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Standouts and struggling players from the first preseason game: Second-year CBs disappoint

It wasn’t all bad, but the list of struggling Cowboys players is not short.

Dallas Cowboys v Denver Broncos Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

For the first time in 209 days, the Dallas Cowboys took the field again. That means that last year’s team had 5,016 hours to improve on a 12-5 season and fix up the areas that led to a first-round exit. But it took three hours for the Cowboys to remind fans what that all-to-familiar emotion of disappointment feels like.

This is still the preseason. That loss will not show up on the final record, the seven total points scored will not be used as a tiebreaker, and the seventeen penalties will not be calculated in the season-long total. But the game was not meaningless because players who are on the bubble to make the roster saw significant playing time.

Here are a few who stood out and a couple of disappointing performances.


Dallas Cowboys v Denver Broncos Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

Honorable Mentions:

  • UDFA rookie running backs: Rico Dowdle was the most experienced player to see a rushing attempt. But Aaron Shampklin and Malik Davis were the two best backs on the field. As undrafted rookies, the duo saw 15 carries and five targets, turning it into 83 rushing yards and 16 receiving yards.
  • Rookie tight ends: Of the Cowboys pass-catchers who saw more than three targets against the Broncos, three were tight ends, one was a running back, and two were receivers. Peyton Hendershot and Jake Ferguson were both reliable in their preseason debut, specifically later in the game. The pair combined for seven targets, five receptions, and 42 yards. For two college prospects with question marks about their pass-catching ability, it was a solid outing for both of them.

Now, the biggest standouts from Saturday’s action:

DaRon Bland

If you have noticed the trend, all three of our winners so far are rookies. While Nahshon Wright, and to a lesser extent, Kelvin Joseph, have been in the spotlight lately for their performance in camp, it was the rookie CB Bland who looked the best on Saturday.

Bland finished the night with 35 snaps, seven targets, and only two receptions allowed. Those two receptions went for a whopping two yards, which is by far the fewest yards allowed by any Dallas cornerback against the Broncos.

Bland put up a near-perfect game. He saw the most snaps of any secondary player and finished with a 39.6 passer rating allowed. The first pass in Bland’s direction ended with a near-textbook wrap-up tackle and body slam to the turf. He set the tone early.

After Saturday night’s showing from the DBs, it would seem that Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs, and Jourdan Lewis have the starting jobs locked up. But there is now a real battle brewing for the fourth cornerback job. After his performance against the Broncos, Bland could slide into that role. It was a solid preseason debut for a player most believed would only contribute on special teams in 2022.

We discussed this idea in further detail on the latest episode of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

The defensive line

Throughout training camp, the defensive line has been bullying the front five of the offense. Questions swarmed about whether it was a weak offensive line or if the defensive line was that impressive. Well, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But through one preseason game, the shotgun approach to the defensive line seems to work just fine.

Granted, it is not as if the Dallas defensive line was going up against All-Pros. But they still managed to post the fourth-best run defense grade and tenth best pass rushing grade, per PFF.

If you want to narrow this group down, the rotational defensive ends particularly shined. The tag-team approach opposite Demarcus Lawrence is off to a good start. In fact, the three highest-graded Dallas defensive linemen were Tarell Basham, Sam Williams, and Dante Fowler. But Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore also impressed during the first week.

Collectively, this group posted nine pressures, a 9.1% pass rush win rate, zero missed tackles against the run, and an average depth of tackle 1.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys' defensive line is why the Broncos only managed to squeak out 2.3 yards per attempt on 36 total rushing yards.

With the performance of every player in the secondary not named DaRon Bland, if not for the defensive line, Josh Johnson might have walked out of the game with a perfect passer rating. They were a bright spot amongst an otherwise struggling defense.

Struggling Players

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jalen Tolbert: Tolbert’s disappointing outing wasn't entirely his fault. Rush was not throwing many catchable balls in Tolbert’s direction, so his two receptions on seven targets seems worse than it was. But he dropped a pass right in his stomach that would have led to a third-down conversion. And the interception on one of Tolbert’s targets wasn’t entirely his fault, but he could have tried to break up the pass a little more.
  • Lirim Harjullahu: The 56-yarder was a longshot to begin with. However, if Harjullahu is going to be the starting kicker this season, 56 yards should be makable. And McCarthy kept the team on the field three times on fourth down. Maybe this is due to increased aggressiveness, but there should be no reason to trust the Dallas kickers right now.

Now, the biggest disappointments from Saturday’s action:

Cooper Rush

This might be premature given that it was only one preseason game, but the 2021 Minnesota Vikings victory might have been a flash in the pan. Because throwing for 84 yards on 12 for 20 passing with an interception was abysmal. Despite seeing an entire half of work, Rush managed a 48.8 QB rating. And keep in mind this was not against the Broncos' first-team defense.

Rush looked like a rookie quarterback on Saturday, not a player who has been in the NFL since 2017. It was so bad that Will Grier might have locked up the backup role despite not even taking the field. Even Ben DiNucci seemed like the better quarterback.

Out of the 76 QBs who attempted a pass in the first week of the preseason, Rush finished with the ninth-lowest PFF grade. This evaluation reflects Rush putting up the eighth lowest yards per attempt, the fourth lowest average depth of target, and the tenth lowest passer rating. For a supposed “QB2” to put up a disastrous performance like that against backups spells bad news for Dallas if Prescott gets injured.

Fans will always remember Rush’s heroics last Halloween. But if Prescott goes down for a game or two, the Cowboys will need a backup quarterback who will put them in the best position to win. And based on the Broncos game, Rush is not that guy.

Nahshon Wright

This is the most surprising name to end up on the struggling players' list from week one of the preseason. Because by all accounts, Wright has been one of the biggest winners of camp so far. It was reaching a point where he seemingly was the front runner for the CB4 slot. But Wright’s hopes of being a significant contributor on defense took a major step back last night.

It started off rough with a holding call on a pass where Wright came up with an interception. From there, the second-year cornerback was thoroughly beat on nearly every target thrown his way.

Remember how Bland had a near-perfect game with two yards allowed on seven targets? Wright had the exact opposite of that. On 26 snaps, he also saw seven targets. Wright allowed seven receptions for 118 yards, one touchdown, two penalties, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating against. With only 16 yards after the catch allowed, his problem wasn’t tackling, it was preventing the deep pass and generating PBUs.

Keep in mind that with the trio of Lewis, Diggs, and Brown, paired with the performance of Bland on Saturday night, there is now a chance that Wright could miss out on the 53-man roster. Kelvin Joseph struggled mightily as well, but his night was significantly better than Wright's. And C.J. Goodwin has been a reliable special teams contributor for years now. The Cowboys will have to make some difficult decisions about the cornerback position, and Wright did not help his case on Saturday.

It is difficult not to overreact to the first Cowboys game in nearly seven months. As of now, Saturday night is the only glimpse into the 2022 season that fans have. But success or failure in the preseason does not correlate to regular-season success. However, individual performances do carry weight.

And it was a mixed bag on Saturday night. A few rookies and defensive linemen impressed while the secondary and QB2 struggled against the Broncos' backups. There is still a lot of time to fix the errors and get the ship on track, but the clock is ticking.

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