Four days later, the first preseason game temporarily answered a few questions while opening up a line of others. We've seen all the talk about Rico Gathers, Brice Butler, and the premature burying of Taco Charlton but there was much more under the surface of that game. For a preseason game, it was actually worth a second watch just to see some things we may have overlooked. Here are a few random thoughts on the game and some other performances:
Keith Smith Is Just Good At Football
He'll always be an unsung hero but Smith is a guy that refuses to lose his spot on the roster. Over the past several years, Cowboys' fans and even beat writers have questioned Jason Garrett's commitment to carrying a fullback.
The majority of the league doesn't choose to carry a fullback but a few teams like the Packers and Falcons still find success with the position. Smith is more than just a fullback, he's a hybrid player that just so happens to do everything he's asked well. In Thursday's game, the stat sheet would say that he caught three of five targets for 15 yards. He also helped La'el Collins finish a guy:
Pass Protection is NEVER passive!— Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) August 7, 2017
This never gets old!#EyesOnOLine#OLineAfterDarkhttps://t.co/jD0KxCHuOw pic.twitter.com/f15DZqRYcu
Smith's only played one year at the position after being a linebacker ever since he could remember. Again, he's more than a fullback as he's one of the Cowboys' best special teams players too. It takes a linebacker to know how to beat a linebacker, here he just destroys #51 for the Cardinals:
#Cowboys FB Keith Smith showing us that 41 > 51. (h/t @K_SMITH31 Instagram) pic.twitter.com/H80Z5NDUcQ— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) August 4, 2017
It's too bad Ronnie Hillman hesitates to attack the hole but Smith did his job and more. If Garrett likes the fullback position, well, at least he's getting returns out of Smith. Keith Smith can block for the runner, he can catch out of the backfield, he chips for the linemen, and plays special teams? What's not to like?
Backup Offensive Line Plays Well
For the first preseason action, the Cowboys starting line from left to right was as follows:
Cowboys starting offensive line pic.twitter.com/0Magi7NPOF— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 4, 2017
Only Jonathan Cooper and La'el Collins are projected to start for the Cowboys in 2017. With that said, despite not seeing All-Pro's Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin, this makeshift offensive line held it down. They didn't give up a single sack in a game where they were thought to be overmatched by rookie Haason Reddick and second-year player Robert Nkemdiche. The Cardinals brought plenty of heat all throughout the game but the Cowboys' line was prepared.
Overall, there were no fumbled snaps as Joe Looney continues to build on his strong camp as the backup center. Even when the depth players got involved, there were things to like about rookies Dan Skipper and Nate Theaker. Byron Bell looked solid for a guy who hasn't played since 2015. Collins and Cooper both played like deserving starters who routinely stopped their opposing pass rusher. It was clear that playing offensive line for the Cowboys comes with a reputation and these backups were up for the task.
Alfred Morris Shows His Stuff
It's been debated as to who should really be the primary backup to Ezekiel Elliott but it got more interesting in this past game. Frankly, McFadden looked confused, often taking six steps to lose two yards. He had three carries for -6 yards before his night was over. The excuse of missing the starting line isn't really valid here. Other guys did much more with their opportunities.
Over the course of the past two weeks at training camp, the talk has been how Rod Smith should be the third running back on this roster. Folks were talking about Alfred Morris being the odd man out. After all, Morris doesn't add much to special teams, his blocking is questionable, and he's not really much of a receiver out of the backfield. But he sure ran the ball well, the primary responsibility of a running back.
The important question is which back allows the Cowboys' offense to play to the best of their abilities should something occur with Elliott? This is a talented offensive line that allowed McFadden to gain over 1,000 yards rushing in 2015 but Morris' ability in the zone-blocking scheme is the better fit. Morris put Cardinals' defenders on ice skates:
.@FredoSauce out here making 'em MISS! #AZvsDAL pic.twitter.com/CjcCcqXeo5— NFL (@NFL) August 4, 2017
Watch that run, he sees the hole, he shoots through it up field without much help at the second level. Imagine what he gets when the Cowboys' road graders are all together? You can find another position to give you special teams value. Alfred Morris is the superior choice as the guy that makes the most of the 20+ carries if needed.
Chidobe Awuzie Is Not An "If" But "When"
Look, the Cowboys protected themselves when they signed Nolan Carroll and he is likely to get the opening game nod due to his experience. Even so, it's only a matter of time before Awuzie is a starting Cowboys' cornerback. The secondary is already in the beginning stages of an inevitable youth movement. What's becoming clear is that it could happen faster than expected.
So far in camp, Carroll has been abused by receivers at times. We're not saying he hasn't had some good plays but he's getting upstaged by the second-round pick. Awuzie has a couple of picks in practice, which is encouraging but he also just seems to be what the Cowboys hoped they drafted from Colorado. They wanted a cornerback that makes plays on the ball and Awuzie is that guy. Just look at this almost pick-six from this past week's game:
Wow @Chido___ almost gets an INT. Almost. pic.twitter.com/aDLF0vAEOi— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) August 4, 2017
.@Chido___ breaking on the ball. #Cowboys #HOFGame pic.twitter.com/8VsSzQ0Rhi— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) August 4, 2017
Chido diagnoses quickly to jump the route but he goes for the breakup, which is natural for a defensive back. If he finishes his initial break, that's a pick-six all day, every day, and twice on Sunday. Nobody would have been close to catching him there but it's a breakup instead of the backbreaker. Awuzie is not going to let many more of those get past him. He's extremely intelligent for a rookie and eventually, he's going to take that job.
Cowboys' Offense Played Their Game
Sure, there were no Dak Prescotts, Dez Bryants, Jason Wittens, or Ezekiel Elliotts. Heck, there weren't even any Terrance Williams. Still, the Cowboys' offense played their style of football and did it very effectively.
They dominated time of possession with almost ten more minutes at 34:46 to the Cardinals' 25:14. They ran 72 plays, 15 more plays than Arizona while also having more first downs 22 to 19. Dallas was better on third downs converting seven of 16 third downs, they even converted two fourth down attempts. Despite both teams having 11 offensive possessions, the Cowboys out-gained Arizona with 396 yards to the Cardinals' 327. Dallas out-rushed the Cardinals with 127 rushing yards to 88 for the opposition.
After being dominated by the Cardinals' offense for the beginning of the game, they out-passed the Cardinals too, 269 passing yards to 239. It was a close exhibition, the Cowboys escaped with a two-point win but they played their game which is important. What the Cowboys really showed is that their offense is possibly deeper than originally thought. The offense and defense got behind but at the same time, they showed they have a formula that can recover. It was positive to see that even the backup offense executed their plan with efficiency.