Saturday night in Denver was the first chance for the Dallas Cowboys to prove they’ve changed as a team, for better or worse, since their playoff loss to the 49ers. While the final score showed another loss, the preseason opener was all but an extension of the joint practice the Cowboys held against the Broncos earlier in the week. The better reminder of how last season ended were 17 penalties called on the Cowboys, a supposed point of emphasis this offseason after being the most penalized team in the NFL in 2021.
Many of the penalties were committed by players still fighting for their roster spots, and the majority of this game was played by Cowboys that weren’t on the field for last year’s loss to the Broncos. Still, the Cowboys have been looking for an edge with more physicality and discipline, and struggled to show either in their first live action of the season.
Here are a few takeaways from the Cowboys loss to the Broncos.
- The Cowboys starting defensive line did a great job of setting the tone early with their added size on the interior making an impact. Neville Gallimore made a splash play with his tackle for a loss, and Quinton Bohanna showed better movement ability compared to his rookie year. Without DeMarcus Lawrence on the field, Dan Quinn lined up veteran Tarell Basham as the stand up rusher at left end. Basham mostly had to play with his hand on the ground last season, but with other run stuffers on the field the Cowboys are in better position to let rushers like Basham, Dorance Armstrong, and Dante Fowler focus on getting to the quarterback.
- Aside from the ongoing kicker competition, the Cowboys have an intense battle for depth at cornerback. Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, and DaRon Bland all bring something different to the defense. Joseph had an inconsistent night, but did show some of the fluidity in man coverage that has Dallas excited about his potential as a second-round pick. While Joseph and Wright both gave up touchdown catches, rookie Bland built on his strong training camp by playing tight coverage and stepping up in run support. If that continues against opposing QBs the Cowboys could have a fifth-round steal that plays with the edge they’re looking for.
- The Cowboys have great versality at safety, but without Jayron Kearse it was interesting seeing Israel Mukuamu take some of the strong safety snaps in the box. On one throw against Joseph, Mukuamu was on the line of scrimmage while UDFA Markquese Bell provided help on the throw over the top. Mukuamu played corner and safety in college, and if he can add a hybrid role in nickel sets to his game, it gives Quinn yet another defensive back with plus size and ball skills to put on the field.
- Dennis Houston’s catch over the middle to convert a third and long is a concept we should see a lot of from CeeDee Lamb this season. The Cowboys won’t be giving away too many new wrinkles in their offense in the preseason, but there’s room to improve on their base concepts that weren’t consistent last year. Houston was lined up at the ‘X’ position that Lamb will start at on this play, and ran a great route over the middle while Jalen Tolbert cleared out the safety with a deeper middle route. This design suits Lamb’s run after the catch ability perfectly, and also let Tolbert show off his speed.
- The Cowboys don’t have their backup plan for Tyron Smith missing time yet, but got a good look at Josh Ball at left tackle against the Broncos. Ball struggled with his footwork and dealing with speed on the edge, but did show good strength in his hands and movement in the run game. If he does see playing time at either tackle spot, playing him next to Zack Martin or Tyler Smith could help the Cowboys get running backs to the second level. There is still a major need for another tackle that can hold up in pass protection on this roster though, as the Cowboys won’t have rookie Matt Waletzko back for weeks.
The Cowboys will be in action again at the Chargers next Saturday night, another team they’ll hold joint practices against on Wednesday and Thursday. While the ability to scout an opponent in practice before playing them is important, the Cowboys had the same opportunity against the Broncos and came away with more of the same internal issues to address. Cleaning up penalties, not allowing big plays down the field, and protecting their quarterbacks are an ongoing work in progress as the regular season rapidly approaches.