Back before camp began, I anticipated Cowboys preseason games featuring promising rookies Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, and more chances for John Phillips and Martellus Bennett to sew up their roles in a multifaceted Cowboys offense. None of those players of interest will be on the field tonight. There are, of course, some interesting storylines that we will still be able to follow.
1. The lack of available tight ends, the adjustments that must be made with the loss of John Phillips for the season, and potentially larger roles for receivers and fullbacks
This obviously involves several players, both tonight and moving forward. For tonight, my first concern is that Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett maintain control of the game and do not overexpose Jason Witten. Beyond that, most game previews have featured fullback Chris Gronkowski, and for good reason, as Phillips' injury gives him a better shot at making the team, and reports on Gronkowski after the game and during the week from Jerry Jones and coaches were quite positive. I'm curious to see not only how he performs, but how he is utilized.
In addition to the effect on personnel, tonight's formations will be interesting to watch. The Cowboys will have to feature more fullback and 3+ receiver sets.
2. Whether the offensive line allows Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee to survive the game
The Cowboys offense sputtered against the Bengals once the starters left, making evaluations of McGee difficult. With Alex Barron out, Robert Brewster - who was widely panned after his performance Sunday - moves up to the second team blindside spot. The first requirement will be to keep the two backups from being beaten to a pulp, but some consistent pass blocking, allowing the QBs a fair amount of time to make their reads, would be nice.
3. Will the front seven backups impress again?
Edge players Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher, Brandon Williams and Victor Butler all featured last week, with Bowen drawing possibly the brightest reviews on the team. Josh Brent made his professional debut and impressed. Another strong performance, coupled with Sean Lee's debut next week, could have this area entrenched as the strongest on the team. I'm once again looking forward to seeing Jason Williams, but for the opposite reason. He's currently the one weak link among the front seven backups, but the potential is always present for a eureka! moment.
4. David Buehler
He was not able to quiet critics, after missing badly from 49 yards and not being allowed to try a long kick so that Wade Phillips could ice a preseason game. He'll be in the friendly confines tonight, with another chance to strengthen his grip on the field goal job.
5. Alan Ball and Doug Free
The pair has done so well this summer that the two biggest starting question marks heading into camp seem to be afterthoughts after just three weeks. I will still have my eye on them tonight, as Free will receive another unique test - this time seeing a variety of right ends, from starter Matt Shaughnessy to nickel rushers Trevor Scott and Kamerion Wimbley. Ball will face an offense that wants to throw the ball deep and run the ball.
6. Penalties by the first team OL
I don't see a preseason drive here or there as the indication that some do, but two things haunted the Dallas offense last year: its red zone offense and penalties and mistakes by the offensive line. I think that the latter was one of the key causes for the former, and the line did not avoid penalties even on its one drive, with a hold by Andre Gurode putting the offense in the kind of hole that it saw over and over last season. I would love to see the line develop consistency in blocking their assignments and avoiding penalties, even in the short sample of a preseason.
7. Special teams aces
Last week Jesse Holley stood out on special teams, sparking some discussion this week about whether he has a shot at winning the last receiver spot. Can he repeat that performance and really make things interesting, and will anyone else emerge?