It wasn’t much, but football is officially back! With many of the Cowboys’ star players, Dak Prescott included, not even making the trip to Canton, and fewer even playing in the Hall of Fame game against the Steelers, there wasn’t a whole lot to get out of this one besides seeing a live football game on our televisions.
Still, there were a few fun moments in Thursday night’s game, as well as some concerning moments. For those who are interested in what the defense looks like under Dan Quinn, we got an early look at it with the Steelers getting the ball to start. There was no DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but Micah Parsons recovered a fumble on the opening drive. The Cowboys’ top rookie has been impressing all throughout training camp, and that continued Thursday. Parsons was seemingly all over the field - well, for the brief time he was on the field - and making plays.
The “first team” offense was anything but, with only four projected starters suiting up. Garrett Gilbert started out under center, and he was arguably the sharpest quarterback for either team. He had a couple of wild throws here and there, but finished 9/13 with 104 yards. There were several times with Gilbert where the offense really got moving, but always fizzled out once they got into scoring position.
With Ezekiel Elliott sitting this one out, Tony Pollard got the start but Rico Dowdle saw the lion’s share of carries early on. Still, Dowdle ran with strength and conviction, looking like someone who’s already locked up a roster spot. In terms of pass catchers, there were a few bright spots from Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson, and Sean McKeon before the “first team” offense cycled out.
And when they did, that was more or less when the offense stopped moving the ball. Even so, the Cowboys only managed three points. That’s because backup punter Hunter Niswander was handling field goals with Greg Zuerlein out and, well, there’s a reason Niswander is a punter and not a kicker. His one made field goal was shaky, and it’s obvious that placekicking is not his skill as he missed twice. Let’s hope Greg the Leg makes a speedy return.
A common problem for the Cowboys offense, especially as the game went on, was the offensive line. Swing tackle Ty Nsehke started out at left tackle and got beat quite a few times, as did Brandon Knight. Connor Williams played second-team center, as he’s been doing a lot of in training camp, and had a few snaps that looked high. When Williams was relieved by rookie Matt Farniok, that trend continued. Isaac Alarcon and Braylon Jones both struggled mightily at each guard spot as well. The bright side is that starters La’el Collins and Tyler Biadasz both looked good in their few snaps, but the depth behind these starters clearly needs some work.
After Gilbert came out, Cooper Rush was the next quarterback in. On his first series, Rush looked to be fairly comfortable, but his throws got more erratic as his time went on. Sewo Olonilua, the first-team fullback, started seeing some work as a running back late in the second quarter as well; he finished with two carries for one yard. Malik Turner had a few really nice catches as well, but his most memorable one featured him fumbling the ball after the catch.
Defensively, the second team saw a bit of a dropoff in production, although they still kept Pittsburgh scoreless heading into halftime. Rookies Quinton Bohanna and Osa Odighizuwa both had various flash plays where they got penetration, even if it didn’t result in a tackle or sack. Additionally, edge rusher/linebacker Azur Kamara popped a few times purely for his workmanlike hustle on plays. Israel Mukuamu also had a great pass breakup patrolling the middle of the field where his length greatly contributed to him being able to make the play. All in all, the first half of football offered a promising first look at the Cowboys defense.
That didn’t last in the second half, where the Steelers put up all 16 of their points and largely moved the ball with ease. Even so, there were a few highlights here and there. Reggie Robinson, in his debut back at cornerback, put up a few good plays: he forced a fumble that the Steelers recovered, played close to his receivers in coverage, and made a tough tackle on third down while getting stiff-armed. Later in the fourth quarter, though, Robinson’s loose coverage near the endzone resulted in a pretty easy touchdown for Pittsburgh.
Nahshon Wright had a good night as well, playing a good bit throughout and showcasing just how much his insane size helps him. There was one play early on where Chase Claypool narrowly beat him on a fly route, but the replay revealed a push-off from the receiver. The rest of the night, Wright was frequently mixing it up with receivers at the catch point and making sound tackles. The recently signed cornerback Kyron Brown also had a nice tackle for loss in what was a solid showing for some of these younger corners.
On offense, it was all Ben DiNucci time and it went about as well as the last time it was DiNucci time. To be fair, the Nooch did look to have improved his throwing form somewhat, but the dreaded side-arm came back whenever he was rushed in his throws. The issue is that happened far too often. Ultimately, DiNucci did nothing to change the minds of anyone one way or the other. His interception on a deep pass was indicative of some poor, rushed decision-making that’s been an issue for DiNicci.
The only other turnover for the Cowboys came when Reggie Davis muffed a punt return after letting it bounce in front of him. For a guy like Davis, who will need to impress and then some just to make the roster, this felt like one of those crucial mistakes for the guys who desperately need these preseason games to make their case.
Overall, this was exactly what we expected from the first preseason game. It gave a good look at some of the lesser known guys on this roster, but it’s not much to go off of. The next preseason game will likely give fans a chance to get a look at the bigger names. But for just tonight, it was enough to just see a football game again.
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