated 2014 version of training camp in Oxnard. Frankly, I'm not too sure One Direction didn't do them a favor with the scheduling conflict that juggled the pre-season routine. It is just a subjective feeling, but it does seem that the team is not as on edge and worn down as they have been in recent years.
Even though the players will be sleeping in their own homes again, they still have three more pre-season games to evaluate things. Next up are the Baltimore Ravens. Here are some things you might want to watch for during the game.
Romo's snaps. This really is not a major unknown after Tony Romo had some good, deep throws in practices, but we can no more ignore how he performs on the field than we can avert our eyes from the wreck as we creep past it on the highway. Hopefully, we will see much better things with Romo. He is expected to take about a dozen snaps, which is usually going to be finished in two series (unless the offense has a horrible time converting). All we really need to see is one or two good deep throws, and for Romo to come off the field without getting beat up.
How are the running backs and fullbacks used? While a lot of the evaluation involves what players will make the team, the Cowboys also have a new man calling the plays, Scott Linehan. As the de facto offensive coordinator, he is to some degree feeling out what works and what doesn't work.
One thing that bears close scrutiny is how much work fullbacks get, and how they are actually used. Are they being used as lead blockers, or are they just being used for pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield? Unless there is a real value as a blocker in the running game, a fullback offers nothing that the team could not get from another running back or tight end. Those roster spots are going to be precious come August 30, and the defense has a greater need for going deep than the offense. If the fullbacks are not used very much in the Ravens game, it could tip the Cowboys' hand for how they want to build the roster.
Once the starters sit, watch the backup tackles. It looks more and more like the only uncertainty on the offensive line is about who is the swing tackle behind Tyron Smith and Doug Free. Travis Frederick and Zack Martin have their starting jobs nailed down already. Ronald Leary seems to be inching ahead in the left guard race, Mackenzy Bernadeau will become the primary C/G backup, and Uche Nwaneri's experience will probably secure him the other backup job in the interior of the line.
But the swing tackle situation is very unsettled. Jermey Parnell has once again not taken control of things, and he left practice on Wednesday with a knee issue which also kept him our of practice on Thursday. Darrion Weems has been limited by a shoulder issue. This has allowed John Wetzel to put himself right in the middle of this fight. It may well come down to how they acquit themselves in the remaining pre-season games, so watch who lines up where, who is second string vs. third, and what they do with their chances.
Don't forget the special teams. One of the best clues to who is leading among the bubble players is who Rich Bisaccia has to work with. Pay special attention to what wide receivers are out there during kicks and punts, since there is a logjam of pretty good players fighting for a possible sixth spot. Also check to see if Ryan Williams is out there, or if the snaps are going to Tyler Clutts or J.C. Copeland. This is another way to get some hints about what the plans are as far as using a fullback or not. However, don't put as much weight on which defensive backs are out there. The injury issues may dictate that more than who the coaches actually want to keep.
How are the corners covering the receivers? With the ongoing injuries, and the obvious extreme caution the team is using in bringing players back, the players on the field are not going to be the expected starters. Don't be surprised or overly disappointed if they get burned some, especially by Joe Flacco and the starting receivers.
More importantly, watch to see if they are playing press coverage or zone. We all have heard that the plan is to use more press man, but what does the team actually do? If the defense starts going back to zone, that could be an attempt to make up for Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne being out. It also can be seen as something of a flinch. It would probably be better if the team went ahead and committed to man coverage, even when the talent is not first string. The odds are that the backups will be called on to step up at some point in the season, and it would probably be unwise to change the scheme as a result.
And, since he will likely get some extra work with the missing starters, it might be a good time to check out Terrance Mitchell. The team needs him to step up, especially with Orlando Scandrick missing games due to his suspension. It sounds like he is working hard with some emotion, but needs to polish up his technique.
And, of course, the defensive front seven. Does anyone get pressure on the quarterback? Are the running lanes getting filled? How much time is the team spending in the nickel, and, as Coach Gary theorized, is that now the real base defense? The Ravens come out with 11 personnel 75% of the time, so expect to see bunches of nickel in answer, which will be a chance to see who they are using as the nickel corner with all the injuries. Is Kyle Wilber going to be used more as a linebacker, or will the team be forced into putting him back at defensive end? How is Rolando McClain coming along, and can Justin Durant keep up the strong performance he has had in recent practices?
OK. Maybe you need to narrow that focus, or stick with some of the other things. And I do not pretend that this is an all-inclusive list. There is a lot to learn, and the opportunities to do so are shrinking every day.