The score doesn’t matter in preseason games. So the fact the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Arizona Cardinals by a 19-16 score is not important. The important thing is learning more about the team and evaluating the players. And for the Cowboys, it was most decidedly a mixed bag.
The start of the game was not a good sign for the Cowboys offense. If there was one major factor, it may have been the Connor Williams experiment at center. He had two drive-killing bad snaps. It put Garrett Gilbert in bad positions, and he was not able to do enough on his other plays to overcome things. Twice the Cowboys stalled despite Mike McCarthy going for every fourth down on the Arizona side of the 50. It didn’t help to have some drops from Michael Gallup and Noah Brown mixed in. The struggles by Williams put the entire idea of using him as the backup to Tyler Biadasz under a bit of a shadow. It also made it a bit hard to get a good read on Gilbert as the QB2. However, his decision making was at times certainly questionable.
That probably was a big factor in putting Biadasz in for the third drive of the game, and it did seem to settle Gilbert. He had a very nice throw under pressure for 34 yards to Cedrick Wilson. But this drive also stalled, and Dallas had to settle for a Hunter Niswander field goal. (Bryan Anger was active as the punter for this game.)
Defensively there were some high points, as Keanu Neal recovered his own forced fumble and the Cowboys got three sacks in the first half. Micah Parsons looked fast and fierce again, including being there when Neal got his strip and getting in on four tackles. He did not lead the team in the first half, however, as Dorance Armstrong had five tackles, including two of the sacks and nearly getting an interception off a ball he batted up in the air late in the first half. But a potentially major injury clouded things as Neville Gallimore was helped off the field with an arm injury. Judging by his face, he was in a lot of pain. That could be the most important single thing of the game as Gallimore was set to be a starter for the defense. It would not be good for the Cowboys to have to come up with a plan B at DT. We’ll have to see what the medicals show after he returns to Dallas.
#Cowboys promising DL Neville Gallimore suffered a hypertension of his left elbow, source said. He’s in a lot of pain but will have an MRI tomorrow to determine the severity.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 14, 2021
He was not the only injury, as Sean McKean was hurt in the second quarter with a reported ankle problem and ruled out for the rest of the game.
Rico Dowdle would have a fumble in the second quarter that set up the Cardinals for the first touchdown of the game. For the Cowboys, the real issue was their own inability to get into the end zone. They failed to find the end zone against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, and Gilbert again failed to lead them to a touchdown. But you do have to wonder what might have happened if the team had reversed the usage of Biadasz and Williams at center. The entire offense seemed to play better with 63 snapping the ball. They kept Biadasz in for Cooper Rush, and things went better even though the rest of the line were backups. Rush led the team inside the 20, including converting a fourth down. But they stalled one more time. Niswander converted again, leading to a 10-6 halftime score.
Among the receivers, no one stood out. Cedrick Wilson was probably the best, as he had a really good 34 yard reception on Gilbert’s best throw of the game. Simi Fehoko did have one nice catch, and Malik Turner showed he is Fehoko’s biggest competition for a possible WR6 spot with a pair of catches.
Another less than impressive performance came from the special teams, who allowed too many return yards in coverage. All in all, the first half was a bit more sloppy than you want to see from a team that already had their first preseason game behind them. It was admittedly a battle of the backups, but it is not a good sign for the depth. And after the surprisingly clean game against the Steelers, it was a bit disappointing to see the Cowboys draw four flags in the first half.
The Cardinals got the ball coming out of halftime, and the Dallas defense did not get off to a good start. A missed sack by Bradlee Anae kept the drive alive and was followed up Eno Benjamin going up the middle for 38 yards as the run D looked reminiscent of the many failures of 2020. But they stiffened nicely in the red zone, highlighted by a nice pass breakup by Kelvin Joseph and overall general good coverage on third down. Keeping Arizona to 3 was a bit of a win for Dan Quinn’s bunch.
The second half was expected to feature a lot of Ben DiNucci, but Rush remained on the field for the Cowboys on their first drive after the intermission. He got some nice help from UDFA RB JaQuan Hardy to move the chains and a deep completion to Reggie Davis, plus ran for one first down himself. But once in the red zone, things stalled again, and Malik Turner was shaken up laying out for a pass that was out of bounds. They had to once again settle for a Niswander FG attempt, which he again converted. Maybe that is one backup plan that may be coming together for the team.
However, it must be noted that Rush looked better than Gilbert. The assumption has been that the QB2 job is Gilbert’s to lose. One game may not be enough to change that, but if this trend continues for the next two preseason games, it may warrant a rethinking of things.
After the defense stopped what looked an awful lot like a college offensive series that tried to rely on quarterback Chris Streveler’s legs, we finally got to see Dinucci take the field with a lot to prove as he tries to at least hang onto a chance at the practice squad. He only had a little more than sixteen minutes left to work. He got off to a decent start with a 17 yard screen to UDFA Brendan Knox. The Cowboys probably won’t carry more than three running backs on the 53 man roster, but there is some pretty good depth at the position with Hardy and Knox.
After the start of the fourth quarter, DiNucci missed a great opportunity to help himself when he underthrew a pass to Reggie Davis, who had beaten his man. He would overthrow another one to Aaron Parker, but got a solid conversion on fourth down with a pass to Semi Fehoko, who also did himself some good in this game. It also had a personal foul tacked on. Then DiNucci showed a bit of speed getting out of the pocket and running it down to the Arizona 13. Knox got inside the one yard line on a run up the middle to set up first and goal. And the Cowboys finally found paydirt and a lead in the fourth quarter on a patented sidearm DiNucci pass to UDFA WR Brandon Smith. After seven TD free quarters in preseason, the Nooch momentarily became the hero.
In the regular season, this would have been Ezekiel Elliott time, but he was with Dak Prescott on the sidelines. Instead, the Cowboys fed Hardy, who had five straight carries before an incomplete pass stalled things and they had to punt it away. That led to a 48 yard Matt Prader field goal and a 16-16 tie inside of two minutes.
Arizona used all out blitzes to befuddle DiNucci and stop the Cowboys. Then a visibly tired Dallas defense let the Cardinals drive down to allow Prader to win the game with a 47 yard kick. It was a suitably disappointing end to a game that was overall not very pleasant to watch.
Some other notes:
Jabril Cox had a nice overall game, but needs to work on locating the ball in the air. Hardy had a great carry, looking like he was stopped for a loss, then getting outside for a first down. Davis had that 32 yard catch with defensive backs sandwiching him and could have had another with a better throw. Nahshon Wright continued to show up both at corner and on special teams. Israel Mukuamu also may have something. Osa Odighizuwa continues to look good in the middle. The ST coverage got better as the game went on. Anthony Hines III was another injury, on a kickoff, which brought the total of hurt Dallas players to four, always something you hate to see. Quinton Bohanna showed some impressive penetration on a play late in the game. The Cardinals did not seem to be very vanilla in their play calling.
If there is one thing that teams seek to find in preseason games, it is some clarity about their roster. That was not exactly accomplished. Yes, some players had good games, but things like the hierarchy at backup QB and that plan for a backup center did not exactly crystalize. The defense did look better than the offense, which in light of last year is a positive development. There is still a lot of work to be done in the final two preseason games, and we’ll be here to keep you informed.
At the time of publishing we are live on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel for our Postgame Show discussing everything that we just saw. If you are a late arrival you can always re-watch the show as well. Make sure to subscribe to our channel (which you can do right here) so you don’t miss out on any of our videos! We will have highlights from Friday night’s game up on Saturday, too.