The only way to describe the performance the Dallas Cowboys had in their preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers was ugly. The offense could not do anything for most of the game. The special teams were pitiful in punt coverage and got one blocked for a touchdown. And the run defense got gashed too much. The lack of so many key players was pretty evident. But in all this, there was some good news.
First of all, Tony Romo got into the game behind a patchwork line of Darrion Weems, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free and emerged unscathed. True, he was only in for three plays and completed just one pass for minus one yard, but who cares? Everyone in Cowboys Nation was holding their breath, and you could hear the deep intake of air when Brandon Weeden came out for the second series.
Despite playing the bulk of the first half deep in their own end of the field, the Cowboys twice had nice stops on third down in the end zone to hold the 'niners to a couple of field goals. This was reminiscent of last season. Bend but don't break is not the ideal way to hold the opponent, but it sure beats just breaking.
And folks, sacks are coming. Randy Gregory got credit for the first one, but Davon Coleman deserved an assist on the play for the way he was collapsing the pocket. Coleman was also involved in one of the third down stops. He may finally have gotten past the mental issues that have held him back last year and will bear close watching for the rest of the preseason. The Cowboys may have a player in him. Ryan Russell also got credit for a sack and may be another player to watch as the cut downs draw nearer. And speaking of Gregory, he had drawn two holding penalties by halftime. He is already making his presence known along the line. Plus, the heartthrob of BTB fans, Ben Gardner added a sack late to shut down a 49ers threat inside two minutes. That's three sacks in the first half. Mmmmm.
Brandon Weeden left the game in the second quarter after what looked like a helmet to helmet blow. Dustin Vaughan came in and would up getting picked for a touchdown on a bad pass, but was showing some nice connection with Gavin Escobar, who started the game with a bad drop.
Are there any lessons to be learned here? Well, obviously the absence of three of your starting offensive linemen is going to seriously handicap your offense in both run blocking and pass protection. This was the first time to see both Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle, but McFadden was getting met right at the line and only netted four yards on three carries. But Randle showed some good moves in making something out of nothing on a couple of plays. It gives some real hope that he may be able to carry the load when the starting lineman return to block for him. He averaged over four yards a carry despite the shaky blocking in front of him.
Neither Weeden nor Vaughan did much to impress early. Vaughan was picked twice in the first half, which is obviously not good. The turnovers are still working against the Cowboys. But after the first quarter, the Dallas defense began to look better against the San Francisco backups. Along with the defensive line stepping up, Corey White had a PBU in the end zone and is looking more and more like he is going to make this team.
For the most part, the Cowboys dealt with poor field position in the second half, and as the team rotated more and more players fighting for a chance to make the roster, things did not go much better. The special teams continued to look miserable, giving up a blocked punt for a touchdown. Dan Bailey even had a missed field goal. This is very similar to what happened last year. The special teams units are not at all what the team will use during the regular season, since several of the players involved are going to be released in two weeks or so. Still, the general ineptitude is not pleasant to see.
Although it was late in the game, Jameill Showers looked better in the fourth quarter than Vaughan did during his snaps. He marched the team down for its lone touchdown on a pass to Nick Harwell at the 4:11 mark, despite pass protection that was not any better than Weeden or Vaughan had. He also saved two points the other way when he threw an interception on an attempted two point conversion and then knocked the intercepting player out of bounds. He did get picked late when he was pressing a bit. Geoff Swaim also showed some good hands, particularly on a fourth and 15 reception that he caught a few yards short and fought to convert. Dallas was stout on pass defense, holding the 'niners to 21 yards through the air in the first half and not letting them get much more in the second, but with the way they were running the ball, SF may not have been trying very hard. However, 14 of the 23 points scored by them were on turnovers, so the defense did acquit itself fairly well.
Did we really learn anything from this game? Well, outside of how important many of the projected starters are to the Cowboys, there were some nice individual plays by some of the young guys. It is not much, but this is preseason, and we should keep in mind the fact that Dallas went 0-4 last year, with some very ineffective special teams play. There are still some serous questions to answer, but don't get too down over the final 23-6 score. It doesn't count.
Outside possible concussions to the backup quarterback and backup safety Jeff Heath, there were no real injuries. That is likely the most important thing of all.