While the opening game of the preseason for the Dallas Cowboys may have disappointed some because they lost it to the San Diego Chargers 17-7, there were in fact many things about the game that are causes for optimism going forward. This edition of the Cowboys seems to be in much better shape in several areas than it was a year ago, with only the running back situation and swing tackle still question marks.
As it happens, this is the second year in a row that Dallas has made the train trip so loved by Jason Garrett to San Diego to open the preseason. While the view of the Cowboys now is radically different from that of 2014, when the predictions for them ranged from mediocrity to outright disaster, the Chargers were seen much the same then as they were now. Power rankings are of course often wildly inaccurate, but they were pretty close for them a year ago. The team was seen as slightly above average, which turned out to be right on target. They finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. This year, the perception is much the same. That makes them a decent benchmark to see how things stack up for the Cowboys by comparing the two games.
First up, how do the box scores from the two games compare? Although the games are primarily about evaluating individual play, things like yards allowed and passes completed are built from the cumulative effects of the play of the eleven men on the field at any given time. Here are some numbers, all from the perspective of Dallas, that show some of the differences between the two games.
|Yards per play||4.5||4.0|
|Yards per play||6.8||3.3|
As was mentioned, stats are of limited use in preseason, but one thing does seem clear. The Cowboys' defense was much more effective this year, which tracks with the impressions of most observers. In 2014 the Chargers passed at will until they basically shut the air game down. Dallas produced no real pressure and coverage basically sucked. This time, they got to the quarterback three times and were close several others. Pro Football Focus credited the pass rush with one QB hit and three hurries - with Randy Gregory accounting for two of the hurries in addition to one of the sacks. He is looking more and more like the pass rusher of the future for Dallas. San Diego did run well against the Cowboys, but note that the average yards gained per carry were the same both years. Given that Sean Lee and Rolando McClain, expected to be starters, were both missing, that should improve. But the fact the team gave up only half the yards and less than half the yards per play this year has to be encouraging, no matter who was on the field.
Offensively, the numbers look very similar, but both years saw the Cowboys rolling without a lot of starters. Notably, neither Tyron Smith nor Doug Free saw any action this year. Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten sat out both games. And we all know about the dearth of running backs for this year's opener. The killer as far as the meaningless score was almost certainly the minus two in turnovers, which you can be sure will be addressed emphatically.
The struggles Thursday could have been easily dismissed if they weren't so reminiscent of those experienced by the Cowboys' defense last season, when it was ranked dead last in the NFL. Even on this night, when there were no stakes, Dallas couldn't stand up to the Chargers.
Of course, we all know that the defense was much better than expected. Still, it was only middle-of-the-road in most aspects, with the high number of takeaways the one saving grace.
This year, the first preseason game seems to confirm what many of us are expecting: The defense, particularly against the pass, is much better. This would appear to be directly attributable to the many investments the Cowboys have made in upgrading the personnel on that side of the ball. And with La'el Collins making some devastating blocks, the offense may be as good or possibly better than it was last year. Especially with Romo's improved health.
In 2014, it can be argued that things did not start to really fall into place for the Cowboys until the second game of the regular season. This year gives at least the appearance that the team is much further along and should be more than ready for the opening game against the New York Giants - who are having a lot of injury issues already. Everyone knows about Jason Pierre-Paul and his fireworks disaster. They don't know when or even if tackle Will Beatty will be able to play. And they had four defensive backs injured in their first preseason game, with Mykkele Thompson lost for the season. Maybe the large amount of caution that Dallas has shown with injuries, no matter how minor, is a pretty good way to go.
As I hear about these major injuries, it makes me think about the tweets I get about Romo, Dez, etc., not playing early in the preseason...— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) August 15, 2015
The process is alive and well in Dallas - at least so far. Let's hope it keeps going.