The first preseason game for the Dallas Cowboys, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, ended up as a loss as they fell to the visitors 28-23. The score doesn’t matter in these affairs, but how the backups and rookies perform is closely watched by the coaching staff as the calendar continues to count down to determining the 53-man roster. Some of the training camp standouts did well, while others had some issues. It was definitely an error-plagued affair, with Dallas accounting for the most.
The Cowboys got off to a rough start in the game. Part of that was the Jaguars playing their starters to begin the game. Trevor Lawrence did throw a touchdown, but it took three tries to get it done against the Dallas backup defenders.
Still, things did not go very well through most of the first half. One of the biggest things we were concerned about during the game was how the offensive line backups would perform. Mostly, it was poor with little room for the running backs, and frequent breakdowns in pass blocking, forcing Cooper Rush and Will Grier to evade the pass rush. Rush was still accurate, completing 10 of 12 passes for 83 yards, including his longest completion of the day down the seam to Jake Ferguson for 26. Still, the offensive unease will continue. Seeing things like Matt Waletzko get manhandled will do that.
The Cowboys also got sloppy with the ball, losing two fumbles in the first half. The first was by KaVontae Turpin on a punt return. That would be the field position that would set up the Jaguars’ first TD. The second turnover was committed by Rico Dowdle, fighting for yards as he neared the end zone on a reception that went 21 yards before he lost it at the one.
There were certainly some good things. While the defense had breakdowns on long outside runs of 34 by Tank Bigsby and 26 for D’Ernest Johnson, the presence of Mazi Smith seemed to have a very good effect on the interior run defense. On one play, both Smith and Quinton Bohanna were lined up beside each other, and they stonewalled things.
Juanyeh Thomas at safety continued his good training camp by picking off Trevor Lawrence on his first pass of the game. He also broke up a screen pass and contributed a tackle.
It is early, but the usage of Rush and Grier seemed to tell us how they stand on the depth chart. Rush was pulled early and Grier carried the load the rest of the way. Given the high completion percentage for Rush, he may have tightened his grip on the backup job.
Grier and the offense did come to life late in the first half, driving for a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to get the score to 14-10. It came on a pass to Jalen Tolbert, who got wide open in the end zone. Tolbert would catch both passes targeted at him in the game, and Jake Ferguson would haul in all three of his targets, including that long reception. It looks like the safety blanket role is in good hands so far.
There was good news about one highly-anticipated debut for the team. Deuce Vaughn saw all the return work after Turpin’s fumble. He had one 25-yard kickoff return he brought out. But in the second half, he really started to show us what he could bring to the team. He ran the ball effectively, showing he is able to stand up to the size of the NFL, and he also caught the ball well. He was the leading rusher for the team, including a 26-yard scamper during the drive he would cap off with a four-yard touchdown run. The hype for the smol back is real.
And we have our UDFA favorite in John Stephens, He was the team’s leading receiver, catching five balls for 56 yards, including the late touchdown that made the final score a bit more respectable. The decision about how many tight ends to keep could get very interesting. Luke Schoonmaker also saw his first action after missing much of camp to date on the NFI list. He just saw one catch for eight yards, but it’s a start.
The kicking situation is another thing we are biting our fingernails about, and it was a mixed bag for Brandon Aubrey. He made an extra point and a field goal before missing the point after Vaughn’s touchdown. He had a chance to create some confidence in his performance, but the concerns remain.
Other players had some moments in the second half once things were turned over to the bottom half of the roster. Simi Fehoko may have gained some ground on Jalen Brooks, widely seen as having taken a lead in what should be the race for WR6. Brooks only posted one completion on five targets, while Fehoko caught all four passes thrown his way. Dennis Houston also snagged three passes for 33 yards to keep things interesting.
They also gave Hunter Luepke some chances to carry the ball, with mixed results. Rico Dowdle had an exciting 44-yard kickoff return, but it was followed shortly by a Grier interception. The Cowboys lost the turnover battle, giving it away three times while getting one each fumble recovery and interception. The pick was courtesy of Juanyeh Thomas early, but the offense couldn’t captialize. They were even worse in the sack total, with Jacksonville getting to the quarterbacks four times, while the Cowboys’ backup pass rushers never got home.
On defense, Dallas failed to get a sack, but Thomas, Markquese Bell, DeMarvion Overshown, and Damone Clark all looked good. Overall, there were too many breakdowns that allowed the Jaguars to put points up. Also, Jacksonville was going for fourth downs on almost all that came up in the Cowboy’s half of the field, which can distort things.
As always, the biggest thing about preseason games is injuries. The Cowboys only had one reported, with Malik Jefferson leaving the game with a foot issue.
The game was a mixed bag of good and bad. The team has a lot to work on when they return to Oxnard.