There were some very interesting things to come out of Saturday's Cowboys and Dolphins preseason game. It was important since this was the last game the starters would see any kind of significant playing time. Here are my top three initial takeaways.
The Offense is Rusty: Earlier this week I wrote that I would be watching the offense to see if it could keep up it's impressive showings from the first two games. And the quick answer is no, it could not. The first string offense looked disjointed, and outside of Dez Bryant, never seemed to show any rhythm. But the more I watched the more I came to the conclusion that the first half offense we saw was never meant to be a dress rehearsal. It was meant to be a practice session for Tony Romo under live game conditions.
Think about it. Over the last two games one of the major talking points was how Scott Linehan was bringing the run game back. We never saw that commitment to the run in the first half; but after Romo went to the sidelines the run game returned. The final drive we know that Dez Bryant was out, but there was Romo under center. I don't think we were calling plays according to the game situation; we were calling plays so the coaches could see how Romo looked.
That being said, the offense looked pretty bad. Our line had a really rough night. Again, some of that can be mitigated; the team was rotating Ron Leary and Mackenzie Bernadeau in and out which made it hard for the line to establish any cohesion. But that rotation isn't what caused Doug Free to get abused by Cameron Wake, or for Tyron Smith to hold. Romo was sacked three times in two quarters, and that's not good, (although to be fair, I believe that first sack of the game was a coverage sack). I do think this game was an aberration and not the norm, but without a doubt the first team offense looked very rusty.
The Defense is a Work in Progress: Once again going back to my earlier column; the defense cannot finish plays. I actually thought we looked pretty good defensively in the first quarter. Outside of one big run, and a phantom holding call on Orlando Scandrick, the defense was pretty stout. But the defensive line was gashed in the second quarter. To be fair a lot of that is because Knowshon Moreno is a really talented running back, (Lamar Miller certainly wasn't putting on a show when he got snaps). But a lot of it was simply poor play. Bad tackling, over-pursuit, (which I think is going to be the Achilles heel of this defense all season) and slow reaction times were the watchword of the day, especially along the defensive line.
One play in particular stood out to me. Dartwan Bush, who actually had a good game, got off his block on the edge, and was in perfect position to make a play on the running back. But instead of stepping into the gap and making a play in the backfield he just held his position, and got blocked out of the play at the last second by what I presume to be a pulling guard.
For the first two games of the preseason, I thought the defensive line was doing some good work. Not tonight. Outside of some good pressure from Davon Coleman, and some yeoman work from Tyrone Crawford, (which is nice but most of us were expecting splash plays given the hype), the d-line disappointed. On the plus side, I thought tonight was the best the linebackers have looked all preseason. Most people are going to remember the highlight bad plays, like Carter being blocked by a wide-receiver, and Justin Durant getting beat deep by the tight end, but outside of that I thought the linebackers looked really good, especially Bruce Carter. What made their showing even more impressive was how much mixing and matching they had going on with Anthony Hitchens starting his first game in the middle, then moving to the WLB in the second half.
The most impressive unit though was the secondary, which is surprising considering the lack of depth that unit has right now. The entire unit showed really strong tackling skills, and I thought coverage was pretty good all night outside of one blown assignment in the second half. Brandon Carr looked pretty good in his first game back, and Church was his usual strong self. But the story of the secondary, (and of the night) was...
Rookies Continue to Shine: Tyler Patmon and Ahmad Dixon were the standout players of the game in my book. Let's start with Dixon. Yes, he took some bad angles in coverage. Yes, the personal foul was stupid. But boy howdy, he can hit. Dixon is a player that is just going to lay the wood. And that physical style can set the tone for the entire defense. If Dixon can improve his coverage he is going to be a player in this league.
And so is Tyler Patmon. What a game. A forced fumble, an interception, and an interception returned for a touchdown. Patmon was all over the field tonight. The interception return was a thing of beauty. As soon as his man went into motion Patmon seemed to recognize the play, and as Rabble pointed out on twitter, he showed the confidence to act on that recognition. That's a huge thing for a rookie. While he did get burned deep by Mike Wallace once, I really can't blame Patmon for that. It wasn't poor play or recognition that hurt him; Wallace is just plain faster and beat him over the top. Not much a corner can do about that. And I thought he made up for that when he showed good hustle to run down a running back later in the game, and good awareness in not horse collaring him and trying to punch the ball out. Once again, our rookies are continuing to shine this preseason.
And a Bonus Fourth: Ryan Williams is making it extremely difficult to cut him. He continues to show great burst, and physicality. He reminds me a lot of DeMarco Murray actually, he has the speed and moves to make people miss, but seems to enjoy seeking out contact. If he can stay healthy, (a big if, considering his history), he is going to be a great running back for some team, and I hope it's ours.
But can we keep four running backs, given our needs at other positions? If we can't who goes? Our own Dawn Macelli asked earlier this week if Bruce Carter could be a surprise cut. I'm going to attempt to one up her; could Lance Dunbar be at risk of the Turk?
Now before we get out the pitchforks, let me state; I'm not saying Lance Dunbar will be cut. But consider this; if DeMarco Murray goes down, Dunbar will not be the primary backup. He is a specialist, a secret weapon. But he's a weapon that we haven't actually see do any real harm. We all know the potential is there for big plays. But those big plays seem few and far between. He's the defensive version of Almost Anthony, without the steadiness against the run. Last night he came-this-close to breaking a couple of runs. But he didn't break them. He picked up some good yardage on a screen pass, but if he would have waited on his blocks it could have been so much more. I guess what I'm saying is, both Murray and Williams have big play potential, but also provide steady gains in the rushing department. Joseph Randle is the only running back we have that doesn't have an injury history. Dunbar could be a weapon in the passing game true, but who here thinks that Dwayne Harris could provide the exact same function?
Again, cutting Lance Dunbar would be a pretty big shock. But with Williams producing the way he is, and with the many needs we have elsewhere, Dunbar is my pick for this years surprise cut.