5 Things to Watch in Cowboys' Matchup vs. Ravens
Saturday night’s Cowboys vs. Ravens matchup will be our first chance to see quarterback Tony Romo in action—an unusually meaningful preseason performance given Romo’s struggles with his back. Per Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News, the most recent rumblings out of Dallas point to Romo being healthy, but there are also signs that something is still wrong.
As much as the Cowboys need this time to practice, especially with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, the most important part of this preseason is simply making it out alive. The Cowboys aren’t in a position to weather the storm if they suffer significant injuries, so it makes sense to play it safe with any players of great importance.
In addition to monitoring Romo’s workload and efficiency, here are five other things to watch in the Cowboys’ Week 2 preseason meeting with the Baltimore Ravens.
Who Is Going to Step Up at Defensive End?
Whether or not Anthony Spencer returns to play before Week 1, the Cowboys need to find a difference-making defensive end to step up opposite George Selvie. This team’s secondary simply isn’t good enough to make up for a weak pass rush.
So who can that player be? Maybe Tyrone Crawford will spend some time on the outside and capitalize on the potential the coaches think he has. Maybe Kyle Wilber will move down from outside linebacker on passing downs and give Dallas some unexpected production.
The player who I like is Martez Wilson, who I see as Selvie circa 2013, but with more upside—lots of length, lots of speed and inexperienced at defensive end such that he can grow into the position.
How Many Audibles Will Romo Make?
It will be interesting to see how much freedom Romo is given at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. We might not be able to determine that after one preseason game, but it will be something to watch throughout the exhibition games and into the regular season.
Historically, Romo has been effective when checking at the line. In my opinion, it should be an either/or sort of situation through which Romo can run the designed play or check to one other (which is what the team has done with its “Kill” audible system). That’s in opposition to opening up the entire play universe for Romo, which could ultimately just make things too complicated.
Can the Interior Line Handle DT Haloti Ngata?
Although he’s coming off a somewhat down year as a pass-rusher, totaling 15 pressures after recording 28 in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is still one of the game’s elite players at his position. He lines up all over the defensive line but will frequently face off with the Cowboys’ interior linemen.
We know the battles with center Travis Frederick will be fun to watch, but let’s monitor the progress of right guard Zack Martin. The rookie has been compared to Frederick by some people inside the organization, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas.
The biggest area for dominance from Frederick and Martin, in my view, is in short-yardage situations. If the Cowboys can find some consistency running behind that duo, they can convert on crucial third downs and goal-line situations, which will be vital for the offense.
Will the ‘Boys Continue to Run a Lot of Play Action?
The Cowboys quarterbacks threw 11 play-action passes on just 29 dropbacks against the Chargers in Week 1 of the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus, which is good for 37.9 percent. Compare that to 14.0 percent for Romo last year, which was fifth-lowest in the league, and 10.0 percent in 2012, which was dead last.
Play-action passes are underutilized across the league but especially in Dallas. You don’t need an effective running game to have success on play action, so the Cowboys can and should use it whether they’re running the ball well or not.
Will WR Chris Boyd Impress?
Fifth-round receiver Devin Street was arguably the Cowboys’ top receiver in their first preseason game, catching four passes for a team-high 43 yards. The Cowboys love what they have in Street, but I think the undrafted Chris Boyd has more potential, especially as a scorer.
The biggest predictors of NFL success at the wide receiver position are size and college stats. Boyd is 6’4”, 206 pounds and scored 13 touchdowns in his first (and only) two seasons of college football at Vanderbilt, according to Sports Reference. Street looks to be a crisp route-runner, but he's pretty lean and also never really dominated in four years at Pitt.
If Boyd is given a chance to grow, I’m betting on him over Street in terms of long-term production.