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7 unexpected conclusions from Cowboys’ 17-7 preseason loss to the Broncos

We always see surprising things in the first game.

Dallas Cowboys v Denver Broncos
There is real depth at running back.
Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

One thing that we don’t value enough is how preseason football games can change our perceptions of players and entire teams. That is certainly true for me after the displeasing 17-7 loss suffered by the Dallas Cowboys at the hands of the Denver Broncos on Saturday. After writing the game recap and reviewing the game and other media coverage, several things are worthy of revision or discussion.

The irony of the running back depth

With Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard chilling on the sidelines, Rico Dowdle got the start as expected. He has been the RB3 throughout camp. He did not do badly, getting 36 yards on nine carries, and was more productive the further the game progressed. There was no surprise there.

What is surprising is that Dowdle may be in a much more heated competition to keep that RB3 spot. Malik Davis was the most impressive back of the game, hitting 51 yards on just eight attempts, or 6.4 yards a carry. Aaron Shampklin also merited some attention with his 4.6 yards a carry. All three of these players could well be on an NFL roster somewhere. It might be wise for Dallas to plan a special teams role for one of them and carry four.

So why is that ironic? It is because these backs all joined the team as UDFAs. The Cowboys have made Elliott one of the most highly-paid running backs in the league, including the most guaranteed money of all on his current deal. Yet we see once again that perfectly serviceable backs can literally be signed off the streets after the draft. Elliott was once a truly elite back, and there is some hope he can regain that status with last year’s injury behind him. Simultaneously we acknowledge that his contract is one of the worst deals from the team’s perspective of any in the league. Only some incredible foolishness and ineptitude by other teams including one that may or may not be in a city in Ohio not named Cincinnati keep Elliott’s contract from being at the top of that particular list.

This is a topic that we will revisit next offseason, because 2023 is the first year the team can viably move on from Elliott and his contract. However, that will be at least a tacit admission that they were wrong, and certain people who occupy the owner’s suite at AT&T Stadium are rather loathe to do that. Perhaps just as much as they are to part with cap space.

Some real hope for the running game in general

This may seem redundant, but it is about another factor, the lines. Both the offensive and defensive lines of the Cowboys were quite good here. Success running the ball is often more about the blocking than the talent of the backs, which just reinforces the point above. And Dallas got some good work there, particularly in the middle of the line.

The brain trust of the team has been openly stating that the running game is crucial to the success of the team this season. While that makes some of us cringe a bit due to the old school nature, they certainly took a big step in trying to make it work with the drafting of Tyler Smith in the first round. Most of the talk about him during the game centered around his two flags, which brought back the way he had issues there in college. But Brian Baldinger did a breakdown of his performance, and it offers some encouragement.

Smith’s issues last night were about technique, which is something that can be corrected. He could really pay off if he is coached up. And he was not the only element here. Tyler Biadasz and Connor McGovern also contributed to those good runs up the middle. Matt Farniok, Braylon Jones, and Alec Lindstrom also saw a good bit of work to contribute. When your backs are amassing over 100 yards in a preseason game, the line deserves a good bit of the credit.

It wasn’t just offense that was part of the running game discussion. Stopping the other team is equally as important. Against Denver, the Cowboys were nearly impenetrable, holding them to a paltry 38 yards excluding QB scrambles. They did play Neville Gallimore, one of the expected starters, but Quinton Bohanna also stood out in run defense along with the rest of the DTs. Trysten Hill and Chauncey Golston also had some good reps. Run defense was a problem last year. It is good to see things coming together there even in the first preseason game.

The cornerback depth chart got jumbled

It is a clear good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that Nahshon Wright, who was looking like a much improved player in practices, was flat out embarrassed on multiple passes. Kelvin Joseph also had some bad reps, although he was more of a mixed bag. The good news is that the team may have found something with fifth-round pick DaRon Bland. He was more than solid both against the run and in pass coverage. He was the third leading tackler, and it wasn’t on longer pass completions either. He also saw more snaps than any other defender. In his case, that was a good thing. There has been some concern about CB depth for the Cowboys. Bland offers some hope that is not so bad. We know that Joseph will make the 53-man roster, but if they only carry five this year, or if a sixth CB slot is reserved to keep ST ace C.J. Goodwin, Bland is a direct threat to Wright’s job with the team.

Zero clarity at kicker

The battle between Lirim Hajrullahu and Brett Maher basically was put on hold in this game. Mostly due to the general ineptitude on offense, there were only a single field goal attempt, one extra point, and two kickoffs to split up between the two. The lone FG attempt by Hajrullahu was further hampered by wet conditions at the time that seemed to cause a bad hold by Bryan Anger. The team failed to get much needed data from the game. The uncertainty over the position continues.

A huge step back for Cooper Rush

Last year, Rush performed well enough for the team to give him the QB2 job. With Will Grier nursing a groin problem, Rush had a golden opportunity to advance his case. He totally failed, putting up a dismal 12 for 20 stat line with just 84 yards and an interception, giving him a 48.8 QBR. Ben DiNucci may have passed him at least temporarily on the depth chart by going 9 for 16 for 112 yards in less time on the field. The Nooch gave the team a bit of a lift in leading them to their lone score of the game, a very nice touchdown throw to Simi Fehoko. His tendency to go sidearm is still often unnecessary, but his decision making seemed better than last year.

The backup tackle situation remains dire, but an unexpected yet familiar name offers a tiny glimmer of hope

Josh Ball was bad, but that is not really surprising after he effectively redshirted his rookie season. Still, with Matt Waletzko out with injury, this is really disturbing for a team that has Tyron Smith as a starter. The injury history there is well known.

But this was something that wasn’t expected.

Some context is important here, as Ball was mostly playing against second stringers for the Broncos while Alarcón was up against threes and fours. But Ball was out there for 71% of the snaps, so he faced some of the down roster guys for the Broncos as well. So did Aviante Collins, who led all offensive players with 73%, and he was not any better. Pass protection is more important for the OT position. This team has to keep Dak Prescott healthy to have any chance this year. One story you may have missed is that the team had come into this offseason with a plan to convert Alarcón to guard, but switched him back to working at tackle during camp. We may be seeing why.

The swing tackle for this year is still probably not on the roster. But that hinges on Stephen Jones dipping into his dry powder and using some of that salary cap space. That is hardly a given. If they foolishly persist in trying to find the backup tackle from names currently on the roster, Alarcón is a player to watch. If he starts getting snaps in the final preseason games ahead of Ball, it means the staff may think they have something.

Where was the pass rush?

The defensive end depth was supposed to be good. But against the Denver backups, the Cowboys could not muster a single sack, and often had little pressure at all. Dante Fowler looked good before Mike McCarthy sat him following a penalty. Sam Williams was flagged on what looked like a very questionable roughing call. Still there was just no effective rush for most of the game. That did the secondary no favors, either. This is a bit concerning even with DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, and Dorance Armstrong sitting things out. The depth was disappointing given all the hype from camp.

Those were the things that were in need of reassessment after further thought on the game. All are very much subject to further revision in the final two preseason games. But they definitely need to get better.

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