The Dallas Cowboys play Saturday night against St. Louis in a game that is scheduled just 11 days prior to their regular-season opener in New York. In other words, this is likely the last chance you'll have to see starters and key contributors before the 2012 campaign officially kicks off.
Some things we'll be watching for...
John Phillips and James Hanna
No one knows if Jason Witten will be ready to go against the Giants in 12 days, but the Cowboys must ensure there's a contingency plan in place, especially when you consider that Dez Bryant and Miles Austin aren't healthy right now either.
The Dallas offense loves two-tight end sets, so they'll need Phillips and Hanna to adjust quickly. They didn't have Witten against San Diego last week, but at that point, the team was still reeling from the news that he was hurt. Now, Jason Garrett has had time to plot out how they'll replace Witten, and we'll likely get a taste Saturday night.
Hanna has looked very good in camp. He's a rookie who comes with questions regarding his blocking, but he's held up, thus far, and he already has six catches for 46 yards thus far. He'll get plenty of first-team work alongside Phillips, who's still relatively fresh off of an ankle injury.
Kevin Ogletree vs. Cole Beasley vs. Andre Holmes
Because we love to frame everything in a black-and-white fashion, we've concluded that these three receivers are competing for one job. In actual fact, all three should make the Dallas roster, and they should all play unique roles.
Beasley's in the best shape because he stands out as a quality slot option. Considering Austin's health (or lack therof), that's big. He'll play this season regardless. Ogletree and Holmes are a little different, and that's where we actually get some true competition.
Ogletree is a veteran who's blown opportunities like these in the past, but he's looked like a whole new player this summer. Holmes came out of nowhere as an undrafted free agent from 2011 and has dazzled with his athletic ability.
So long as Bryant and Austin continue to battle injury bugs, we'll see a lot of both going forward. But, how each performs Saturday could indicate who gets his number called more often in Week 1.
Nate Livings returns to boost the interior offensive line
The Cowboys are still missing Phil Costa at center, but they're expected to have both starting guards against the Rams. Nate Livings hasn't taken a single snap in the preseason, but his injured hamstring is better, and he's ready to join Mackenzy Bernadeau in the starting lineup.
Livings and Bernadeau are free-agent acquisitions from Cincinnati and Carolina. Neither is highly touted, but they were brought in to shore up a position that lacked consistency in 2011. Injuries limited both for much of August, but now, we'll get to see them work together for the first time. The next week and a half is huge for both veterans.
Dan Connor vs. Bruce Carter: The final chapter?
I'll repeat what I've said a few times: This battle isn't crucial because both inside linebackers will play plenty in 2012. That said, Carter appears to have a small edge in a competition that could be having an extremely positive effect on both players.
They're essentially fighting for who gets a small majority of the snaps at this point, but it's an important juncture with the Giants on deck and few opportunities left to impress. I'd like to see more from both players, so hopefully, the pressure will cause them to make some plays Saturday night.
I'll also be keeping an eye on Felix Jones, Jason Hatcher, and of course, Morris Claiborne. Check back this weekend for a complete review of the Cowboys' performance.