It was the much anticipated dress rehearsal game for the Dallas Cowboys as they faced off against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium. The final score was a 20-14 loss for Dallas, but that was hardly indicative of the way the Cowboys dominated so much of the game. It was a trio of mistakes by a couple of backup quarterbacks that handed 14 points to the Texans. Outside of that, Dallas badly outgained them and stifled their offense almost completely outside of the drives following the three Cowboys giveaways, not allowing a third down conversion the entire game.
Before the game even started, however, there was something that was at least as important as what happened during.
After 17 warmup throws from 10 to 20 yards, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott held a workout tonight during which he completed 51 of 52 passes on air to RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR T.J. Vasher. On lone miss, Prescott was too long on deep throw to Elliott down right boundary. pic.twitter.com/Plrerrroug— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 21, 2021
After a day of dueling reports as to whether he would or would not be ready to play, this certainly made it look like Dak Prescott was on track for the start of the regular season. In that respect alone, this was a win for Cowboys fans.
But there was a game, one that was highly anticipated because it featured most of the starters on both sides at the beginning. It was very encouraging to see the starters on the offensive line all on the field, but the results of the opening drive after Dallas received the kickoff were not good at all. First, Garrett Gilbert went down when Zack Martin stepped on his foot, which seems like an error by the quarterback in not moving back fast enough. Then on third down, Gilbert clearly hesitated too long in the pocket with both an open receiver and room to take off and run, and instead had the ball stripped from him. That put the defense in a bad situation with the Texans taking the ball over at the Cowboys’ 23. Aided by a play where the defense seemed lined up wrong, they quickly punched it in to take a 7-0 lead. But of interest is that the plan at linebacker appears to be Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal on passing down or against 11 personnel, and Parsons, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch on running downs.
Gilbert started the next series with a 13-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb. He would have other completions to Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard to get to midfield, but the running game was misfiring badly, and the Cowboys had to punt.
The defense had a much more favorable situation after the punt, with the Texans starting from their own 11. Anthony Brown is another player who appears to be starting in the regular season, and already had a pass defended and a tackle by the end of the second Houston possession, which was a three and out.
While it looked like most of the starters were still on the field for Dallas’ third offensive possession, Cooper Rush came in. And immediately things looked better, with Pollard getting the first good run of the game for 16 yards. Next, a 26-yard pass interference call got them into Houston territory. After an end around lost four yards, Rush found Blake Jarwin doing what he does best, running down the seam for a big gain of 25. Then the Cowboys got a touchdown on a screen to Pollard. It was a quick 75-yard drive, and would be the last we would see of most of the starters on offense.
And that opens a very interesting question. Are we sure that Garrett Gilbert has a lock on the backup QB job? Based on the results of the first quarter, it certainly looks like something that needs to be revisited. Rush just added fuel to the fire with a 13-play, 85-yard drive capped by a beautiful throw to the Cedrick Wilson in the right corner of the end zone, proving he can indeed score in the red zone. Rico Dowdle looked very good running the ball, and Noah Brown looked even better receiving it. Wilson and Brown are WR4 and WR5, and both certainly looked like they could be of help this season.
One note for the game on defense was that DC Dan Quinn and DT Carlos Watkins were not available tonight due to COVID precautions. But even without them, the defense looked sharp again, stuffing a couple of runs then using some Parsons pressure to lead to an incompletion and another three and out.
Without the starters, things were a bit more ragged, as you might expect. One starter who did stay on the field was Tyler Biadasz. Was this because they just don’t have a solution behind him, or were they trying to get him a little more work after Connor Williams took so many snaps earlier? On that subject, the Williams experiment at center is clearly not over, as resumed work their during the second quarter once Biadasz was done for the night.
The special teams had their own problems, letting Desmond King II get 24 yards when he seemed to bounce off of every cover man except punter Bryan Anger, who finally brought him down.
While he has taken a lot of criticism, Jaylon Smith had a sure tackle in coverage to set up a fourth down, where Osa Odighizuwa was the main reason the ball would go over on downs.
The second period was a bit unbalanced, as the Cowboys were going with their backups on offense, but still had most of the starters out on defense. And special teams continued their disappointing play as they almost allowed a blocked punt, and then had to redo it all after an illegal man downfield plus five more for a false start. You never want to see a fourth and 30. But Anger boomed one 59 yards to give the defense a bit more room to work.
It has to be acknowledged that no one expects the Texans to have much of a team with their quarterback situation and some other noticeable weaknesses on the roster. Still, they seemed to have absolutely nothing against the Cowboys’ defensive starters, putting up three three and outs in four possessions, with the other being the six-play drive that ended with the fourth down stuff. They would not have a single third down conversion in the first half.
It is something you have heard before, but Micah Parsons continues to show that he is going to be a star. He seemed to be everywhere, tackling runners, tracking down the quarterback, and breaking up passes.
The first half ended with a 14-7 lead for the Cowboys, despite having essentially staked the Texans to a touchdown lead at the start. While it was far from ideal, it was easily the most encouraging performance of the preseason. Again, the issues of the opponent must be noted. Still, there were more good things than bad for the starters, and the second string offense had a strong showing as well. As for the defense, the longest play they gave up to Houston in the first half was eight yards.
The second half was back to the main work of preseason, evaluating the depth and sorting out who will make the 53-man roster. It certainly did not turn out to be a show of competency by Dallas, particularly on offense. One player who is certain to make the team is Jabril Cox, but he was not playing like he was safe, getting two tackles on the first drive of the second half. And Malik Hooker was also on the field making tackles.
Ben DiNucci was the leader of the offense in the second half. With his spotty play so far in preseason, he needed to show some value to at least get a practice squad offer. He certainly tried with one nice play, even though it was negated by offsetting penalties. He hit Aaron Parker for 36 yards on arguably the best pass he has thrown this summer. Even though it didn’t count in the game, he noted an offsides flag was thrown and capitalized on what was supposed to be a free play. However, he may have washed out all the good will with a pick-six he threw midway through the third quarter. He seems to be trying to make plays when he should be throwing the ball away, which may be great for practice, but probably is not what the coaches want to see in game action. And a second interception on a drive that could have tied the score or gotten a lead in the fourth quarter just hurt his case even more, and set up the Texans for their final points of the game. Things just got worse for him when a last gasp drive was also cut short by a pick he threw. It is hard to understand what role DiNucci has on this team, even on the practice squad. He must truly be a great scout team QB.
With the ongoing concerns about the center position, it is worth mentioning that Matt Farniok handled those duties with the third string. It might not be enough to get him on the 53, but might make him a priority for the practice squad if it doesn’t.
Further analysis of how the depth chart might stack up will have to rely on some snap count examination. But defensively the team looks very ready for the season, and the offense should really begin to click when Prescott is on the field for the regular season.
With the dress rehearsal officially in the books we have a lot of thoughts. At the time of this publishing we are LIVE on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel (make sure to subscribe... which you can do right here) for our official Postgame Show. You can always re-watch this on your own time or listen to the podcast. Make sure to subscribe to our podcast network wherever you get your podcasts. Apple devices can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.