The traditional “dress rehearsal” game wound up a 24-20 win for the Dallas Cowboys over the visiting Oakland Raiders. On the down side, they came away with some lingering concerns about the starting lineups, and a couple of dreaded, pointless injuries. But the Cooper Rush train continued to build steam as he put up another impressive performance, even overcoming a defensive touchdown to pull out the victory.
The biggest concern of the game was to keep the players healthy, and things did not go so well for Dallas as Anthony Hitchens went down with just seconds left in the first half, grabbing his knee. He was helped off the field, but the fact the trainers let him go off the field on his feet may have been a positive sign. Chaz Green also left the game, and reports were that he had a left ankle injury. That may be the determining factor for the battle at left guard as Green continues to be unable to stay healthy enough to play. Duke Thomas also had some kind of a leg injury on the first kickoff return for Dallas.
The start of the game was not the dazzling display for the Cowboys’ that it was last week against the Indianapolis Colts, which probably reflected the improved quality of the opponent. Oakland had the ball first but Derek Carr did not look quite in sync, throwing some balls high to allow the Cowboys defense to get off the field after giving up only one first down. The Cowboy then put together a 50 yard drive that used up 7:21 off the clock. Dak Prescott went 4 for 4 on the drive, plus one nifty scramble to get a first down. But the drive looked like it was mostly designed to get Ezekiel Elliott into the flow of things. He had six carries for 18 yards, plus two catches for six more, before going to the sidelines for the night. He looked solid, although he missed one assignment on pass protection that forced Prescott to dump the ball off to him. The drive stalled out after Elliott got stuffed in the backfield, leading to a Dan Bailey field goal.
It would be the second series on offense that would get things cooking for Dallas. They would drive 80 yards, aided by a defensive pass interference call. But along the way, Darren McFadden would rip off an 18 yard run, and Jason Witten would show that he is far from over the hill as he just schooled the safety to get open for the score. Witten was the leading receiver in the half, getting 74 yards on six catches and the TD. He had almost twice as many yards as all other receivers combined. The passing game looked rather conservative, with the one long attempt to Dez Bryant being just out of his reach, and some other good catches were wiped out by penalties.
The third series for Dallas led to the first sack of Prescott, as Oakland was getting some good pressure in the half. But one odd note was that it came on a third and 13 set up by an illegal hands to the face call on La’el Collins. Replay looked like it was really a good punch to the shoulder pads that snapped the head of the rusher back, but Collins’ hand ended up near the facemask, leading to the flag. He would get called for the same thing late in the first half, but there was no relay to look at. Later, he would get a third flag thrown on a hold, which is not a good sign. With the Cowboys facing the New York Giants, whose strength is their defense, he has to clean up his technique and avoid those kind of drive killing mistakes. All of his flags snuffed out first downs.
Defensively, the Cowboys did not have much success getting pressure on Carr, and the Raiders put together a drive to score a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter that looked to involve some confusion in the secondary. But Maliek Collins had a strong night, especially against the run. Sean Lee got a big lick on Marshawn Lynch in his limited snaps. And Jaylon Smith came in during the second quarter, and got to do his swipe again after making a tackle. He was active during his snaps, and it just looked like his progress is continuing. The Cowboys would get burned badly late in the second quarter as Carr hit a wide open Amari Cooper where Byron Jones got caught between two routes.
The “dress rehearsal” portion of the game would wind up a win for the Raiders, who led at halftime 13-10. There are still some significant questions about the offensive line, the pass rush, and the secondary - and these are with the expected starters.
Going into the second half, the big story was that Cooper Rush got the call to take over at QB in the third quarter. Pregame comments from Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones reflected that the team is giving him an opportunity to show what he can do with a higher level of talent on the field around him - and lining up across the line.
But the first flash from the second teamers came from Taco Charlton, who blew past his man to get a sack on the first Oakland series of the second half. After the concerns early in training camp, he is starting to emerge as a something of a threat rushing the passer. That is a good thing to see. The pressure was noticeably more apparent across the board early in the second half, although it must be remembered that this was the second string for both teams. In the fourth quarter, Damontre Moore would get a strip sack (although the Cowboys would once again fail to find the ball. Lewis Neal continued to make his case for making the team with his own sack. Damien Wilson was very active, offering some real hope that the Hitchens injury may not be too hard to overcome (pending his own possible suspension situation). And Marquez White, who is one of the seemingly dozens of rookie defensive backs who are trying to come back from minor injuries, had a great stop to keep the receiver from getting to the first down mark.
Rush did not have the same hot start he had in his past two games. He was accurate with his passes, and a very good throw to Noah Brown was just knocked loose. But the first two series for him ended on passes that wound up just short of the mark to make. He finally got something going with his third try, completing a ball to Brice Butler that he hauled in despite clearly being interfered with. And it didn’t hurt to have Alfred Morris running well. But things would go very badly for him as Morris was just late in pass protection, and the ball was knocked loose from Rush’s hand to be plucked in midair behind the line and returned for a touchdown. It would be scored as a fumble, and was not really Rush’s fault, but it was part of a performance that momentarily had a bit of a cooling effect on the Cooper fever. He also had one throw that should have been an interception (but would have been wiped out anyway by a roughing the passer call). And, like Prescott, he had first down conversions nullified by penalties. But he also got helped by some calls as well. The drive he led that went into the fourth quarter led to a touchdown pass to Ronnie Hillman on a swing pass. Throughout, Rush still looked poised in the pocket despite the miscue right in the middle of things.
Had the staff pulled him then, it would have been a case where he did not really do a tremendous job to prove he should be the QB2 rather than Kellen Moore - but didn’t hurt his case, either. However, that was not to be the end of the night for him. In perhaps the most telling thing about how the team is interested in him, he came back out for the next drive with just over half the fourth quarter left - and promptly hit Lance Lenoir for a deep touchdown. He would wind up with another very impressive stat line, going 12 of 13 for 115 yards, two touchdowns, and a gaudy 143.1 passer rating.
Kellen Moore did not see the field until there was just over four minutes left in the game, with a four point lead to protect. He certainly did not have much of a chance to build his own case - which might mean that the decision now is all about how much Rush can do, with a pretty clear idea of just what Moore is. Moore was certainly game against the third and fourth stringers and did not look horrible - just more or less what we expect. The Rush fever will certainly continue to grow.
It was something of a mixed bag for Dallas. There is certainly grist for the mill as we come down to the final game of the preseason against the Houston Texans.