The Cowboys lost by two touchdowns to the Vikings on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, 28-24. But several positives jumped-out in the first half of the game. There were also negatives that need to be addressed before the regular season opener against the Giants on September 13th.
Let’s do the good news first.
*Number one, by far, is the fact that I didn’t have to report a single injury from the sideline. I mentioned defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford being evaluated for a possible neck stinger late in the second quarter, but he got the okay after being checked-out by the medical staff. He did not return to the game in the second half, but that’s because, as a starter, he was not likely to play past the second quarter anyway. Right guard Mackenzy Bernardeau, who started the game in place of Zack Martin (neck), suffered a bloody nose early in the first quarter. But a bunch of gauze shoved up his nose by the athletic training staff solved that problem and he missed no playing time.
Crawford and Bernardeau were the only Cowboys players I mentioned as receiving treatment or evaluation on the sideline during the game. Having very little to report injury-wise from the sideline may not be good for me as a sideline reporter in regards to air-time, but it is great news for the football team. The number one goal of preseason game is to escape with no injuries. Mission accomplished in preseason game 3.
*The Cowboys pass rush, a weakness last season, looked particularly good in the first half. Not bad in the second half, either. Improving the pass rush was the top off-season priority of the Cowboys. They added Greg Hardy via free agency and moved up in the second round to draft Randy Gregory, the pass rusher from University of Nebraska. Gregory recorded another sack against the Vikings; that’s 3 sacks in 3 preseason games. But credit the entire front.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has some talent to work with. The rotation includes DeMarcus Lawrence who has looked good in camp and preseason. Lawrence missed most of last year, his rookie year, with a foot injury. Hardy is playing both end as well as moving inside during nickel pass rush. Jeremy Mincey, like Hardy, can move around the front. At defensive tackle, Tyrone Crawford is going to be a beast. He’s been limited in camp/preseason, but looked good against the Vikings in his first extensive playing time of preseason. Nick Hayden is underappreciated by almost everyone, except his coaches. And give credit to Jack Crawford who has really worked his way into the mix. He can get pressure up the middle.
Terrell McClain is a veteran defensive tackle who missed the first two preseason games and most of training camp because of a hamstring injury and sore knee. He got extensive work in the first half versus the Vikings. Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop played in the second half instead of first half because coaches wanted to see more of McClain. It’s going to be interesting to see which of these three tackles stick on the roster. The Cowboys will probably keep two of them, but there’s likely not enough space on the 53 man roster for all 3.
*Cornerback Morris Claiborne played the entire first half. It was his first game action in 11 months since rupturing a patellar tendon in his knee last September. He had a nice pass breakup and it looked as though he had a really nice game in his return to game action. The other starting cornerback, Brandon Carr, picked off a pass. And Tyler Patmon looked good playing the slot. Patmon will take over the role of Orlando Scandrick (knee injury) as the team’s nickel cornerback in the slot.
Rookie first round pick Byron Jones played three different positions against the Vikings: safety, cornerback (on the outside), and ‘dime’ (in the slot, when the team plays with 6 defensive backs in its ‘dime’ package). There was good and bad, but mostly good. In the same series, Jones came up and made a nice tackle. A couple of plays later, he got blocked backwards by a 300+ pound offensive lineman on a Vikings touchdown run. I guess you could say getting hammered by a 300+ guy was Jones’ moment of ‘welcome to the NFL’ (Jones weighs about 205 lbs, by the way).
*Linebacker Sean Lee played in his first game since December 2013. Lee missed all of last season with a torn knee ligament. He’s moved from middle linebacker to outside linebacker. He played most of the first half against the Vikings and was all over the field, making tackles. It was great to see him back, even if it was in limited time.
*The Cowboys first-team offense finally got it going in the 2nd quarter. Their first two possessions in the 1st quarter ended with punts, but those can partially be blamed on penalties by offensive linemen that forced 3rd-and-long situations. On the very first play of the 2nd quarter, Tony Romo hit Terrance Williams on a crossing route for a 60-yard touchdown pass. Williams ran most of the way after two defenders collided and knocked each other off the play. But it was still an impressive catch-and-run by Williams. Later in the quarter, Romo hit Lucky Whitehead for an 8 yard touchdown pass.
What was good about the starting offense is that Romo looked comfortable and moved around a lot better than he was at the beginning of last year. Turn back the clock to one year ago this week: Romo was coming off his second consecutive preseason of little work because of back surgery. He was not moving this well last year. This summer he really looks good from a physical standpoint and finally we got to see the offense click a little bit. And that was without receiver Dez Bryant (hamstring) and All Pro right guard Zack Martin (neck stinger).
I’m not implying that all is perfect and the Cowboys are ready for the Giants at this exact moment. The offensive line, because of injury, has not worked together yet (all five starters have not been healthy at the same time this summer). And Dez has been hampered since August 6th because of the hamstring injury.
But the running backs looked good last night. From my perspective at field level, I was surprised how fast Darren McFadden really is. He is taller/bigger than Randle and Dunbar, but he is just as fast (maybe faster). I was impressed with McFadden. But I still think Randle will be the starter. I think the running game would have been able to help sustain more drives against the Vikings, except for the penalties which cut drives short.
Speaking of penalties…let’s hit a couple of the negatives from the loss to the Vikings.
*Ugh! The Cowboys had 11 penalties. There could have been more, but two penalties were declined by the Vikings. Holding penalties really hurt the Cowboys offensively, killing drives. The officiating crew sure was calling things tightly in the defensive backfield. There were defensive holding calls against both teams. Preseason games typically can turn sloppy, but 11 penalties by the Cowboys and 10 by the Vikings took a lot of momentum from the game. And you can’t blame the backup guys for the penalties. Three different starters on the Cowboys offensive line as well as Jason Witten were called for penalties in the first half.
*Cowboys special teams gave up more big returns, including a 108 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Vikings return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson. Again, you can’t blame backup guys for the returns. The touchdown came early in the second quarter (immediately following the Romo-to-Williams 60 yard touchdown pass).
*Backup quarterback Dustin Vaughan had another disappointing game. He struggled last Sunday against a blitzing 49ers defense, and didn’t look much better against the Vikings. Vaughan got to work with the starting offensive line late in the second quarter. He was sacked almost immediately. The next drive, one of his linemen committed a holding penalty. In the second half, working with the second team, Vaughan’s 4 possessions ended in punts. After the game, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said that Vaughan missed some reads.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Vaughan needs to bounce back with an excellent game in the preseason finale on Thursday night against the Texans. There’s a chance the Cowboys keep only two QBs on the 53 man roster (Romo & Weeden).
Also, Lucky Whitehead needs to have a good night on Thursday. Cole Beasley was the first team punt returner against the Vikings, not Whitehead. Whitehead did have the touchdown catch, so that’s a positive for him. He’s still in the lead for the role of 5th wide receiver and return specialist, but the competition is not completely settled.
Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Houston Texans kicks off at 7pm central at AT&T Stadium.