On Thursday Night, the Dallas Cowboys lost to the San Diego Chargers by a score of 27 to 7. Here are a few Cowboy centric notes from the game.
The GoodDallas Cowboys drafted Zach Martin in the first round of the 2014 draft
...the Cowboys linemen dominated the line of scrimmage for the next several series
The first two incarnations of the offensive line look fantastic. After getting stuffed on the 1st play from scrimmage, the Cowboys linemen dominated the line of scrimmage for the next several series. Zach Martin looks to be as good as advertised. Moving inside to guard, and being flanked on either side by Travis Frederick and Doug Free is certainly helping to protect Martin, but he looked like a legitimate NFL starter in his (very) limited appearance. The second unit had a strong showing as well, anchoring the line for the lone touchdown drive. This is all good news as it points to a strong and deep line for the Cowboys.
Brandon Weedon didn't look much like Brandon Weedon. His throws were accurate and powerful. Looking at the replay, I'm fairly certain Dwayne Harris dropped Weedon's first pass because he wasn't expecting the velocity and mistimed his catching motion. Caleb Hanie was a mixed bag, but I think Jason Garrett would resign Kitna again before relying on Hanie for any playing time of significance.
Joseph Randle showed great vision and cutting ability. I was less enthused by his inability to break tackles and get yards after contact.
The BadSean Lee's empty locker will be a problem for the Cowboys this season
Everything to do with the defense.
That said, it's a little better and a little worse than it appears. Obviously the Cowboys defense never remotely slowed down the San Diego offense. However, it bears noting that the starting defense featured no more than 4 players who will start on opening day. Moreover, the first 3 cornerbacks on the depth chart didn't touch the field. In that regard, a few excuses are available for the abysmal performance. Perhaps the best excuse is the tale of Korey Lindsey.
Lindsey had a terrible day. He was burned on a deep TD throw and he had several defensive holding calls go against him. However, Lindsey was signed by the Cowboys on Tuesday, travelled on Wednesday and played significant minutes on Thursday night. The only practice time he had with the team was on Thursday before the game. Somewhere in those 48 hours he also had to learn the playbook, build rapport with teammates and coaches, and learn something about the Chargers offense. The cliché is to say “you get what you paid for”. Yeah... That's pretty accurate here.
Despite a six man rush, Rivers could have waited until the 3rd quarter to throw the ball
But excuses aside... the defense was truly terrible. I would be shocked if the Chargers failed to accomplish any of their predetermined goals for the game. Two plays stand out. In the first quarter Phillip Rivers used a hard count to trick the Cowboys into showing the blitz on second and five. He called the blocking adjustments and snapped the ball. The blitz came and was completely picked up. The defenders were comically overmatched. Despite a six man rush, Rivers could have waited until the 3rd quarter to throw the ball. He flicked the ball out to Woodhead in the flat on a wheel route for a 25 yard gain.
The other play of note was a master course in bad coverage. On one play in the 3rd quarter, the defense was called for two different defensive holding penalties. Both were declined because the Chargers were still able to complete a pass for first down yardage to a third receiver. The coverage was simultaneously illegal and soft.
There are no positive takeaways from the defensive performance. It was undisciplined and overmatched. These players may not be the starters, but they are the depth. The Cowboys are already down Sean Lee and Demarcus Lawrence. A number of other starters are already dealing with nagging injuries. Over the course of an NFL season the back-ups are going to get a large number of reps. It's early, it's preseason, but if this performance is any indication... it'll be a feeding frenzy for an opposing offense if the second unit defense spends any real amount of time on the field.
This game didn't yield many insights. Romo, Murray, Bryant and Witten didn't play. Linehan didn't call the normal offense. But there are a few things worth noting.
Gavin Escobar had a nifty catch in the 1st quarter. After catching the ball running to his right, he spun back to his left and left his defender in his wake. He showed good hands, good speed and surprising agility on the play. Word from camp on Escobar has been positive. This catch falls in line with the praise. If the Cowboys spend a lot of time in the 11 package with two tight ends, Escobar could see enough targets to be worth looking at in deeper leagues. The Cowboys have a tradition of hitting their fourth receiving option with a decent number of touchdowns over the course of a season.
The other tight end, James Hannah, had a polarizing game. He caught the sole touchdown in the back of the endzone and showed some decent balance and footwork. He was also thoroughly burned in the second quarter on a speed rush leading to a sack and fumble. When the Cowboys are finalizing the depth chart, bad pass blocking is going to count much higher than a pre-season touchdown. It's early, but I'd assume Escobar is still well ahead of Hannah on the depth chart.
The battle for back-up running back isn't closer to being resolved. Randle had a good game, but Lance Dunbar didn't play. Dunbar is presently listed as the back-up and I don't think that has changed. Randle cut well, but the offensive line gave him a 3-4 yard cushion on many of his early run plays. As the line rotated deeper into the back-ups, Randle's ypc dropped lower and lower. If Dunbar can show ability to break tackles and gain yards after contact he should remain the back-up. The back-up stands to see a large number of targets in the passing game so this is an important battle. Ryan Williams caught 5 passes on 7 targets. Despite this, he's still likely not in the conversation for primary back-up. With the added involvement of running backs in the passing game, I would expect the Cowboys to keep all four backs.
No wide receivers changed the landscape. Devin Street caught all four of his targets and had a nice game, but without Romo throwing the ball and Dez and Witten demanding coverage, it's nearly impossible to tell who will see the targets after Terrence Williams.
After that performance, local Twitter has generally settled on 6-10 for this team. I'm more in the 8-8 camp. Assuming Romo is healthy, The full offense will be a bonafide juggernaut. The offensive line is going to be something special. The record of this team is entirely on the shoulders of the defense. The Cowboys have a 13 win offense. The performance of the defense in the 1st preseason game makes them look like a 14 loss defense. How much better will the defense be with the actual starters? How much better will the defense be when they're planning for a specific team? How healthy will the defense be by the start of the season? The middle? The end? It doesn't look good right now. But I think the offense is going to be strong enough to carry this team to 8 wins despite the defense.
I didn't think the defense could be worse than last seasons defense. Ultimately I think the defense will be better. Based off the only performance available for grading, however... The only conclusion is that the Cowboys saw their own shadow and ran away. Get ready for a long winter.