The score wound up against the Dallas Cowboys as they lost the San Francisco 49ers 24-21 in the preseason opener. But that was not the real story. What was important was that Dallas got out of the game reasonably healthy, and saw a lot more good than bad from the players - especially those that are sure to be on the team this year.
It felt a little worrisome at first to find out that the starters (with a few notable exceptions) would be playing a “series or two”, but that feeling is largely just paranoia about preseason injuries. And it didn’t take long for the first string offense to inject a little confidence, as the Cowboys took the opening possession and marched 75 yards in 10 plays, capping it all with a really beautiful 30-yard touchdown pass from Dak Pescott to Michael Gallup. The defender seemed to give up on the play for a moment, but it doesn’t take anything away from what may be a glimpse of the future of the WR1 position in Dallas.
Along the way, the team showed that the run game was still strong even without Ezekiel Elliott, as Prescott and Rod Smith combined for 41 yards rushing. Oh, and Dak left the game with a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Not a bad start.
The starting defense had a good first series as well. They gave up a couple of first downs, both on third down completions by Jimmy Garappolo, but a tackle for a loss of six yards put the 49ers behind the sticks, and they got off the field. The flow to the ball was what you wanted to see, and Jaylon Smith looked particularly good. And Joe Thomas, filling in for Sean Lee, showed he was quite ready, notching three tackles on the way.
Things were crisp on both sides of the ball to start the game for Dallas, but most of the starters exited the field after that. (Not all, however, as Connor Williams and the starters in the secondary stayed out there, and the wide receivers were rotated.) As generally happens, things were, shall we say, spotty from then on. But there were still a lot of things to take note of.
One thing that became evident throughout the first half was the penetration of the defensive line. They were getting up field, and not just to chase the quarterback. There were multiple tackles behind the line. Antwaun Woods and Datone Jones were making their presence known, and Jihad Ward had a pass deflection. Brian Price would show up later chasing a screen pass down from behind. Suddenly the interior of the defensive line doesn’t look nearly as shaky. But the best play along the line may have come from Taco Charlton. On more than one play, he was chasing the QB and really disrupting things. And Dorance Armstrong also was making himself a pain for the opponents. Charles Tapper didn’t get in the game until the third quarter, but promptly came up with a fumble recovery. There were some encroachment penalties, but the actual play of the rushmen was very encouraging.
In the battle of the backups, Cooper Rush had a bit of a rough start, but put together a nice drive in the second quarter. He hooked up with both Tavon Austin and Blake Jarwin on the drive. And Bo Scarbrough had a big 28 yard power run, where he broke through a tackle near the line and got rumbling downfield. He wound up capping the drive off with a hard fought run from inside the 1 yard line. Add in the fact he was being used in kick coverage, and he may be staking a solid claim to that last running back spot.
That score put the Cowboys up 14-0, but it also had one of the more negative plays of the game, as rookie TE Dalton Shultz was driven back and almost wound up ruining the play.
Anthony Brown also wound up drawing a couple of flags, including a pass interference call inside the two minute warning that set up a touchdown run to get the 49ers on the board. It was a breakdown in technique, as he appeared to be in perfect position to defend the pass, but never looked back for the ball.
However, the dreaded helmet rule did not rear its head in the first half. That was something of a relief. It finally showed up late in the third quarter, and was called against the other guys, so it must not be such a bad thing after all, right?
The defense also got turnovers, including when Kavon Frazier came on a blitz and went up to deflect the pass, which Joe Thomas grabbed.
There have been a lot of questions about just what Dallas has for receivers, but during the first half that did not look like a problem at all. In addition to the Gallup TD, there were receptions by a lot of players, and one name that cropped up was Jamize Olawale. He has been touted as being much more of an offensive weapon than your average fullback, and it certainly looks like that is the plan. He was targeted twice, and caught both balls. One, however, was called back on a penalty. And Lance Lenoir had a toe-tap touchdown catch in the second half, plus he was back fielding punts, and looked to be doing well at it. That extra value on special teams just reinforces his case to make the 53 man roster.
You expect to see a lot of different players get receptions in a preseason game, but there were at least eight players that are sure to make the roster that caught balls, a couple more who have a good shot, and the team did not have Cole Beasley or Deonte Thompson on the field. And the ball went to wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, and the fullback. The plan to spread the ball around seems alive and well. (A lot of you might not like it, but it is worth noting that Rico Gathers was conspicuously hard to spot in this game.)
What we didn’t see were a bunch of the motion and different formations that we will likely see during the regular season. That is to be expected with the vanilla nature of preseason games. We may not see much of that in the preseason at all. And that makes the way the ball was getting spread around even better.
The first half was not just a win on the scoreboard, but looked to be a better showing by the Cowboys. An overall impression from it was that there were some bad plays by some players, but all facets of the game looked very good. Even with mostly backups, things didn’t look at all bad for the first preseason game, which often devolve into displays of ineptitude. But Dallas’ players were flying all over the place, especially on defense. And the dropoff from the ones to the twos was not significant, even taking into account that they were also mostly going up against the backups for San Francisco. In particular, the linebacker play seemed consistent, whether it was Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, Damien Wilson, or Justin March-Lilliard. It does not look like the team is as susceptible to an injury to Sean Lee as it was last season.
If there was a group that had their performance degrade as the backups took over, it was the secondary. They had key penalties and started the second half off with a badly blown coverage that set up a SF field goal. Marqueston Huff and Jourdan Lewis were the players caught out of position. In camp practices so far, the DBs had seemed to be a bit ahead of the receivers, but in this game, the opposite seemed true. It just goes to show that it is a different thing indeed to line up against another team and go full speed. However, Duke Thomas provided a bit of redemption late, snagging an interception off a Richard Ash tip. But things kind of fell apart as the 49ers marched down the field on the game winning drive.
While many players helped themselves during the game, one who didn’t was Chaz Green. He had another rough outing playing right tackle, and may be building a case for the team to part ways with him. It is bad news for him, but not exactly a disaster for the Cowboys. Most felt that the signing of Cameron Fleming would eventually lead to Green’s departure when it happened, and that just seems to be how it is likely to play out.
As far as the battle of the backup QBs, this game certainly looks like the staff is planning on Rush hanging onto the job. He not only came in after Dak, but he played well into the second half. The team seemed far more interested in getting Rush reps than seeing what Mike White could bring to the table. And while he was not as efficient as Prescott, Rush had several nice plays, including a save of a high snap that he managed to get control of and complete the throw to Terrance Williams. White finally got his chance late in the third quarter, and looked pretty sharp out of the gate. But he looks to be hoping for the team to carry three QBs on the roster, and he had at least one throw that probably should have been picked.
One of the most important things for Dallas was there were a few injuries of note. There was a toe that had to be X-rayed for guard Marcus Martin. Hopefully it will turn out to be minor. S Marqueston Huff was reported to have a groin injury. And WR Marchie Murdock left late with an injured ankle.
Overall, this game had a lot to feel good about for the Cowboys, and not too much that would seem to create a lot of worry. There were so many good things that happened, that I probably left out mentioning someone that deserved it. It was hardly perfect, but this was a game where Dallas looked more ready for real football than the 49ers. It was a solid way to start the preseason.