The "dress rehearsal" went fairly well for the Dallas Cowboys. The final score shows it as a 28 -14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, but when the first team players were in, things went much better than that number shows. It was not without its warts, and the offense especially took a few series to get clicking, but there were some pretty good signs that things are in pretty good shape for the regular season. By midway through the second quarter, key starters were coming off the field for both teams and it soon turned into the normal preseason showcase for the backups. And before then, some important things were established.
The big thing was that Tony Romo was in midseason form. He played into the second quarter (and was still on the field after the Vikings had pulled Teddy Bridgewater). His stats line was quite impressive.
Tony Romo's night is done. He finishes 5 of 8 passing for 88 yards, 2 TDs and a 139.6 rating. Nice tune-up for Week 1— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 30, 2015
The first touchdown was a 60 yard catch and run that Terrance Williams gets a lot of credit for. With Dez Bryant held out as a precaution, Williams was the top receiving threat, and he almost came up with a second long reception, but ran his route just too close to the sideline for Romo to have room to drop the ball in to him. Then on the second touchdown, inside the red zone, Romo went Romodini again, which seemed to completely confuse the Vikings rushers. They seemed to think Romo was trying to run, but he stepped back and had nothing but green around him. He found Lucky Whitehead for an easy touchdown. You aren't going to see Romo on the field again until the New York Giants come to AT&T Stadium to open the season, but there is nothing to worry about concerning him.
At running back, the picture is still not completely clear, but Darren McFadden had some impressive runs. He obviously benefited from having four of the five expected starters on the offensive line, gaining 37 yards on only four carries. Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar were not nearly as effective, but the line did not look fully in synch early on when they had their chances. Things seemed to come together as the game progressed. It also has to be mentioned that Minnesota appeared to pull most of their starters to start the second quarter. Regardless, McFadden showed encouraging speed and decisiveness.
Defensively, Dallas gave up one 39 yard pass where Brandon Carr had good coverage but the ball was just perfectly placed by Bridgewater. Other than that, Rod Marinelli's bunch were stout. The run defense was markedly improved. Admittedly they did not face Adrian Peterson (just as the Vikings did not face Bryant), but repeatedly they stopped the runners short. Randy Gregory got his third sack in as many preseason games, barely beating DeMarcus Lawrence for the honor. He later would be robbed of a second sack by a defensive holding call. Brandon Carr came up with a very good interception. And Morris Claiborne looked mostly good, including one play in the end zone where he drew offensive pass interference that probably kept him from getting an interception of his own.
There was bad news, however. Special teams were up and down. The kick coverage team gave up a 107 yard touchdown return immediately after the first Dallas score. Daryl Johnston, sitting in for his annual preseason game with the Cowboys broadcast team, remarked that he saw at least three players who were out of their lane. These are not a bunch of backups, either, but players that are quite likely to be playing teams during the regular season. There was also a good punt return allowed. However, Cole Beasley contributed a 40 yard punt return of his own, and Lance Dunbar had a 36 yard kickoff return that started nine yards deep in the end zone. Other plays, the teams were good, but the big breakdowns are just something the team cannot afford.
Dallas wound up the first half with a 14-13 lead, and that kickoff return was the only touchdown surrendered by Dallas in that half. The only negative was that for the first time this preseason, the Cowboys often had starters out on the field to contend against backups. However, the team was just starting to get some real continuity going when they started to pull their own starters - and they had scored two offensive touchdowns by then.
The second half was not as kind to Dallas. Dustin Vaughan relieved Romo with Brandon Weeden sitting out due to his concussion from the 49ers game, and he continued his lackluster performance. He was unable to move the team. His future with the team has to be in serious doubt now. Meanwhile the Vikings scored a touchdown in their second drive and then added a two point conversion. They went to hurry-up, no huddle, and the Cowboys backups looked frankly befuddled. Dallas also had problems with some very untimely penalties. Another late touchdown while things were winding down added to the final deficit.
One player who did improve his stock with the team was Whitehead, who was given another chance at returning punts in the second half. He handled that job all right, and was a much bigger presence as a wide receiver with the touchdown reception. He may have reestablished himself as the favorite for the fifth wide receiver job.
The mantra for preseason is that you still must not read too much into these games. But the first half certainly showed some indications that the starting offense and defense for Dallas are much more ready to start the season than they were in 2014, when the Cowboys had the horrendous first quarter in the first game against San Francisco. The defensive line is almost unquestionably the deepest part of the entire roster - and given the way the linemen rotate in and out, the Cowboys saw some of their best pass rushers on the field at various times during the game. As the game went on, players like Greg Hardy, Gregory, and Davon Coleman just shredded the Vikings line at times. Oh, and Sean Lee is back. The plan is coming together on defense.
And it looks to be in very good shape on offense as well. Randle and McFadden have alternated good games. That may not be the best way to go, but it is a workable approach. Things should only get better here with the return of Zack Martin and Bryant, and it has to be noted that Jason Witten did not see a ball thrown his way.
Not to be overlooked is that the team got through the game without serious injury. The Cowboys may have extended their preseason game losing streak, but that should not be a major concern. The team looks ready for real football. That is what matters.