View from the Sideline: 5 Thoughts on Preseason Opening Loss to 49ers

by | Aug 10, 2018 | Articles, The League, The Team

From my vantage point on the sideline, here’s my review of the Cowboys’ 24-21 loss at the 49ers on Thursday night.

01.

The Cowboys Could Not Escape The Game Injury-Free

What’s the number one goal of preseason games? Evaluate players, of course, but mainly to get through the games injury-free.  In the first half: Mission Accomplished! No Cowboys’ players were treated for injury through the first two quarters. But there were three injuries in the second half.

Near the end of the third quarter, backup guard/center Marcus Martin was taken to the X-Ray room for an injury to his right big toe. Fourth-year safety Marqueston Huff suffered a groin injury and missed the fourth quarter. And it’s never good news when the athletic trainers call for a cart. That’s what happened with rookie wide receiver Marchie Murdock who hurt his left ankle late in the game. He made it over to the Cowboys bench where team orthopedist Dan Cooper examined him. Murdock was unable to put any weight on the ankle, so the doctors/trainers had to ask for a cart to get Murdock to the X-Ray room.

If Martin, Huff and Murdock are unable to practice, there is a domino effect on the roster. Martin is competing with Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards, and Dustin Stanton to be the backup guard. If there’s no Martin, does Chaz Green move from tackle to guard? Green needs more reps as the swing tackle. And Huff was having a pretty good camp; this injury is a setback for him personally, but there’s also not a lot of depth at safety. As for Murdock, he’s a long shot for the roster, but he is a guy who might stick around in the NFL on a practice squad. On what was otherwise a good night for the receiving corps (touchdown catches by Michael Gallup and Lance Lenoir), the injury to Murdock near the end of the game was unfortunate.

Tony Avelar via AP

02.

Dak And The First-Team Offense Looked Great

The first-team Cowboys offense looked sharp and carved-up the 49ers defense in its only series of the game. Dak Prescott finished 3-for-3 for 39 yards including a 30-yard scoring strike to rookie 3rd-rounder Michael Gallup.  The unit was efficient, even without Zeke Elliott (held out of game as a precaution) and Cole Beasley (stayed back in Oxnard, sore groin).

Entering the game, the coaches wanted to get the first-team offense about 8-to-12 snaps. They wanted Dak to have time to get in some work with his new wide receivers. The passing game has been a work-in-progress during training camp practices. But the unit looked good in preseason action. Their touchdown drive covered 75 yards on 10 plays. Dak was sacked on one of those plays, but later he made up for those lost yards when he scrambled for a first down to keep the drive going. Overall, a big thumbs-up for Dak and the first teamers.

03.

Cowboys Fans Are Going To Love This Guy

As a sideline reporter, I love preseason games because each summer there’s a new dynamic in the Cowboys’ bench area due to new players and new coaches. It’s interesting to see personalities emerge …and Tavon Austin is that personality this year.

Austin is a 6-year veteran. He spent his first 5 seasons with the Rams. The Cowboys acquired him in the offseason in a trade. New wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal called Austin a sparkplug for the offense.

But he’s a really a spark for the whole team. From the sideline, he was the veteran guy that was going up to all the young players – on both offense and defense – to offer encouragement and keep the energy level high on the Cowboys bench. He was the one bouncing around after making a catch, or running over to teammates who just made a good run or a nice catch. His enthusiasm was contagious.

Austin is the smallest guy on the field (5’ 8”, 179), but he was a bundle of energy. When it’s late in the 4th quarter of preseason action, he was the one keeping his teammates fired-up. I’ve been told by numerous coaches that this guy is a leader and student of the game. That was manifested on Thursday by the way he worked the sideline and boosted his teammates confidence and energy.

04.

Sliced & Diced Late In The Game

It’s late in the 4th quarter of a preseason game and those 3rd & 4th stringers aren’t going to make the final roster anyway, so what’s the big deal if the Cowboys defense allows a scoring drive and the 49ers rally to win? Who cares, right? Well, the coaches care. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, assistant DL coach Leon Lett, LB coach Ben Bloom, and DBs coach Kris Richard were coaching as if it were the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl, trying to put the young players in best position to succeed. Those defensive penalties – jumping offsides and the pass interference calls – had the coaching staff steaming on the sideline. There are lots of teaching points on film following this game. It’s not going to be a fun meeting in the defensive backs room this weekend.

Tony Avelar via AP

05.

Lance Lenoir And The Ensuing Touchdown Celebration

Lance Lenoir was on the Cowboys’ practice squad for 15 games last year. He finally got promoted to the 53-man roster for the regular season finale at Philly. But Lenoir is having a great Training Camp this summer and is making a push for the 53-man roster. That’s why his toe-tapping 2-yard touchdown catch on Thursday night in the 3rd quarter was so awesome.

Not just because it was a thing a beauty, keeping his feet in-bounds as his body was falling towards the sideline. But because now all of Cowboys Nation know what his coaches & teammates know: this kid is good.

It was fun to see the sideline celebration after Lenoir’s terrific touchdown snag of Cooper Rush’s pass. It wasn’t just the receivers that ran down the sideline to congratulate him. It was every coach, every player on offense and defense, and the Cowboys support staff like the trainers and equipment guys.

Lenoir worked so hard last year on the scout team, and he earned the respect of defenders that he faced every day in practice. He’s playing a lot of special teams, so Lenoir mixes with all the position players and several of the assistant coaches. Lenoir still has an uphill climb and the Cowboys may have to keep six wide receivers on the 53-man roster instead of five if Lenoir is to remain in Dallas for another season. But it was great to see the team celebrate Lenoir’s success in the game and recognize his hard work over the past year.

Bonus

Defensive Takeaways

The defensive collapse in the final two-minutes which allowed the 49ers to rally and score a game-winning touchdown was the lowlight of the night. The Cowboys blew a lead, and the 49ers prevailed 24-21 by scoring a touchdown with only :18 left on the clock.

But before the third and fourth team defense stunk it up, there were some real bright spots.

Tony Avelar via AP

It was fun to see the defensive staff mix things up with some blitzes, and good to see the aggressive play of the linebackers come up with takeaways. In the second quarter, linebacker Joe Thomas (playing for Sean Lee) intercepted a pass that was deflected into the air by safety Kavon Frazier who was blitzing on the play. In the 4th quarter, third string cornerback Duke Thomas came up with and interception. The defense recovered a fumble in the 3rd quarter.

Of all the statistics in a box score, the number one indicator of wins/losses in the turnover ratio. The Cowboys defense needs to record takeaways, and when they weren’t shooting themselves in the foot with stupid penalties, they did a good job of taking the ball away from the 49ers. And while a guy like rookie defensive end Dorance Armstrong didn’t record a sack, he did get some pressures on the quarterback. Armstrong also had a big play in the run defense. Another young defensive end, Taco Charlton, also had his name called a few times in the game as he got into the backfield. Jaylon Smith looked really strong. You could really see Leighton Vander Esch’s athleticism. There were some good things for the defense, but those ugly penalties late in the game were costly.

So, as we say with Training Camp and Preseason Games, its’ a work in progress. The players have Friday off, then it’s back to work this weekend in Oxnard. The coaches have a lot of fodder, a lot of teaching points, following the loss at the 49ers.

As for this weekend, practice resumes Saturday in Oxnard. The team enters its final week of work in California before heading home Friday, August 17th.  Preseason game #2 versus the Bengals is Saturday, August 16th at AT&T Stadium.