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7 things we learned from the Cowboys’ first preseason game

Most of it’s good!

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

We finally got to see the 2018 Cowboys in game action against the San Francisco 49ers and of course that means instant analysis! The Cowboys lost but who cares? What’s most important is:

1. Dallas emerged with no significant injuries to noteworthy players.

That’s it... that’s what’s most important. Reserve guard Marcus Martin left with a toe injury, reserve safety Marqueston Huff had a groin issue, and reserve receiver Marchie Murdock had an ankle injury. But no big injuries to major contributors. Moving on, we did get some early insights into other things we’ve been pondering all off-season.

2. There is some serious depth in the front seven on defense

There has been a lot of discussion about how this Cowboys’ defensive line has more talent at the end position than we’ve seen in years. Yeah, we know what DeMarcus Lawrence can bring and he didn’t disappoint in his limited action.

We also saw quality play from Taco Charlton. Early on he didn’t bite on a couple of bootlegs and held the edge, forcing incompletions from a running quarterback. Later he deflected passes on consecutive plays (though he was offsides on one). Charlton looked more disruptive playing against ones and twos than he did at any time last season.

Dorance Armstrong also continued his strong showing this preseason, looking active and strong. He did get taken out on a wham block by a wide receiver on a wide run but his overall showing has to give coaches and fans some optimism moving forward. Charles Tapper also showed up on several plays, including both forcing and recovering a fumble.

But it was the linebacker depth that really showed up. Jaylon Smith looked like a completely different player, aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage, attacking in a pass-rushing role and generally looking much, much more effective than the Smith we saw last season.

It was Joe Thomas, however, who really caught the eye; he was all over the field throughout the first half when the ones and twos were playing. He collected five tackles, recorded a tackle for loss, deflected a pass and recorded an interception.

He was a one-man wrecking crew. Coaches and observers have been raving about Thomas’ performance throughout camp and against the 49ers we saw why.

Add solid performances from Justin March-Lillard, Damien Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch, and I have to begrudgingly admit the Cowboys depth at the linebacker position means even an injury to All Pro Sean Lee won’t derail this defense. This is a complete turnaround from where the team has been in past seasons.

Overall it was an impressive performance from the Cowboys’ youngsters along the front seven.

3. There’s also depth at running back

Rod Smith has long performed in the shadows. He’s been a bottom-of-the-roster guy his entire career. But he’s now firmly entrenched as the Cowboys’ backup tailback and nothing he showed Thursday indicated that will change any time soon. He ran hard and effectively in his short stint. He also showed he can pass block, picking up a blitz on a third down play.

After that we got to see the Bo Scarbrough show. There is still skepticism that Scarbrough can make the final 53-man roster - he’ll probably have to show he can play on special teams to make the team. But boy was he effective both running and catching the ball. He ran over a tackler on a 28-yard rush then capped the drive off with a bulldozing touchdown run. He added two catches for 19 yards.

4. Chaz Green and Anthony Brown couldn’t continue their impressive camp play

Going into training camp it was assumed by many (well me) that Chaz Green was a long-shot to make the team and that Anthony Brown would be the team’s fifth or sixth cornerback. So many of us (me) were somewhat surprised by training camp reports that Green was looking more impressive than free agent pickup Cameron Fleming or that Anthony Brown had been given the first-team slot cornerback position over Jourdan Lewis.

Neither player looked impressive Thursday. Green, in particular, struggled immensely. He looked pretty much like the traffic cone we saw last season, getting beat repeatedly on both running and passing plays.

Brown also exhibited the same issues he had last year: losing technique and getting cleanly beaten on routes, not recognizing where the ball was and generally looking lost in coverage. He gave up two penalties on the 49ers’ first touchdown drive. His only positive play came on a nice one-on-one tackle on a pass in the flat. Not a good night for Brown.

5. We can decisively end the “quarterback debate”

There’s been a tiny bit of advocating by some that there is some kind of competition between Cooper Rush and Dak Prescott for the starting quarterback competition.

Prescott showed yet again what team observers have said from day one: he’s much better in games than in practice.

There was much angst last week when Prescott struggled in the “blue/white” scrimmage. So what did he do in his first action against the 49ers’ starter?

He compiled a perfect passer rating while completing three passes on three attempts for 39 yards and a touchdown. He also added a 12-yard rush on third down for a first down, which is the kind of thing he’s been doing since entering the league. The touchdown pass was perfectly placed and allowed rookie Michael Gallup to make his first NFL catch a memorable one.

Cooper Rush did fine. Early on he did his best Romo impression, snagging an errant snap and completing the pass for a short gain. But he also badly underthrew a wide open Michael Gallup on a play where a decent pass results in a long touchdown. He also under-threw Tavon Austin on a play where Austin was blanketed in coverage by linebacker Reuben Foster.

6. The defense’s ball-hawking ways continued

One thing the Cowboys’ defense has been woefully inept at over the last... oh, eight years... is generating interceptions. The bend-but-don’t-break philosophy of coordinator Rod Marinelli, combined with modest talent at the corner and safety positions, means the Cowboys simply haven’t taken the ball away through the air much.

That simply hasn’t been the case in training camp. Instead, both youngsters and experienced veterans have been aggressive with numerous deflections and interceptions. That continued in the team’s first game with two picks from Joe and Duke Thomas.

More importantly, there were numerous deflections, resulting in turnover opportunities. In general the defenders seemed to be more aggressive and forward-facing, which should result in more turnovers in the long run.

7. Bonus observation: pay no attention to the score or what happened in the fourth quarter

Dallas lost this game because they gave up 14 fourth quarter points while the offense struggled in the four minute drill. This is meaningless. Why? Because the players on the field when this happened are not players who will be playing significant roles for either the Cowboys or the 49ers in 2018. In fact, the vast majority won’t be on either team’s roster.

I’ve been making this argument for years about why preseason games are largely meaningless. I wrote this...late in the second quarter:

Nick Mulllens? Joe Williams? Jeremy McNicholls? Pretty sure none of those guys will ever be heard from in terms of their NFL careers. Neither will the vast majority of Cowboys defenders on the field when the team surrendered the late lead.

I’m not being dismissive of these people. They’re outstanding athletes doing they’re best to craft a career in an unforgiving profession. But the reality is they’re not moving the needle on any NFL team’s fortunes in 2018 so I’m totally unconcerned with what happened during the fourth quarter.

And I’ll finish with my first observation: the very best thing that came out of the team’s first real action is no significant Cowboy suffered a significant injury. We should all be able to agree on that.

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