The Dallas Cowboys entered their third preseason contest feeling confident in their path of preparation for the games that count.
After a 20-19 win over the St. Louis Rams at Cowboys Stadium, it's safe to assume they are feeling even better about themselves. Don't let the
smooth taste final score fool you; Dallas collectively whooped on the Rams for most of the game.
The guys that matter, a.k.a. the first-team units on both offense and defense, shined throughout the first quarter. Mixing in select backups for the second quarter, the team continued to exhibit their multi-faceted skillset despite the fact that the opponent appeared completely overmatched and unsure of their own direction. (Here's a hint Rams fans, it's downward.)
Therein lies the rub; was the sterling performance a result of being ready to face the defending champion New York Giants on September 5th, or were the Rams so inept that everything worked? For sure, the defense was stout, but they didn't face a single run from a healthy Steven Jackson. Say what, Jeff Fisher?
Dallas played without All-World OLB DeMarcus Ware (hamstring) and Mike Jenkins (shoulder) on defense, and without Jason Witten (spleen), Miles Austin (hamstring), Dez Bryant (knee) and Phil Costa (back) on offense. They did, however, welcome back Nate Livings, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff. Unfortunately, Ratliff's return was short-lived as he had his ankle rolled up on and is going to have an MRI on Sunday. It's assumed that it's a high ankle sprain that will keep him out at least four weeks.
That news couldn't completely damper the spirits of the team and Cowboys fans alike after such a thorough performance through the first half, most notably the first quarter.
Tony Romo toyed with the St. Louis secondary in the first quarter and then sat back and looked for a ballcap to turn backwards. With the assistance of a regular-season-ready DeMarco Murray, Romo maneuvered the Cowboys downfield on their opening drive in a hurry. A third-down completion to John Phillips was followed by a 20 yard in the air fling to Kevin Ogletree down the right sideline that went for 25 yards total. Romo would later complete a pass to John Phillips down to the St. Louis three that was negated by an extremely questionable offensive pass interference call.
Dallas would settle for a field goal by Dan "Split'Em" Bailey and a 3-0 lead.
The St. Louis offense hit the field, got weighed and measured and found to be wanting. After a quick slant was caught on Morris Claiborne, who was providing way too much cushion to Brandon Gibson, the defense locked in. Sean Lee thwarted an underneath pass, the defensive line swallowed an up-the-gut run and then Hatcher used a great swim move to sack Sam Bradford and end the drive.
Back on the field came the offense who apparently really wanted to watch the defense perform. DeMarco Murray raced a pitch off the left tackle to the sideline for a gain of 16. On the very next play, Tony Romo took the snap, set up camp, fried up a kielbasa and then let loose a 61 yard bomb to second-year receiver Dwayne Harris.
Harris is in a fight for a spot on the depth chart anywhere from number three behind Austin and Bryant to the last man standing. His night -- three receptions, 118 yards and two touchdowns -- probably doesn't hurt his cause at all.
One concern Dallas has this preseason has been it's special teams play. To this point it had mostly been the return units, but the coverage unit allowed rookie Isaiah Pead (drafted due to the second rounder Dallas gave the Rams in the Morris Claiborne trade) to return the kickoff to the St. Louis 40. The time frame for worry lasted a bit longer when free agent inside linebacker allowed TE Lance Kendricks to outrace him for another 26 yards. The defense stiffened however, and held the Rams to a 55-yard field goal attempt, which was nailed by their kicker who shall remain nameless. OK, it's Greg Zuerlein.
With four minutes left in the half, the offense returned to further bloody the scene. DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones shared in rushing success. Romo completed passes to Ogletree and undrafted rookie free agent Cole Beasley before finding Harris for his second score.
Under pressure, Romo found Harris wide open across the middle on a crossing pattern. Harris took the ball and raced left, ducked between two defenders and then raced the sidelines to the endzone. Romo finished the first quarter 9 for 13, for 198 yards and the two scores.
Most fans have been wondering what the Cowboys had behind their dual wide receiving threats. Now it appears that Dallas might be keeping up to seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster and not because nobody has stepped forward. Both Harris and Ogletree have the versatility to play both on the outside and in the slot. Miles Austin plays both and the club needs this versatility as opposed to a player that can only do one or the other.
Meanwhile Cole Beasley, a player who walked away from professional football and the ball club for two days earlier in training camp, continues to impress as a slot receiver. The diminutive, shifty receiver possesses great hands and an ability to evade defenders. Both traits were on display during this game.
The Dallas defense continued their stellar play during the exhibitions, refusing to be overshadowed. The entire unit pitched a shutout in Week One at Oakland, and then the first/second team pitched a first half shutout against the first-team San Diego Chargers offense. In this game, they only allowed two field goals; both longer than 50 yards.
At the end of the second half, the Rams tried everything they could to reach the end zone, but the Cowboys denied them deep in their own territory. Sitting at 1st and Goal from the Dallas nine, Bradford tried a back shoulder fade to Austin Pettis; guarded by Claiborne. After being slow to react to several receiver stops and cuts to this point, Claiborne exhibited good positioning. The pass was to the front pylon and Pettis was unable to high point the pass.
On the next play Bradford tried to go underneath but a open field form tackle by second-year linebacker Bruce Carter shut it down at the five. Bradford tried to pass to the flat on third, but the play was defended by Mr. Do Everything, Sean Lee. The Rams decided to take the gamble and attempt a fourth down passing play.
Out of the shotgun, Sam Bradford had time to find former Giant Steve Smith in one-on-one coverage with Morris Claiborne in the back of the end zone. "Pick Six" showed the skillset that earned him that draft position in April and broke on the ball, deflecting it before Smith could snag it. Drive over, double digit lead preserved.
The rest of the game featured backups doing backup things. There were a couple of protection breakdowns that almost got backup quarterback Kyle Orton killed. One on a rush up the middle that the normally stout Felix Jones missed and resulted in a lost fumble. Another occurred when starting LT Tyron Smith and Phillip Tanner didn't have good communication on who would take the DE and who would take the LB. Orton took a serious shot from Robert Quinn.
Later in the game, a few fringe players attempted to make head coach Jason Garrett's decision process very difficult. Safety Manny Silva made a couple huge hits in the game; one separating a receiver from the ball and another stuffing a screen play before it could gain substantial yardage. With his inclusion on all of the special teams units, he'll make Dallas consider keeping five safeties or possibly moving away from rookie Matt Johnson who has been injured all summer.
OLB Adrian Hamilton, the collegiate leader in sacks last year with 22.5 at tiny Prairie View A&M, recorded yet another on Saturday, stripping the ball from Rams backup QB Kellen Clemens. James Hanna, the third tight end, spent most of camp having his athletic ability lauded and his hands questioned. During the preseason games however he hasn't dropped a thing and that continued against the Rams.
On the flip side, UDFA guard Ron Leary struggled quite a bit in his time and UDFA CB Lionel Smith was beaten several times. Both might be fighting for a practice squad position come next week.
WR Danny Coale, S Matt Johnson, RB Lance Dunbar and WR Salim Hakim all made their preseason debuts on Saturday night. None stood out above the crowd and Johnson injured his healthy hamstring after his left one sidelined him before tonight. All will present roster decisions after next week's finale against Miami.
There was no clear winner or loser that rose from the game in the battle for the third quarterback. Stephen McGee did complete a nice pass to Hanna, but didn't do much to distinguish himself from the unbecoming nickname of Checkdown McGee. He wasn't bad though and even scrambled a couple of times. His competition, Rudy Carpenter also had a nice scramble that sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. The Rams had closed to within one point after a late touchdown and losing by eight. Fortunately for all involved, Rams coach Jeff Fisher did not go for a two-point conversion and allowing a game lengthened by injury timeouts and referee interruptions to end in regulation.