The true value of preseason records and final scores is difficult to gauge, as most of the emphasis is placed on positional battles, player development and injury rehabilitation, but a 27-7 defeat is never a particularly good sign, even if it is just preseason.
The Dallas Cowboys improved upon their performance against the Chargers last week, albeit with an ample mix of both superb and atrocious play in a 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium.
Despite the 37 points saddled besides Baltimore’s name on the scoreboard, the Dallas defense surrendered “just” 23, including 10 in the second half. Unfortunately, those other 14 points still count, and those lapses may have exposed even more issues that must be addressed before the season gets under way on September 7.
Here’s what stood out:
Romo looks healthy; slightly rusty
As expected, Tony Romo ran the first two Dallas possessions of the game before donning his Cowboys baseball cap and studying his iPad on the sidelines for the remainder of the contest.
What Romo showed was encouraging. As the leader of this misfit Cowboys Fellowship, Romo is the one true hope Jerry Jones has of retrieving his precious once more. In his first game action since last December, the polarizing quarterback managed to elicit the same range of emotions from Cowboys fans as usual, showing that while he’s not in mid-season form, his reputation certainly is.
Romo finished 4-for-5 with 80 yards and a 31-yard deep fly jump-ball touchdown to Dez Bryant, who was in single-coverage. With no double team and a lack of safety help over the top, it was one of the easiest 31-yard touchdown passes Romo is likely to throw all season.
The ball hung a bit, reminiscent of those post-neck surgery Peyton Manning “wobblers” that seem to miraculously float into receiver’s arms untouched, but it was timed perfectly between Romo and his No. 1 receiver.
Unfortunately, Romo gave away another touchdown to the Ravens after botching a simple handoff to DeMarco Murray in the backfield. Clearly the rapport between Romo and his first team offense isn’t fully there yet, but that should come with time. It was Romo’s only mistake of the day.
Romo looked mobile, notably stepping up under pressure on a long third down and gunning a strike to Dez for a 22-yard first down completion. Scott Linehan also called a nice bootleg for Romo that resulted in a 21-yard Murray catch and run.
The bootleg is a play that can really play to Romo’s athletic advantages as long as his back holds up. The early reviews are positive, in that regard.
“I think, you never know coming off an injury how you’re going to feel,” said Romo during a sideline interview. “It’s nice to be able to see you can go out and play and your body holds up. It’s going well.”
The first team offense looks good
Romo, Bryant, Murray and the offensive line played well together. The line was a bit shaky on the first drive, with Zach Martin and Tyron Smith both being whistled for holding penalties, but were exceptional after that.
Romo was never in real danger during his time out on the field. The line never allowed the pocket to collapse on their recently rehabilitated quarterback, and Murray provided some nice blocking when he was held in.
Despite just about five minutes of playing time, Dez Bryant was by far the most impressive player on the field. It’s simply foolish to ever leave Bryant in single-coverage. He can make even veteran safetys look like they belong in Pop Warner. Bryant hauled in three receptions for 59 yards, including that 31-yard touchdown that left his defender on the ground with a red face and a reality check.
Zach Minter or Leon Lett?
The most impressive defensive lineman on Saturday night was one that, prior to August 14, was just looking for a place to play. That speaks volumes to both Zach Minter’s play against the Ravens and the lack of prime talent lined up beside him on this night.
Minter, with barely a practice under his belt, was a revelation against the Ravens. The 6-foot-1, 300 pound defensive tackle spent most of his night bull-rushing those foolish enough to stand in his way, moving fellow 300 pound men aside like a giant tossing pebbles.
The undrafted second year man out of Montana State was second on the Cowboys with four tackles and led the team with two sacks, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a quarterback hit. Minter’s relentless penetration also contributed to a Martez Wilson sack of Raven’s backup QB Tyrod Taylor in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Minter broke up an entire Baltimore drive by himself with two phenomenal back-to-back plays: a backfield invasion leading to a Cierre Wood five yard loss immediately followed with a strip sack, forcing a fumble which Dallas recovered.
It should be fun to see what Minter can do when he gets some actual practice time in the coming weeks.
Terrance Mitchell disappoints again
Mitchell has been playing well in camp, but none of that has translated to either preseason game. Mitchell’s soft coverage was taken advantage of all night.
Jacoby Jones burned him on a skinny post for a gain of 38. The following play Torrey Smith decided to take his turn abusing Mitchell, leaving him in his wake as he caught a nicely-lofted 19-yard touchdown in the right corner. Soon after, the ageless Steve Smith made Mitchell look like a fool on a 10-yard comeback route.
Marlon Brown decided to take his turn with Mitchell as his punching bag in the second half, easily beating the rookie for a 20-yard completion on the left sideline.To add insult to injury, Mitchell had an open interception fall into his hands and bounce off his chest, sealing his karmic fate as the goat of the game.
That makes two horrific preseason performances by Mitchell, who appears to be doing everything possible to squander this early chance at a heavy load of regular season playing time.
Rolando McClain getting back into shape
McClain played a majority of the game, looking solid in pass coverage and even causing a fumble, which was knocked out of play. The double retiree led the Cowboys in tackles with six, looking impressive in his technique and even chasing down a few running backs from behind.
McClain is far from full-time playing shape, but his rapid improvement has been one of the more pleasant surprises at Cowboys training camp over the past month. If McClain can get himself back into true game shape for the start of the season it would add an entirely new dimension to the Cowboys linebacking corps, allowing the versatile Durant to move around and perhaps providing some extra incentive for Bruce Carter to up his uneven level of play.
The Cowboys defense needs all the help it can get, something acknowledged by starting free safety Barry Church during a sideline interview.
“He did a great job of communicating with the safetys … he seems like a ball hawk,” said Church. “He feels the pressure from us, but he embraces it.”
A deep receiving group
Gavin Escobar caught three passes for 58 yards. James Hanna caught three for 31, including a beautiful grab between two defenders which he turned into a score after bouncing off a Baltimore defender. If the Cowboys are able to roll with three touchdown-threat tight ends every game, defenses are going to be scrambling for ways to deal with the seemingly infinite number of weapons Romo has to go to.
Jamar Newsome was in a wonderful groove late in the game, finding himself the focal point of three huge plays; an unnecessary roughness penalty on the defense, a beautiful go route on the left sideline ending in a shoestring grab for 24 yards and a 5-yard touchdown on a corner route that showcased some excellent footwork and concentration.
It’s uncertain if the Cowboys plan on keeping six receivers, but Newsome certainly made a case for himself with a great performance tonight.
Not so special teams
Deonte Thompson had kickoff returns of 108 (td), 50 and 30 yards. Michael Campanaro had another kickoff return for 30 yards. Excluding a late game squib kick, the Ravens averaged 54.5 yards on kickoff returns against the Cowboys.
I expect Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia to punish his squad mightily this week for such atrocities.