It is a moment we have been waiting for since, well, the start of training camp, at least. The Dallas Cowboys are the inaugural visitor to the temporary home of the Los Angeles Rams tonight. It is the first thing resembling real football we have had since the end of the season. After the long drought, we are all eager to get our first glimpse of the 2016 edition of America’s Team.
However, the operative term in the preceding paragraph is probably “resembling”. This contest will feature limited to no participation by the starters. It is all about evaluating downroster backups and players who have slim hopes of making the team. The player everyone is really eager to see, Ezekiel Elliott, is being held out with great deliberateness to protect his hamstring and the team’s investment in him. Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins are also going to be out, among others.
Don’t let that get you too down, however. Every play will offer an opportunity to find out something about the players that are on the field, even if it may just be evidence that they will be long gone by the time the team takes the field at AT&T Stadium for a real football game against the New York Giants on September 11.
DannyPhantom has done a very specific look at five things to watch, but here are some more general things to keep in mind as well.
Be mindful of all the players involved. One of the big issues for evaluating the second, third, and fourth string offensive players is that they are not working with the starting offensive line. You may see some limited action from the starters up front, since they benefit from playing just like anyone, but it will probably just be a series or two at the beginning of the game. From then on you will be seeing backups - and it is always an issue. Offensive line play is such an interdependent thing, and once you start mixing and matching up front, things degrade quickly. This year, the depth along the line is, well, not deep at all. Ron Leary may well be the best backup offensive lineman in the league, but outside him, only Chaz Green and Joe Looney have looked very competent. This makes evaluating the skill positions very difficult. (Just as a side note, that has always been a distinction that irks me. The big’uns up front exhibit tremendous skill and technique, at least when they do it right. Just wanted to get that off my chest.) One note: In the injury report I checked, Doug Free is listed as questionable with a foot injury. That may be a sign of “deliberateness” due to his injury last season, since I don’t recall any reports of a new problem, and the team may use it as a way to get Green some more work.
Running backs will likely have to create at times as the expected holes fail to materialize. Pass blocking will be more important for the backs since you can almost be certain it will break down up front. Dallas only has three players to carry the ball, Alfred Morris, Darius Jackson, and Rod Smith. Fearless prediction: We will see a LOT of “Radius” Jackson.
Since the scheme is going to be more vanilla than women’s swimming before Simone Manuel, there may be a good dose of 21 packages (two backs, one tight end). The Cowboys are trying both Rod Smith and Keith Smith out as fullbacks, and this might give us a good indication of whether either of them are likely to work out. A somewhat less fearless prediction: If both struggle, cutting one of them and bringing in another FB may be one of the first roster moves after this game.
The quarterbacks will not have a good pocket very often, especially with the defensive line the Rams boast. (We can hope they are as quick to get their starters out as the Cowboys, because the thought of players like Aaron Donald going up against second stringers is unnerving.) However, this might afford an opportunity for Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers to show how their mobility might help the team. If they do take off, watch to see if they keep their eyes down the field. They can make plays with their legs, but that is not what the team needs the most. Above all, showing some composure may be more important than completions for both.
Likewise, for receivers, we may get more of a chance to see what they do when things break down than how well they attack the normal coverage. Andy Jones has been all the rage so far in camp, so this is a test of whether he can maintain some momentum or is just going to turn into another flash in the pan. Devin Street is one player fighting through injury who might be given a chance to take the field. His roster spot is hanging by a thread, and he needs to make a move if he wants to keep it. Among the tight ends, Geoff Swaim is likely to be playing the Darius Jackson role as the one member of his unit that is on the field a lot. He is off to a great start, and can build on that.
Defensively, we all are hoping desperately that something resembling a pass rush will manifest itself. Given that the Cowboys are playing a lot of relatively untested candidates up front, this may actually work to their advantage. Defenses are often ahead of offenses at this stage of the preseason, and that has seemed to be the case through most of camp at Oxnard. It will be great if the Cowboys get a few sacks this game. But pay attention to where the pressure comes from. Is it mostly coming off the edge, or is the middle of the D line getting a good push? The latter is something Rod Marinelli tries to establish, and it is something that has not been very evident the past few seasons. If the center and guards are getting pushed back into the quarterback, then that will be one of the most positive signs we could see.
Linebacker is largely unsettled outside of Sean Lee at the WILL, and he hopefully will be watching from the sidelines the entire game. This could be a very fluid situation, with some players lining up at all three spots through the course of the game. The Rams mirror the Cowboys in wanting to establish a dominant running attack, so this is going to be a great test of how they defend the ground game. Given the situation at quarterback for LA, it may be much more valid a test than how the passing game goes. (Now watch one or more of the Rams’ QBs get hot and make me look stupid. Fortunately, I am well versed in how that feels.)
The one settled thing on the defense is the secondary. Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, and Brandon Carr are the top three cornerbacks, with Claiborne having an edge right now on Carr as to who stays on the field in the “base” defense. Barry Church and Byron Jones are the starting safeties. All should take a seat early (possibly before the opening kickoff), so expect a heavy dose of Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, and Deji Olatoye, since Jeff Heath was being evaluated for a concussion and should be out. This game is going to be very important for J.J. Wilcox, because he is probably fighting for his roster spot throughout the preseason.
Don’t forget the special teams. Although it is hard to see who lines up on each kicking play, those of you who go back and rewatch the game would be well advised to see who is on these units, and not just returners. If a downroster player starts showing up a lot as a gunner or up man, that is a sign the coaches are trying to find a way to keep him around.
Those are some things to watch for, but there are many others. Do you have something you particularly want to see, either from my options or one that I missed? Sound off below.