It was a moment every Dallas Cowboys fan had been waiting for. It came six plays into the first action he had seen in a year and a half. Jaylon Smith came up on a third down play and stuck the receiver, stopping the drive to get his team off the field. He celebrated his first real contact since becoming a controversial second round pick for the Cowboys in 2016 with his trademark swipe, one that was well earned.
It has been a remarkable, movie-worthy journey for Smith. It was a truly significant point in his life and football career, and also important for Dallas. Smith was the starting Mike linebacker, and he looked perfectly capable playing. His only problem that was evident was overrunning a couple of plays, but he did not look in any real way to be hampered by his knee or ankle.
The game wound up with the Cowboys pulling away late for a 24-19 victory over the largely outmanned Indianapolis Colts team. But as nice as that is, it was the larger things the game showed us that are reasons for optimism about Dallas.
For the defense in general, it was a very good start to the game. It must be acknowledged that the Colts were playing without Andrew Luck, who is still recovering from surgery. But it is still impressive to hold any NFL team to one first down in its first three possessions. Smith was not the only one to have good plays to get the team off the field. Byron Jones stopped the receiver just inches from the first down mark on the opening drive, and Orlando Scandrick broke up a third down pass. The starters that were available on defense looked very solid. They didn’t get a turnover or a sack early, but they had comparatively few opportunities as they were so efficient at getting off the field the first three times Indianapolis had the ball. Damontre Moore would finally get them a splash play with a sack late in the second quarter. Before halftime, the Colts only threatened once, when they got a field goal.
If there was any real concern about the Cowboys’ starting offense, it was quickly dissipated in the first quarter of the game. The offense took the opening drive 95 yards as Dak Prescott was a perfect 4 for 4, capped by a 32 yard TD pass to Dez Bryant that was a classic demonstration of his catching skills. Along the way, Darren McFadden averaged over five yards a carry, and Jason Witten caught a couple of passes for first downs. It was a basically flawless drive, with Dallas operating out of the no-huddle. The offensive line was operating well. They almost had a second touchdown drive, this one with Chaz Green replacing Tyron Smith at left tackle, but after getting the ball down to the Colts 15 yard line, McFadden had the ball knocked loose.
Prescott sat down with his only incompletion coming on a batted ball, and a 158.3 passer rating. Kellen Moore came in and promptly had disaster strike, as he had a forced fumble on a ball he held for a very long time. The fumble was scooped by Lavar Edwards for a touchdown.
Moore came back on the fourth Dallas possession and was able to demonstrate a little chemistry with Brice Butler, completing one pass for 40 yards and just missing a touchdown on a pass that carried Butler a step out of bounds. On his second series, he drove the team down for a field goal to re-take the lead. And he found Lance Lenoir on the next series for 24 yards. Still, it was not exactly an overwhelming performance for him, and will do little to quiet the Cooper Rush fans out there.
The most important development for the offense was that both McFadden and Alfred Morris looked very good running the ball. With the Ezekiel Elliott suspension still in effect, there is great concern about how the Cowboys will replace his production. But both McFadden and Morris averaged over six yards a carry. It was marred by McFadden’s fumble, which cost Dallas at least a field goal attempt and probably a touchdown, but otherwise, the running game looked in very good shape. Running primarily behind starters on the offensive line, the two primary backups to Elliott accumulated 95 yards in less than two quarters of work. That bodes very well for the future.
Of course, the biggest concern of any preseason game is injury, and the Cowboys had one starter, Scandrick, leave the field in the second half and went into the medical tent. But it looks like the team may have dodged one there.
Orlando Scandrick was not diagnosed with a concussion, per @KristiCowboy update. But he is done for the night.— Kate Hairopoulos (@khairopoulos) August 20, 2017
The score at halftime was 10-10, with the Cowboys totally dominating statistically except in the turnover department. Those are crucial, of course. However, the Moore fumble is one that the team will hopefully not have to worry about during the regular season.
As normal in preseason games, the second half saw the starters all relegated to the safety of the sidelines and the depth players out to get their chances. Nothing exemplified this more than the Colt’s possession to open the 3rd quarter, where there were four flags thrown on what became a three and out. But fan favorite Noah Brown made a crucial (and not very bright) error on the punt, committing a personal foul against the punter. It was the kind of thing that can become a tipping point for a player fighting to make the roster.
The Dallas backups put up a more credible showing. With Moore still in the game, and Morris carrying the load on the ground, they moved fairly efficiently down the field. They would stall after 55 yards, and Indianapolis would block the FG attempt by Sam Irwin-Hill.
Kavon Frazier showed up on some plays, and one under-the-radar player, Woody Baron, got a batted pass. Still, the Colts would get in range and take a three point lead on an Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Setting up the Cooper Rush show. Just like Prescott, he went 4 of 4 on his first drive, capping it off with a 19 yard TD to Noah Brown (who was wide open on the play) - and for at least one drive, a similarly perfect passer rating of 158.3. We should be extremely cautious about how many parallels we draw between Prescott and Rush, given that all of Rush’s work this season has been against primarily third and fourth string players. But there is no question that the past couple of games, the Cowboys have moved almost effortlessly when Rush was in the game, and struggled to maintain any offensive consistency under Moore. Oh, and just for good measure, Rod Smith put on an impressive display of running himself, getting 53 yards on seven carries as Rush led the team to a second touchdown. The Dallas staff may feel Kellen Moore is a better backup for Prescott, but it is hard to make any rational argument that he is a better on-field quarterback and leader than Rush. Rush seems to have the quality (that he also shares with Prescott) of elevating the players around him. If Rush continues putting together games like this one, the Cowboys will likely want to keep him around - and have to really worry about who else may covet his skills. The argument for Dallas to keep three QBs is growing more convincing with every preseason game.
Meanwhile, the depth players on the Cowboys’ defense continued to generally outplay the Indianapolis offensive depth players, despite a late garbage time touchdown that led to the final score. That is another very key development. Although the Colts are not considered to be one of the better teams in the AFC, it was obvious that there was simply more talent on the field for Dallas in the second half. That kind of depth is crucial to success in the regular season, where the long grind and inevitable attrition forces teams to rely on their down-roster players. In this game, the Cowboys demonstrated very good starting lineups and some good depth. That is the most important thing to come out of it.