Saturday night marked the final night of preseason action for most of the Dallas Cowboys starters. The final game against the Broncos on Thursday, August 28, will be handled by those still jostling for a position on the 53-man roster and several veterans who still need to shake some rust off (i.e. Brandon Carr, Rolando McClain).
The Cowboys sank to 0-3 in preseason play after falling to the Dolphins 25-20. In what seems to simply be a natural part of their existence, Dallas allowed a game-winning touchdown run with 1:48 left in the game. The scores and the records are of little substance in the preseason, but to lose in such fashion again is likely to inspire traumatic flashbacks for Garrett and his staff.
It was an undeniably sloppy effort from the Cowboys on both ends. There was some good and some bad and more than enough ugly. At the end of the game one was just left wondering if this team is ever going to put it all together.
So, what did we learn from the “most important” preseason game of them all?
A disjointed offense
The heaps of praise being leveled upon the offensive line may have been preemptive. Tony Romo was hit four times in the first half, with three going for sacks.
Cameron Wake got to Romo twice, spearing him from behind in one instance after the recently repaired quarterback found himself trapped in a tight pocket. In a glass half full world, one can look at Romo getting up cleanly after several brutal hits as a positive.
It’s absolutely imperative for Dallas that Romo be able to withstand collisions, but the consistency with which they came has to raise an alarm. The starting linemen all seemed to be marching to a different tune for most of the first half, unable to provide Romo adequate protection or hold their blocks in the running game.
The Cowboys managed just two field goals and 110 total yards of offense with Romo at the helm, an ominous sign considering the only way this team will be able to win games is by putting up substantial point totals.
Too many free passes from Free
Right tackle Doug Free was absolutely abused by Cameron Wake in the first half. Anytime Free found himself on an island with Wake, the defensive end — who appears as if he were sculpted by Michelangelo — appeared to beat the 325-pound tackle off the line before he had even moved from his stance.
Wake sacked Romo twice, despite being held on one play by Free, and accounted for a pass deflection. Free was helpless against the savage athleticism Wake possesses.
I would expect Free to be given far more help in those situations in the future, but there will be times when he needs to handle his business on his own.
Dez Bryant poised for an all-time season
Honestly, there’s not much to say about Dez Bryant that hasn’t been said time and time again this offseason. He is as locked in as anyone has ever seen him. The body and the mind finally appear to have met on a level plane; the 25-year-old phenom is ready to make the league his.
Even outside of the field of play, Dez can be found powerfully strutting about the sideline, saddling up to young players, whether they be receivers or not, to provide them with some knowledge or situational advice. His development into a leader has been his most endearing development since entering the league in 2010.
Bryant caught four passes for 32 yards and had another nearly miraculous catch on the sidelines overturned by the slightest of margins. For as muddled as the offense looked at times, Bryant and Romo have maintained their all-important QB-WR1 relationship wonderfully.
Bryant is poised for one of the biggest receiving seasons of all-time in 2014.
Big plays mitigated by bigger turnovers
The defense was burned for some big plays and absolutely shredded on the ground. Miami finished the first half with 93 rushing yards and 171 total yards of offense. [For the game, they recorded 490 yards of total offense and 200 rushing yards. Yikes.]
Knowshon Moreno danced, weaved and busted his way through the makeshift Dallas defensive line. The secondary was shades of gray all night, with several big offensive receptions and third-down conversions offset by timely turnovers, a staple of any Rod Marinelli defense.
It’s a dangerous way to live, but on a defense as porous as this the need for multiple turnovers per game will be critical to a successful season.
Rookie Tyler Patmon made the most of his chance at corner, taking over for Brandon Carr in the second half. Patmon led Dallas in tackles with five, recorded two interceptions and forced a fumble.
The first interception was a drive-killer, as Tannehill had the Dolphins deep in Dallas territory. The throw was admittedly an awful one, but Patmon was in tight coverage and played the ball perfectly. A drive that would have yielded at least a field goal attempt was thwarted with a heady play.
Patmon’s second interception would double as his first NFL touchdown. The 23-year-old baited Dolphins’ backup Matt Moore perfectly, flawlessly timing his jump, snatching the short toss out of the air and strolling unimpeded into the end zone.
Despite being on the wrong end of a 54-yard deep post completion to Damien Williams, Patmon solidified his spot on the 53-man roster with an unforgettable performance in Miami.
Sterling Moore also played a solid game, finally receiving some slot snaps in the nickel package. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was a good effort from a player coming off injury.
Dwayne Harris‘ health scare
The Cowboys’ special teams were markedly better this week. They limited the Dolphins in the return game and excelled at quickly filling any openings.
The star of this special teams unit is Dwayne Harris. Often the most overlooked star on the Cowboys — make no mistake, Harris is an absolute special teams star — the three-time NFC Special Teams Player of the Week was dynamic in the return game.
Harris had kickoff returns of 29 and 50 yards, respectively, nearly busting his first open for a score had he not been tripped up.
On a punt return, Harris dazzled with several moves and made for the sidelines. He was hit awkwardly, on a downward, sideways angle by Dolphins rookie Jordan Tripp. The return man lay immobilized for several minutes before walking off under his own power.
The blow was scary, as losing Harris for any stretch of time would be a disaster for the Dallas special teams. On a team expected to give up plenty of points, Harris will be provided with ample opportunities to take kickoffs and punts into enemy territory. The field position he provides for Dallas is invaluable.
His status will bare close monitoring heading into the season.
The sixth receiver battle
It’s still unclear whether Dallas will retain a sixth wide receiver or not, but at least one of the men battling for the final position (if it exists) seems to step up each week.
On Saturday, it was LaRon Byrd hauling in a poster-worthy touchdown toss. Weeden slung a 27-yard floater to the end zone, far enough out of the reach of the defense but in a brutally difficult position for Byrd.
Without any regard for his body, Byrd leapt into the air, appearing to float for far longer than Newton’s Laws would have us believe, and hauled in the pass. It was a beautiful football play from a physically gifted receiver (6-foot-4, 220 pounds, 4.45 40-yard dash).
Even if he doesn’t end up with a star on his helmet come August 30th (53-man roster cut date), it was a catch that should place him on the radar of any NFL teams in need of receiving depth.
Does Ryan Williams have a spot on this team?
Williams was the best offensive player for Dallas in the second half, and it really wasn’t all that close. The former Cardinal had 12 rushes for 47 yards and two catches for 22 yards. He unfortunately had a powerful 14-yard rush negated by a holding penalty on the other side of the field
Williams ran authoritatively all night, but also maintained a patient approach, allowing gaps to open instead of rushing head first into a bevvy of 300-pound lineman. He held his blocks while maintaining poise despite being bull rushed by blitzers.
There are reports that third-string RB Joseph Randle left the game with a rib injury in the second half. The severity is unknown, but the Cowboys have been staunch their position of Randle over Williams, despite how well the latter has played this preseason.
It will be interesting to see if a possible injury and the emergence of Williams as a viable backup change the Cowboys’ stance over the next week.