Wow. It’s that highly anticipated time of year again. I am referring, of course, to this being the first of my weekly look inside the stats and numbers from each week’s game for the Dallas Cowboys. So let’s dig into those from the preseason contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One number ranks as the least important of all: The final score. Preseason is much more about evaluation and getting comfortable with schemes and assignments. Other stats pulled from the game tell us some interesting things. some that you probably figured out already, and others that may surprise you.
Offensive play selection
This one jumped out right away. Mike McCarthy is the play-caller now, and this is his offense. In the offseason, there was some typical over-analysis of comments the head coach made about running the ball. Well, this should allay those concerns.
22 rushing attempts, 43 passing attempts. That is definitively tilted to getting it done through the air. While part of the ratio may be a reflection of trying to get the backup QBs, particularly Will Grier, some valuable work, it could also be a strong indicator of how McCarthy is going to attack defenses. There were fifteen first down passes, not counting penalties that pushed Dallas into long yardage situations. Of the 22 first downs for the Cowboys, 14 came via the air, and they scored two of their three touchdowns on passing plays.
McCarthy is a passing coach. He always has been. Now just imagine how things might go with Dak Prescott on the field in the regular season.
Obviously, they still are going to use the running game, and at times it will probably be dictated by how things are working against the defense. That is less of a factor in preseason games where the coaches have specific things they might want to see, such as the aforementioned work for Grier and Cooper Rush. If you look at the comparison between the two teams, it would appear that the Jaguars had the better running attack, out-gaining the Cowboys 145 to 94.
But the average gain per run tells a different story. Dallas averaged 4.3 yards per carry, while Jacksonville managed 4.0. While we would like to see that average go up, especially when the starters are out there on the offensive line, that is not a bad number at all. You might object that Deuce Vaughn’s 26-yard run padded the average, but consider that Jacksonville had runs of 34 and 26 to up theirs. There were failed runs for the Cowboys, but overall, they did a better job all around.
Speaking of Vaughn, he took a major step in proving he can play in the pros. He led all rushers with 50 yards. Rico Dowdle was second with 21 yards on six carries, unfortunately only a 3.5 ypc average. Malik Davis and Hunter Luepke both had little success with just three and six yards apiece in the game.
There is another inference to be drawn from this. Both of the long runs by the Jags were to the outside. They did not get much going up the middle . Could this be the Mazi Smith effect? We certainly should hope so.
Oh, and that long run by Vaughn? Up the gut.
Flags can be a big issue, and have been for Dallas in recent years. Preseason games often see a veritable rain of yellow laundry.
As a result, it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Cowboys only had six penalties that were accepted for 45 yards. That is almost acceptable for a regular season game. And it wasn’t lenient referees. The Jags got caught 13 times, gifting Dallas 86 yards. Cleaning up penalties is another task for the preseason, and this might be a sign that the Cowboys are ahead of schedule.
Red zone efficiency
This is a big stat for the regular season, and the first game again shows some promise as Dallas scored touchdowns on three of their four trips inside the 20. That’s not too bad for backups. However, this is also a stat for the defense, and it wasn’t so great there, as they allowed Jacksonville to get touchdowns on four of their five opportunities. It should be noted that the Jaguars staff was going for it on fourth down a lot, just as they went for two-point conversions on all four of their touchdowns. That definitely was using the preseason to work on some things. But while we are talking about fourth downs, both teams went for it three times trying to keep scoring drives alive. Jacksonville only converted once, while Dallas succeeded on all theirs with Grier behind center. That seems good.
The West Coast style offense being used under McCarthy, dubbed by some the Texas Coast, is reliant on short passing to move the sticks. This was certainly on display as the Cowboys only had two passes go for more than 20 yards all game. It is certainly hoped that Prescott will attack deep more with the starting wide receivers, especially Brandin Cooks, but he is going to amass most of his completions in that short to mid range. That is how it is designed. And Rush seemed very comfortable in this aspect, going 10 for 12 during the first quarter.
Tight ends shine
Those two long passes? One was from Rush to Jake Ferguson for 26, and the other was from Grier to John Stephens for 21. Overall, the tight ends were the most effective weapons on the field. Stephens led all receivers with five catches on seven targets for 56 yards and a touchdown. Ferguson was three for three and 26 yards. Luke Schoonmaker even got in on things with one catch for eight yards, his only target of the game.
Wide receivers and backs
While the tight ends stood out, there were other contributors in the passing game. Simi Fehoko really helped his situation by catching all four of his targets for 27 yards. Dennis Houston, last year’s camp darling, had a good night, catching all three of his chances for 33. Jalen Tolbert didn’t see as much action as the staff seemed to want to protect him a bit, but he was targeted twice, hauling in both for 29 yards and his first touchdown wearing the Star. KaVontae Turpin was worked in a bit, catching one of two balls for 15 yards.
One player who was disappointing was Jalen Brooks, who was filling the Houston role this year in camp. He only snagged one of the five balls coming his way for a paltry three yards.
The West Coast offense also uses running backs a lot as receivers. Rico Dowdle caught three of three for 33, Malik Davis was four of five for 19, and while Vaughn only gained six yards on his receptions, he also was three for three on targets.
This was a desultory game for the defensive line without Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, or Johnathan Hankins on the field. They had no sacks and just four quarterback hits.
By contrast, this unit had a very good game. Devin Harper, rookie DeMarvion Overshown, and Damone Clark were the second, third, and fourth leading tacklers respectively, flying all over the field. It was a particularly nice start for Overshown. Harper chipped in a fumble recovery and a pass defended.
The defensive star
That was safety Markquese Bell, who led all tacklers with ten and broke up a pass. He might be taking a significant leap forward in year two.
I started by mentioning the least important stat, and end with the most significant. The Cowboys appear to have emerged with just one notable injury, to reserve linebacker Malik Jefferson. The severity is not known at this point, but hopefully it wasn’t bad. That group is a bit thin.