Checking The Boxes – Cowboys Preseason Wk1

The Cowboys got out of the gates with a bang for the 2016 NFL Preseason with sophomore Special Teams return man Lucky Whitehead delivering 101 yards worth of excitement at the opening whistle. You never know how that first play of the year is going to turn out. Getting a Special Teams touchdown is one of the better ways to deliver.

Rams fourth year veteran and Special Teams core member RB Chase Reynolds did a beautiful job getting downfield on the opening kickoff from the outside edge lining up a perfect shot on Whitehead who had just fielded the ball and was focused upfield. Reynolds put his head down as he came in for the kill shot just as Whitehead’s spider sense tingled. Lucky executed a perfect ski “schuss” beginning with a juke that left Reynolds clasping air before splitting two perfect blocks by FB Keith Smith and TE Geoff Swaim. Angling to the right side of the field he sprinted to the end zone picking up a wall of protection on his left side. Whitehead was escorted the remaining 30 yards by FB Rod Smith who though trailing, was still frantically searching for someone to hit.

This was a much better start for Cowboys Special Teams and coach Rich Bisaccia than 2015 which was a down year for this unit.

Can the Cowboys front four put pressure on opposing QB’s without blitz assistance? A third and long setup by a procedure call on the Rams OC gave a clue. The Cowboys were able to collapse the Rams pocket resulting in QB Case Keenum having to tuck and sprint for a one yard gain after only 1.8 seconds in the pocket. That’s right. Under two seconds and the Cowboys front four, with no blitz assistance totally obliterated an opposing teams pocket. Sophomore Ryan Russell sealed the deal from the weak side defensive end position after Cedric Thornton (playing at the 3-Tech) and Jack Crawford (playing from the 1-Tech) helped push and collapse the entire pocket to the strong side. Crawford was also able to turn and track the play downfield getting an assist on Russell’s tackle. A huge box checked.

The series in it’s entirety demonstrated the versatility Rod Marinelli plans to employ with his attack this year. Players being deployed at multiple positions via a lineup that changed every down is nasty to face. You draw up a game plan to defend that.

Sophomore TE Geoff Swaim dropped rookie QB Dak Prescott’s first NFL pass. It was perfectly thrown out in the right flat. After Alfred Morris banged it for eight yards off the right side. Prescott threw a strike to WR Cole Beasely on a slant, hitting him in stride for an easy first down. Acing your first third down challenge in the NFL is huge in my opinion. Another box checked.

The team is letting Lucky Whitehead loose on end-a-rounds again this season as he rips off one for another first down. He may not be much of a receiver but at this point, who cares? Another box checked.

Dak then hit Dez Bryant on a nice back shoulder throw up the left sideline for a big first down. You want to see a connection between a backup and/or QB of the future and your star WR. Another box checked.

Alfred Morris carried the rock for the first running play the Cowboys called. He also picked up the correct assignment on blitz pickup and was gold on third and short. “Assignment sound” is the term. He then took a perfectly setup screen from Dak and the offensive line for a third and eleven first down conversion proving he can do it all. Another box checked.

FB/RB Rod Smith took a touch pass in the flat and turned it upfield coming up just short of a first down for a nice gain. Dak then tosses a floater to Dez Bryant from the 11 to the left end zone line who was in one-on-one coverage. Dez high pointed the perfectly thrown ball for six. Another box checked.

Dak was in sync, in rhythm and the offensive line, even without Tyron Smith was dominant. The only pass to hit the ground first struck both hands of the intended receiver. A bunch of boxes checked.

Dallas is going to see screens and quick throws all year long with the way the DLine comes after the QB. They better learn how to defend them better than they showed versus the Rams.

Though having issues with pass protection the Rams offensive line and the running game was working for LA all night. The powerful touchdown run by Rams RB Cunningham from the 15 yard line broke four Dallas tackle attempts and cut the 14-0 lead in half. Tackling has been an ongoing issue in the NFL and most certainly in Dallas the last several years. It needs to be addressed.

Rookie RB Darius Jackson is a very, very impressive player who showed all the tools. Did he look better than Alfred Morris? No. He looked more dangerous. Dunbar and (perhaps) McFadden need to take note. WR Brice Butler looks the part. Dak Prescott picks up in his second drive right where he left off in the first. Looking like a NFL QB. He ended the drive by hitting WR Terrence Williams on a deep double move route at the flag for six. The pass dropped over his shoulder and he cradled it like hot bread for supper. A bunch more boxes checked.

Cowboys Special Teams shined early but gave up a big return here to rookie WR Pharoh Cooper who did a stop/start move and almost left everyone in the dust before being forced out of bounds. Still work to do here.

Rookie LB Derek Akunne gave fellow rookie QB Jared Goff a rude welcome to the NFL in the Rams signal callers first series. On a third down blitz he knocked Goff horizontal just as he tried to deliver a pass knocking the ball into the air where it was intercepted by red shirt rookie LB Mark Nzeocha. Mark fumbled the ball himself at the end of a long return but Dallas recovered setting them up in great field position at their own 38 yard line. A big turnover and another box gets checked.

Prescott’s second incompletion of the night strangely enough was identical to his first with both well thrown balls hitting TE Geoff Swaim square in his hands before bouncing incomplete to the turf. Swaim clearly lost concentration both times.

The Rams DLine starts to get some penetration as the Cowboys begin substituting offensive linemen but RB Jackson doesn’t seem to care as he explodes out of grasping hand tackles. Again, he looks dangerous.

Prescott hit’s a nice deep in-route to WR Devin Street for a first down. On the next play a holding penalty by OL Jake Brendel puts the Cowboys in a first and 20. A delay of game extends that to first and 25 then the Rams get a sack from the right side as OT Witzmann was beat by a speed rush. Not a good run of plays.

Second and 29 got another penalty for Dallas and after the illegal motion penalty they were faced with second and 34. Prescott stood tall in the pocket and hit Street on a crossing pattern for eight. Dak then calmly scrambled for 14 yards putting the Cowboys comfortably in field goal range as Bailey nailed the kick for three.

The Rams rookie QB took over with just over three minutes on the clock. He got into sync with fellow rookie TE Higbee, mixed in some nice runs and marched the team downfield. J.J. Wilcox took a bad angle giving up a big play with a missed tackle in the flat. The ‘Boys did show excellent coverage on deep routes never letting a WR get free over the top.

It was at this point Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox showed what he brings to the party relieving  Rams rookie WR Pharoh Cooper of the ball and his senses at the four yard line while the rookie tried to haul in a pass while running a deep in-route. The Cowboys were in a Cover-2 D and Wilcox was doing what a safety is supposed to in that defense, making anyone who comes across the middle pay.

Flashes of last years O.J. Beckham play instantly came to mind and one has to hope the big hitting safety can solve his geometry woes and become a force for the Cowboys defense.

On third and ten recently signed DL Shaneil Jenkins unleashed a stunt rush that sacked Goff back at midfield ending the scoring threat. All four defenders beat their men as the pocket totally collapsed. Shaneil got there first. That’s how you end a half. Another box checked.

Dallas showed a lot to be excited about and some things that need work. It’s the first half of the first preseason game of the season. The second half was played by different players and had vastly different results. We’ll talk about that another time. Romo, Zeke and a few other key players didn’t suit up. Right now Dak Prescott, who I have been highly critical of showed he’s a player. The Cowboys WR corps seems to be making a statement after a woeful 2015. The Marinelli’s rushmen are living up to their title and the pass coverage is improved. It’s but a a few first steps in a long season. A lot of boxes got checked for the first game of the preseason. Well done.

What say you Sports Nation?

Another Left Coast Sports Post: on Twitter – Steven Van Over

Cowboys Position Battle – Wide Receiver

James Dooley

Eleven practices later the team is ready to play its first preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams. This will be the first time these rookies go through the gambit of what a NFL week consists of. I’m sure the players are ready to hit someone else and the fans are ready to see any semblance of football even if it’s players that may not see any part of the 53 man roster.

The Cowboys have an interesting decision to make with their roster and the Wide Receiver group as a whole which is led by Derek Dooley and he coaches incumbents Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley.

Romo has a comfort level with his top three receivers and this group gets the majority of the snaps out of the eleven offensive personnel group the team has had success with the last three years. If you remember the team went through an identity crisis for awhile with it’s alleged love affair for the 12 offensive group which consists of two tight-ends on the line of scrimmage. The Patriots made the alignment popular with Gronkowski and Hernandez which wrecked havoc on NFL defenses until it was derailed with Hernandez’s arrest.

The organization traded for Brice Butler after Bryant was injured and peeked the teams interest with a big game against the Saints with a 67 yard reception but he hurt his hamstring and missed six weeks which derailed his season. He came back and had a big game against the Bills and finished the season with 12 catches for 258 yards for a twenty-one yard average. The early training camp talk has been about Butler with a full offseason under his belt being able to push Williams for his starting position due to the speed element that he adds, I doubt that will happen during this training camp and if Williams is healthy, Butler will have a hard time setting foot on the field due to the comfort level that Romo has with his Top 3 receivers.

Devin Street has been an enigma since he arrived in Dallas in 2014. The team traded their fifth and seventh round draft picks to move up twelve spots to grab him. To make a long story short, Street has not taken advantage of his opportunities to establish himself as the fourth receiver in this offense. With Bryant being injured, he had the perfect opportunity to put a choke hold on his roster spot but instead he just choked. Butler wound up passing him on the depth chart and he has yet to show the abilities that had the Cowboys believing they struck gold.

In 2015 Lucky Whitehead made the team as an un-drafted free agent showing the ability to add a spark to this offensive unit. Garrett finally let his “sack drop” giving the rookie the opportunity after ten weeks to return punts and kickoffs and was rewarded with a 28 kick-off return average including a 79 yard return against the Eagles and a 46 yard return in the Redskins game to set up the possibility of a game winning field goal. Linehan even opened the playbook for Whitehead to rush for 107 yards off of 10 rushing attempts. I have to admit that I was surprised that he didn’t get decapitated on those jet running plays. Whitehead added eight to ten pounds this offseason to give him the added strength to break tackles. With the NFL continuing its mission of making the game safer it has taken away the element of special teams on the NFL game, specifically the kickoff. Whitehead will have to diversify his game if he wants to continue his career in the NFL. We’ve seen niche players that are pushed off of NFL rosters and because of his size and Cole Beasley, it will be hard for him to make plays as a receiver on this team.

Andy Jones has the fan base riled up and its hard not to see the writing on the wall for him. If he can translate his early training camp success into the preseason games Street will be out of a job. Jones is similar with Street as possession receivers without top-end speed but the difference I want to see with Jones is body control and situation awareness. There are many receivers without speed that are beasts, we will have to see if Jones has some dog in him and will he be able to pickup the nuances of run blocking if he is to make a way on to this roster.

There will be three more games after tomorrow to claim a roster spot, let’s hope we see the competition that will churn the bottom part of this roster.

So Mote It Be!