The first preseason game is in the books for the Dallas Cowboys. That means we have some numbers to crunch from the (meaningless) loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Now, stat sheet scouting is something that is fraught with danger, but when you combine it with what you see watching the game, there are some lessons to be learned. Here are eight things that jump out from the NFL stats for the game.
1. Brief perfection
Dak Prescott had a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Of course, he was only in for ten plays, and threw only three passes. But all were completions, including that very encouraging 30-yard TD pass to rookie Michael Gallup. The takeaway here is that, as he has done in the past, Prescott was a better game player than he has been at times in practice. That is definitely good news.
2. Spreading the wealth passing
Sixteen players caught balls in the game. That in itself shows that the offense is not going to flow through just one or two receivers as it did when Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were on the field. And of course Cole Beasley was not with the team as he works through a groin issue. But still, it was very encouraging to see so many names. And it included not just wide receivers and tight ends, but running backs and even fullback Jamize Olawale. Oh, and Lance Lenoir just strengthened his case to be on the roster with his touchdown grab in the third quarter.
Perhaps more importantly, no receiver caught more than two passes, and none were targeted more than four times in the game. We are all hoping for a less predictable offensive plan, and this is the first hard evidence that we are going to get exactly that.
3. Running back depth looks good
105 yards rushing, and that was with Ezekiel Elliott having the night off as well. It didn’t slow the ground game at all. The top three runners were Bo Scarbrough, Rod Smith, and Darius Jackson. All had decent yards per carry numbers, with Scarbrough’s impacted a bit by the two carries from the one-yard line to get the second touchdown of the game. Smith is a lock to make the roster, and right now Scarbrough looks to have the lead for the RB3 job, especially in light of the heavy usage he had on special teams (he was in on 46% of all ST plays, and seemed to be part of the plan for kickoff coverage).
4. Linebacker depth looks even better
Two of the top four tacklers were reserve linebackers. Last season, the absence of Sean Lee was basically a disaster for the Cowboys. But with him also sitting out the SF game, the team didn’t miss a beat at linebacker. Jaylon Smith was moving very well, Joe Thomas was excellent, tied for the lead in tackles with five overall, and Leighton Vander Esch had a good night as well. LVE was not spectacular, but he was tied for third in total tackles, and flashed some impressive ability to cover ground. With Damien Wilson and Justin March-Lilliard, the linebacking corps is solid from top to bottom - through one preseason game, at least.
5. Batted passes
Dallas had an impressive ten passes defended, and at least four of them were batted balls from Kavon Frazier, Taco Charlton, Jihad Ward, and Richard Ash. Those last three are the most encouraging sign, as having your defensive linemen get a hand on the ball kills plays and, as it did in this game, leads to interceptions.
6. Stopping the run up front
Two tackles for loss by defensive tackles. While everyone expects the QB pressure to come from the defensive end talent the Cowboys have, there has been some concern about the run defense, especially from the defensive tackles. Well, that went very well for Dallas. There were five tackles for loss in the game, and as noted, two of them were by defensive linemen, Jihad Ward and Datone Jones. The defensive line totaled 15 tackles, with Brian Price tying Joe Thomas for the team lead. When you are getting the ballcarrier stopped that much by your line, they are doing a good job bottling things up.
7. Special teams work
The Cowboys use special teams snaps to evaluate their roster, and those can make a difference. The team often carries a player to be a special teams ace. J.J. Wilcox stuck with the team for a while largely because of his ST value, and that is how Jeff Heath first made his way onto the team.
While many players that get a lot of ST snaps don’t wind up making the team, based on a quick review of the past couple of seasons, there are some that do ride them onto the roster. Three names stood out from the 49ers game. As mentioned above, Scarbrough may have a leg up for the RB3 job because of his work. Dalton Schultz was in even more, on 54%. His spot on the 53-man roster seems pretty solid. And Jameill Showers was used on 58%, second only to Justin March-Lillard among all non-specialists. His chances of making the 53-man roster are certainly slim, but it looks like the coaching staff is trying to give him every chance to find a way. The team has held on to him now for three seasons in one way or another. Somebody likes him and he may be a real dark horse to watch.
One other name also jumped out. Lance Lenoir only had five special teams plays, but he was the only punt returner to touch the ball. Given that he is in a fight for what may be the last wide receiver spot on the team, this could be an indication that the coaches also want to give him the best chance possible.
In the NFL, you take a plus three margin any game. One of the most important stats is the turnover margin, and although the final score did not reflect it, the Cowboys won this battle handily. They did not lose the ball to SF at all, and intercepted two passes plus added a forced fumble and recovery from Charles Tapper. If they keep that up during the regular season, it should lead to very good things.
Those were some key stats and observations from the game. There were a lot of others, but these look to be some of the more significant. Preseason games are all about seeing what you have and figuring out how to build that regular season roster. Trends are important, so we will revisit the stat sheet after each preseason game - and into the regular season.