Things are moving fast. We are roughly at the halfway point between the start of Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard and their first regular-season game hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That is good for fans who are salivating over seeing games that count in the standings. But for the Cowboys, it is not so great. They still have a ton of unanswered or incompletely addressed questions. Getting some of those answers was not helped during the first preseason game.
So what things should they have worked on this week in the two joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers, and what they still need to do in the preseason game with them on Saturday? Here are some.
Test the starters in the joint practices
This is one that is not getting much attention, and it may be the most important part of the week, and will actually be in the books by the time you read this. Mike McCarthy has stated that the starters will be expected to get the biggest part of the practice reps against the Bolts. Presumably Los Angeles is taking the same approach in a handshake agreement between McCarthy and Brandon Staley. We should be fully prepared to see most of the players that sat out the Denver Broncos game do the same this weekend.
We discussed this idea in greater detail on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
This makes a ton of sense, because the coaches will do everything they can to control the action and minimize the chance of injury in the practices. That is the risk/reward decision. It also means that the two joint practices are likely the last chance to get any real work in for the Dallas starters against another team’s starters. It will be key in seeing if Dak Prescott is up to the challenge the team has dumped on his shoulders of making the passing game work with such an inexperienced receiving corps. There are plenty of other things to evaluate in those two controlled scrimmages as well as the preseason game.
They certainly got a lot of that done in the first practice, with players like Tyron Smith on the field. On defense, Micah Parsons was all over Justin Herbert, and DeMarcus Lawrence and Neville Gallimore came on strong. Dak Prescott had a hot start before cooling off late, but Ezekiel Elliott looked ready to take on all comers. Overall, it was a much better outing for the Cowboys than the lone joint practice against the Broncos. You can catch up on the second practice here.
Figure out if the IOL is ready to go with Tyler Smith
One thing that emerged in the first preseason game was that the interior of the offensive line had some struggles with assignments and reads.
Would be very interested to know the blocking assignments on this play.— Massey (@TheJAMassey) August 14, 2022
Terrible communication between Biadasz and Smith. Biadasz goes for the double team block with McGovern and Smith is caught in no mans land on who to block. pic.twitter.com/dFFjTmKrup
That had Connor McGovern in for Zack Martin. Now they need to see if the experienced and exemplary right guard will help steady the ship. However, if the staff insists on giving McGovern the first team reps at left guard as they have been doing much of camp, this will be a missed opportunity to both advance Tyler Smith’s development and to see how the obvious plan to make him the starter is going. Let’s hope they get this right, and the results are not discouraging. Similarly, they need to see how much having Tyron Smith next to him helps Tyler. Prescott’s health may well hinge on these things, along with how well Terence Steele is holding up at right tackle.
Things were a bit mixed here on Wednesday, as it looked like they are still rotating McGovern and Smith at left guard. On the plus side, the run blocking looked very, very good.
Get some clarity at QB2
Will Grier sat out the first preseason game with a groin pull but is hoped to be ready for the next few days. Having him out during the Broncos game really hurt the team, and not in the sense of losing it. Cooper Rush was not throwing the ball well which squandered an opportunity to get a better feel for how the experiment with all those inexperienced wide receivers and tight ends is going. Grier needs to get back out there, and play well the way he was in camp practices. He appeared to have already moved ahead of Rush, and gained ground just standing on the sidelines. But they need positive performance from him. With the focus on the starters in the joint practices, that means the game on Saturday is key for him. He needs to be putting the ball on time and on target. That will let the team find out who they need to have on the roster to catch the ball in the regular season.
Grier apparently saw limited work, if he was on the field at all for drills. He wasn’t mentioned at all by the media after it looked like he would practice. But Rush rebounded in a big way, with several good completions when he was in. That doesn’t exactly clarify things, but may indicate that Rush just had a bad day in Denver.
Ditto the swing tackle
It really fits to have this next on the list, because QB2 and swing tackle are two positions that could finally force Stephen Jones to use some cap space if the answers don’t appear to be on the roster. Josh Ball was just not good last Saturday. Matt Waletzko may be headed for IR. A lot will not agree with me, but it might be time to give Isaac Alarcón some of Ball’s reps, or put him at RT ahead of Aviante Collins. He at least showed some promise against the Broncos. This is a chance to see if it was real or a mirage.
However, there was at least a glimmer of good news about Ball on Wednesday.
*More on Smith and Ball:— Kyle Youmans (@Kyle_Youmans) August 17, 2022
Both had their individual reps where Khalil Mack worked into the backfield. However, it was encouraging because both tackles won the majority of their reps against the All-Pro.#CowboysCamp
Ease Anthony Barr into things
They have been going slowly with the recent acquisition. There is nothing wrong with that, but Barr is key to depth at linebacker. They need to start getting him some reps. Whether that will extend to the game itself is still to be determined. He may still see limited work, but it needs to start at some point this week. He was indeed worked into the first joint practice with LAC, so things are on track here.
Get more data on the cornerbacks
We know that Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis are the starters. They will get some needed work in the practices. But the game is crucial for Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, and DaRon Bland. Only two of them are likely to make the 53-man roster. Bland did himself a lot of good against Denver, but Joseph and Wright were beaten far too often. They could have used more help from a pass rush that fell off a lot as the team went deeper into the depth chart, but the pass rush will never get home on every play. Joseph and Wright should be in a battle for the last cornerback spot. Unfortunately that may be decided more on where each was drafted than actual performance. Sorry, Nahshon.
The secondary in general seemed to have a strong practice, giving up no big plays. But a concern emerged as Jourdan Lewis tweaked his hamstring.
That just puts more pressure on the CB depth.
Time to cut down on the penalties
If you want to be all blue skies about it, they have a very low bar to clear as the Cowboys notoriously drew more flags than any other team in the first weekend of preseason. It has to change despite Mike McCarthy saying it is not that big a deal. In the Chargers game, they need to at least halve things. That is especially true in the first half before they get the third and fourth string in. Dallas drew three flags just in the first quarter against Denver. They need to keep it at or under three for the first half. If not, McCarthy’s lackadaisical approach has to change. In a hurry. The practices didn’t offer much here, so we have to wait for the game.
And, of course, the kickers
We should not be at square one at this point, but here we are. Every rep, whether in practice or games, is crucial for Lirim Hajrullahu and Brett Maher. Ideally regular season games should not come down to their legs. But some will, and that includes the ability to make extra points. We saw how Greg Zuerlein failed the team on those more than any other kicker did theirs last year. That is probably the main reason John Fassel was not able to convince the team to give him another chance. Don’t be surprised if this goes down to the wire with very similar performances. It may wind up little more than a coin flip. There were no updates on Wednesday that I saw.