The Dallas Cowboys had a surprisingly dominant performance against the Houston Texans in their third preseason game. That adds some extra challenges to looking at the stats, which is already a bit difficult this time of year. Things were overwhelmingly positive. That is not always as informative as clear mistakes. Additionally, preseason games are their own thing. They are really just glorified full-speed practices against a live opponent. Nothing counts. Further, teams often do things and roll out personnel that will never be seen after August ends. It makes digging into the stats from these games a bit challenging. There are some ways to use them, though. One is to look for trends that can be projected into the regular season. Progression and development for the newer players can be observed and gauged. And perhaps of most interest, we can sometimes find clues as to who will be in and who leaves when the cutdown comes on the last day of August.
Here are four things that stuck out when digging into the numbers.
This is always one of the most telling stats from any game, and just as everywhere else, the Cowboys completely dominated things. They took the ball away from the Texans four times, evenly split between fumbles and interceptions. Just as importantly, they did not turn it over once. There were a couple of passes that certainly could have been picked off by Houston, but weren’t, so they are nothing more than “what ifs.”
This is one trend that we earnestly want to see continue. The Cowboys have been pretty good in this area all preseason. They have taken it away eight times, and only lost it three. Keep up that kind of margin in the regular season, and you are going to have a lot more wins than losses. Given how badly they have done in recent seasons in this department, this could be a major improvement.
We do have to caution that turnovers are one of the most random things in football. However, Dak Prescott is very good at protecting the ball. And heavy defensive pressure can increase the number of times the other guys give it away. That was on full display this game. Two players in particular stood out, and will hopefully keep this development going during the real games.
Against Houston, Taco Charlton was just a beast, getting two forced fumbles and playing a role in the interceptions with the best pressure he has ever brought since being drafted. That’s great, but despite his tremendous half of play, he is still going to be a rotational player.
More exciting to contemplate is the emergence of rookie safety Donovan Wilson. He now has two interceptions in three preseason games, and had C.J. Goodwin not gotten there first, would probably have nabbed another.
Dallas has been missing a true ballhawk in the secondary. As we keep reminding ourselves, this is just preseason. But if Wilson can carry this into the regular season, he may well wind up either winning the starting job from Jeff Heath (who, frankly, is better utilized as a backup/special teams guy), or at the least will see a lot of action.
Oh, and just a reminder. Remember how upset so many were when the Cowboys waited so long to address the safety position in the draft, and refused to go heavy into the free agent market? Good times.
Kellen and the backups
A week ago, Cooper Rush had a pretty good game and helped reduce the anxiety about the backup quarterback position. He had another decent outing against the Texans, particularly in terms of volume stats. Mike White struggled through the first two preseason games, but finally looked like he just might belong out there with a really solid performance in his one quarter of work, including a rather impressive drive culminating in a touchdown pass.
If you are trying to sort out roster jobs, it looks like Rush will be the QB2 and White has a decent shot at the practice squad - a real improvement in the latter’s prospects. But it also may say something about the advent of Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, and the relative experience levels of all of the quarterbacks. Prescott is entering his fourth year and has taken to things under Moore like a duck to water. Rush has two years under his belt, and needed a bit longer, but things clicked a week ago for him. White is just a second-year player, so it should be no surprise he was the last to get a handle on Moore’s offense. The play of Rush and White may be far more about lack of experience than talent. Prescott, of course, has had all the experience possible in his first three years in the league.
No disrespect to Taryn Christion, but he is not with Dallas to compete for any kind of quarterback job. He is there to replace Jameill Showers, who has used up his practice squad eligibility. The flexibility Showers had was very valuable, enough so that the team took the effort to find a replacement.
Wide receiver battle
The top four jobs seem locked up, but the fight for the fifth and possibly sixth wide receiver spots is still very much up in the air, and the snap counts from the game show just how close things are. There are four main contenders here. Unfortunately for Jalen Guyton, he no longer seems to be in the thick of things, as he saw the fewest snaps of any of the group of hopefuls, getting 24 reps or 28% of the offensive plays.
The rest of the real challengers were in a dead heat. Devin Smith got 48 plays, while Cedrick Wilson, Reggie Davis, and Jon’Vea Johnson all were just two snaps behind, each logging 46 of the offensive plays. This certainly looks like the staff is trying to sort through that quartet to figure out how to handle them when the cut down comes in just a week.
Based on targets and receptions, Smith and Wilson are the top two. Smith led all receivers with six catches on ten targets for 79 yards. Wilson was third overall, and second among WRs, snagging three of the four balls that came his way for 37 yards. Despite being on the field for the same amount of time, Davis and Johnson only had one grab apiece, while Guyton was not even targeted.
That really tips how things are going to go. Wilson might get the nod if the team only carries five WRs, based on his longer time in the organization. He and Smith are very difficult to separate on any qualitative basis. But where Wilson has an advantage is his role as a punt returner. His excellent return in the second quarter carries more weight in these roster decisions than you might realize. Smith gets in if they carry six, which seems the likely number. If he is on the 53-man roster, he is a prime candidate for the inactive list each game, serving more as injury insurance. Johnson is probably first in line to go to the practice squad.
Noah Brown was supposed to be in the mix here, but remains on PUP. It really looks like he will still be there to start the season, or may be stashed on IR. The Cowboys still have him under contract in 2020, and may want to put him in storage, so to speak.
Running back questions
The prolonged holdout by Ezekiel Elliott has seen the emergence of Tony Pollard as a real weapon. That’s great. But the third running back for the team remains uncertain. As with the wide receivers, Darius Jackson, Alfred Morris, Jordan Chunn, and Mike Weber saw similar levels of work, with similar output for most of them. Jackson had the best efficiency of the four, averaging five yards a carry. Chunn added two pass receptions, one for a TD, to his totals. And Morris of course had the second effort touchdown run that showed his veteran savvy and instincts. Weber is the lone name from this group to not really have something to point to. He has been something of a disappointment and seems to have no chance of making the roster at this point.
For the remaining three, the special teams work may be the deciding factor. Chunn got the heaviest ST workload, but Jackson was not far behind. Morris didn’t play teams, is basically holdout insurance, and when Elliott returns, Morris is going to be looking for another opportunity. The RB3 job will come down to Chunn vs. Jackson, and in this case, the final preseason game may be where things get decided.
Those were some of the more definable things I saw in the stat sheet. All have potential implications for Dallas. Soon, the games will count, and the dive into the stats will have more to tell us about how things are going.