Dallas Cowboys: Five Secret Clues to Uncover in the Chargers Game
The Dallas Cowboys play their second preseason game tonight and there are clues to look for in all four quarters that will reveal the strength and depth of this team on many levels.
Let's be honest, most of us would rather watch an episode of Cupcake Wars than sit through any preseason game featuring teams we don't root for.
But if you are a die hard Cowboys fan and you really want to know what to expect from this team this year, there are five clues that will be buried in the bland, uninspiring sand of this glorified scrimmage. To assist you in uncovering these indicators, refer to this list during the game and keep track of the results.
QB's Stepping Up Into Pocket to Throw
In order to step up and really spin the ball down field, a QB needs his center and guards to secure the center of the line. The tackles can route their defenders out and around, away from the pocket, but the center and guards must have the vision and strength to prevent all assaults from resulting in penetration or push back.
This is fundamental to success with any offense. If you start seeing early pocket abandonment, designed roll outs and sacks, it's an indication that this disaster area is still in need of relief funding. The only man who can provide that is Jerry Jones. His latest quotes indicate he knows he's failed here.
The results you see tonight will be a clue as to how quickly Jones deploys his checkbook to fix this mess.
So count the number plays where a Cowboys QB steps up comfortably in the pocket against the number of times the pocket folds like a cheap card table.
RB's Gaining Yardage Up the Middle
As with all preseason games, there won't be anything exotic in the play-calling. The runs you see will be basic stuff that Dallas' line can either execute or not. In the first game, it was a bunch of not with the first-teamers.
Count up the number of positive yardage runs up the middle against the number of stuffs. This will give you the other metric you need to assess whether any improvements have been made with the center of this line.
Running up the middle is critical to the success of play-action passes and short yardage success. If Dallas continues to struggle here, defensive fronts will rush the passer without hesitation, making pass protection that much harder.
Morris Claiborne will play tonight, despite having very little practice time with Dallas thus far. There is a good chance he will be burned on at least one occasion. It's a rite of passage for rookie corners entering the NFL and it will mean absolutely nothing about his potential as an NFL corner.
The important indicators to look for with Claiborne are the number of times he positions himself for press coverage. Rob Ryan needs quality press coverage from his starting corners to make his defense work. Claiborne's comfort level with this in his first start will be a clue as to how close he is to fulfilling the role he was drafted for.
So if he gets beat a time or two, that isn't a big concern. The real issue is how short is his memory about those plays and does he come back aggressively in coverage the next time.
Passes defended and interceptions are obviously very important to track as well, although preseason interceptions can be deceiving. The only preseason game that ever comes close to matching a real game for player focus is the third game.
In the second game you can expect QB's to still be testing the limits of their arms and trying to fit balls into places they might not attempt in a real game. Likewise, corners can afford to take more risks and ball hawk a bit more in the preseason.
So keep track of the number of snaps where Claiborne appears to be playing with confidence more so than the number of times he makes a huge play or gets burned. Obviously if he's toasted repeatedly it's a cause for concern, but his confidence at this point is a better indicator of how quickly he will adapt to the NFL. He has all the talent he needs and his coaches will fix the technical problems where they exist.
Defensive Pressures/Sacks of Charger QB's
This is something that is important to track through all four quarters. Don't be lulled to sleep when the three's and four's are in there. Ben Bass looked like a man among boys in the second half of the Raiders game.
Was that just a flash in the pan or is he going to follow that up with more dominance tonight? Will he get a chance to play a few snaps with one's and two's tonight? These are the kinds of questions worth answering by paying attention to players deeper on the chart.
In a 2010 preseason game featuring the Giants and the Jets, an unknown rookie receiver torched the Jets for three touchdowns and really caught the attention of Rex Ryan, who commented to Tom Caughlin after the game, "You really got something there."
That kid was Victor Cruz, who amazingly, still didn't start until injuries in early 2011 gave him a chance.
Sometimes a future star comes out of nowhere and the first glimpses of his brilliance are found in these humble preseason tilts.
The Raiders game wasn't a positive for Dallas just because they pitched a shutout. That only happened due to a missed 36-yard field goal and several dropped passes. It was a positive because the defensive line gave pressure through four quarters.
Guys like Alex Albright and Ben Bass gave strong hints that they might have something.
And let's not forget about Tyrone Crawford who was relatively quiet in the first game. Dallas really needs to see something from him to feel good about giving him snaps this season. They would like him to play on passing downs as soon as he shows he can contribute. That starts tonight.
So keep track of the pressures and sacks and who is getting them. The fact that DeMarcus Ware is out is actually a good thing. It allows for an assessment of where pressure can be generated in his absence.
Tight End Production
Jason Witten's injury will either be a devastating blow to the Dallas offense or it will be the door that opened for other tight ends to prove they deserve targets in the 2012 passing game.
It's cliche to say it, but the NFL really is a copy cat league. Thirty one teams looked at the production that Bill Belichick got from his two-tight-end offense last year and many teams will seek to mimic those mismatches.
Garrett has wanted to do this for years, but Martellus Bennett wasn't up to the challenge.
Tight ends represent the greatest mismatch opportunity on the field. No where else can you put a skill position guy among defenders that he outweighs by fifty pounds and has a six inch height advantage over.
You can't do that with running backs, they have to get past 280 pound linemen. You can't do that with receivers, they may be a bit taller and heavier than corners, but very few have a Megatron advantage.
But if you find a tight end with good speed and hands to go with it, now you've got something. If you find two of them, look out.
So keep an eye on James Hanna. If I had my way, there would be a camera that only followed tight ends tonight. I think it's that vital. If Hanna can build on his solid performance in the Raiders game, it will tell Garrett to keep giving him snaps during this critical learning time.
Hanna's attributes point to a much greater upside than what exists with John Phillips. Hanna is much faster and more explosive, so he could be a big yards-after-the-catch target for Romo, if he learns to get off the line and get separation. Concern over his hands seem to be subsiding after a strong camp with few drops.
But the progress of John Phillips is also very important and worth watching tonight as well. Phillips will be called upon to replace Witten, if he should miss any regular season games. It's almost inconceivable that Hanna would start over Phillips, no matter how well he does in preseason.
Phillips has been with Dallas for a few years now. He has learned from Witten, he knows the offense and he will be vital to its success in Witten's absence. When Witten returns and if Hanna hasn't taken over the No. 2 spot, Phillips could continue to play a vital role by being the reliable all-purpose tight end that Bennett never managed to become.
Specific things to watch for tonight:
Obviously catches, but look for where those catches are made
Blocking. Take your eye off the ball and look for the tight ends to see how well they do in pass protection and on running plays.
Move-tight-end plays. Keep an eye out for any plays that put a tight end in the back field or in motion. Hit replay a few times and really see what happened with the play. Dallas has to balance not giving anything away with needing live action practice on these plays.
I am most interested in seeing Hanna in this role. Will they use him as an H-back and actually hand him the ball? There are two schools of thought on this. If you put it out there for teams to study on film, yes they know about it, but it also burdens them with yet another thing to prepare for.
The other thought is, don't show it in preseason so there is some element of surprise. Teams have seen Phillips line up in the backfield, but he always takes on a blocking fullback role.
With Hanna, it's still an unknown what he would do. He could roll out into the flat and catch a pass, he could block or he could take a hand-off. Will the Cowboys show any of this tonight? Watch and find out.
Well, there you have it. Your personal map for uncovering clues about the upcoming season and avoiding the "why on earth am I watching this" question that usually arises by the second quarter.
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