The Dallas Cowboys came out of their final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on the very short end of a 34-14 score, leaving them winless for the preseason. But the final score was, as always in August, absolutely meaningless. This was not a game with an important narrative of the ebb and flow leading to the final outcome. It was one for evaluating backups, with the entire starting roster and many key backups standing on the sidelines as spectators. That at least was the case for the Cowboys, who did not seem as bothered by the prospect of being winless in the preseason as the Jaguars.
No, this game was about individuals trying to show they deserve one of the very few spots on the 53 man roster that are still open or subject to change. It also served as a time for a few players who are making the roster, but need some playing time to hone their game and perhaps build some confidence for the staff in how they can contribute.
One thing to note was that the first half was the time we were much more likely to see players with a real shot at making the roster. After halftime, most of the players were more hoping to get a practice squad offer from Dallas or some other team. It would be extremely rare for one of those hopefuls to be signed to a roster somewhere else.
Another factor that should be kept in mind was that the Jaguars did play most of their starters in this game for the entire first quarter and into the second, including number one overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence at QB. It put the players taking the field for the Cowboys at the start of things at a bit of a disadvantage. It seemed that one team was playing to win this game, and the other wasn’t. It was a bit disappointing, but not entirely surprising that the ones for Jacksonville took a 14-0 lead just about a minute and a half into the second quarter.
Further, the Cowboys were relying on backup coordinators, as Dan Quinn remains in the COVID protocol and Kellen Moore was not handling the offense so he could focus on prepping for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joe Whitt Jr. called the defense, while Doug Nussmeier stepped in for Moore.
One player in “confirm it to the coaches” category was Cooper Rush. During the pregame program, Stephen Jones certainly talked like the backup quarterback position was Rush’s to lose. And he was certainly just not dealing with Garrett Gilbert or Ben DiNucci. He needed to convince that he is a better option than the many QBs that will become available as other teams make their cuts this week. With the Cowboys receiving the opening kickoff, he got his chance right off the bat. It did not go well to start, as he completed just one of three attempts on the first series as they went three and out. He would not be able to do much at all in the first quarter, but given the disparity in talent level he faced, it was not in any way a decisive factor for the QB2 decision.
Gilbert took over quarterback in the second quarter, and did nothing to further his chances on the first series as he failed to avoid another three and out. On the next series, Nussmeier put it all on him, going empty set on a third and three. He failed, and then converted the ensuing fourth and three with a sixteen yard conversion to Malik Turner. It was the first really exciting moment for the home crowd, and Gilbert kept the good feelings going, marching the team down the field and capping the drive with a touchdown to Aaron Parker. It also was the first opportunity for Greg Zuelein to score a point, which he did. The Houston Texans game flipped the script on the QB2 narrative for Dallas, and Gilbert reversed the trend with a much better performance than Rush. Yet it is realistic to say that the level of opposition largely invalidates that in this game. At halftime, Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com mentioned the possibility that the team might consider keeping both Gilbert and Rush, at least for the initial 53 man roster. It doesn’t seem that likely, but it may indicate that Ben DiNucci will get squeezed completely out of the organization, with either Rush or Cooper going there.
As for DiNucci, he was pretty much what we have seen all preseason. He had errant passes, sidearm throws, and failed to generate any offensive continuity until the late touchdown drive that was just a bit of consolation. If you didn’t think he belongs in this organization before, this game did nothing to change your mind.
Based on this, Malik Hooker was one player who was just on the field to get some needed reps after coming to the team so late in training camp.
Jerry Jones on @1053thefan removed any doubt about veteran safety Malik Hooker being on the team's 53-man roster. "There's no question hes gonna make the team."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 29, 2021
He did not have a great start, getting flagged on the pass play that led to the first score of the game, a very good throw from Lawrence. He would exit early and didn’t really leave much to evalutate.
There is a competition for the third running back spot, if the Cowboys do indeed carry one. It may be indicative of the state of that battle that Breden Knox took the field on the first offensive series before JaQuan Hardy came in on the second. Knox was the first to have an impact play, as he had a crucial 10 yard run to keep the third drive alive for the Cowboys when they were deep in their own end of the field. Hardy seemed to be getting more work once the game got to the second quarter, and started to make some plays, including an 11 yard run as the Cowboys began to find some success in the second quarter. And he opened the second half with a very solid special teams tackle. The two would continue to rotate throughout the game, and it was hard to declare who was the winner in their battle.
There is a similar situation at wide receiver. Malik Tuner and Simi Fehoko are both looking to make a persuasive argument for the team to carry a sixth one. Early on, Hooker looked more effective. However, as mentioned, Rush was having a hard time in the pocket as the Jaguars were deploying most of their starters on defense, and the second string Dallas offensive line was having a problem slowing the pass rush down. Fehoko looked better in the second quarter. It could be a matter of him having better chemistry with Gilbert, who was in at that point. In the third quarter, he added a very nice tackle on special teams, which can be a decisive element for the guys at the bottom of the roster. Turner would also leave the game after something happened while he was working on the punt coverage unit during the third. That may wind up being decisive if the team does carry a sixth WR. Injuries far too often make roster decisions for the team.
Luke Gifford was paired with Jabril Cox as the starting linebackers for the team. That points to him having a decent shot at making the roster as a special teams contributor, since those also need to have some value as backups at their primary position. Cox is not on a bubble at all, but he just solidified things as he combined with DT Justin Hamilton to pressure the quarterback and hold the Jags to a field goal in the second quarter. Cox would stay on the field for the entire game as the staff tries to prepare him for a significant role this year, and he and Gifford would be the top two tacklers for Dallas.
However, another depth player might have popped his own bubble. Although the apparent touchdown would be overturned on review, Deante Burton was badly beaten and failed to ever find the ball. The same thing would happen again inside the two minute warning of the first half. And after the intermission, the Jaguars would continue to target him. Additionally, he had a missed tackle where he was almost wrapped around the ball carrier before just sort of falling off. His might have been the worst performance of anyone on the Cowboys. He was one who certainly could not afford mistakes like that, but it was rather doubtful he would have made the team in any case.
Cox would continue to put in quality work in the second half, with a tackle for a loss. At this point, it was not unreasonable to wish the team would pull him from the field and make sure he stays healthy for the regular season.
One other rookie with a good chance, although not nearly as solid as Cox, is Israel Mukuamu, who finally got the Cowboys’ first interception of the preseason on a throw that Ron’Dell Carter changed the trajectory by getting his hand on the QB’s arm. After halftime, he showed his blitzing ability, pressuring Jacksonville’s third string QB Jake Luton into an incompletion on third down. But he let the Jaguars escape a third and thirty situation with a facemask violation. It was a terrible case of not staying aware of the situation.
With Connor Williams out under the COVID protocols, Matt Farniok handled the duties at center, and seemed to have no real issues, although some of this shotgun snaps were not perfect. More importantly, the broadcast had a brief montage of him facing off against the first team defenders for Jacksonville, and he handled it very well. It might give him a shot at making the roster for depth purposes. There is a good argument that he looked better in this game than the Connor Williams experiment at center ever did.
With the Jaguars driving rather effortlessly for the first score of the game, the defense clearly did not look good. But on the second Jacksonville drive of the game, Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright had good plays, Joseph with a solid tackle to limit a pass to a two yard gain, and Wright following up on the next snap to break up the third down pass and get the ball back for Dallas. But Joseph went to the medical tent and then the locker room, which was certainly concerning. Later reports indicated it is a groin problem, which is certainly a bad thing.
Ron’Dell Carter is thought to have a shot at making the team, largely for his special teams value, but he didn’t improve his chances by getting flagged for what was deemed an illegal hit on Lawrence. It might not have been as bad in the coach’s eyes, as the replay did not look that bad. That pressure that led to the Mukuamu interception, however, helped his case and showed he can bring some value as a pass rusher. Like Carter, DT Justin Hamilton is fighting to get onto the roster. He was active and forced a fumble.
Before the game, it was announced that about 30 Dallas players would be held out to protect them from injury. One of those turned out to be Ty Nsekhe, which is a good indication he has the swing tackle job nailed down. Terence Steele and perhaps Brandon Knight are likely left to hope that the team goes deep at the position to have a chance.The local broadcast of the game highlighted how Steele looked to be playing with too high a pad level, making it much harder to handle his assignments.
Quinton Bohanna is another player who seems almost certain to make the 53 given the lack of numbers at defensive tackle at least until Neville Gallimore returns. He had a missed tacle early, but made a very solid stop that helped the Cowboys force a punt once C.J. Beathard replaced Lawrence at QB. Stopping the run is a legitimate concern for Dallas, since they lost a few games last season at least partly due to an inability to do that.
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