The Cowboys’ first game is finally here! I’ve listed 19 (yeah, 19, wanna fight about it?) things for you to watch this Sunday night when the Cowboys take on the Bengals.
1. How much will the starters play?
Coach Wade Phillips has said most of the starters will be out of the game quickly. Tony Romo & Co. will probably receive one series on offense, whether they score a touchdown or go three-and-out. The lone exceptions on offense could be left tackle Doug Free, who the coaches surely want to monitor closely, and fullback Deon Anderson due to the nature of his position.
On defense, free safety Alan Ball may stay in the ballgame a bit longer than the other starters, although he has at least racked up significant game film at his position (as opposed to Free, whose left tackle game tape is minimal).
2. Will the first-string offense score on their first drive?
I recently recapped theCowboys’ 2009 woes on initial drives . It will be interesting to see how the offense starts (particularly if they are aggressive) against a much improved Bengals defense.
3. How will new Bengal Terrell Owens be treated by his former Dallas teammates?
T.O. left Dallas on somewhat bitter terms, but don’t think for a second that he doesn’t still have a lot of friends in this locker room. Owens figures to be greeted warmly by most of the roster, particularly because it is just a preseason game. Let’s see how Owens and Romo interact if they cross paths after the game.
4. How will Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins perform against “Batman” (T.O.) and “Robin” (Chad Ochocinco)?
5. Who will step up in the tight race for the fourth cornerback job?
The battle for the fourth cornerback spot is one of my favorite of the preseason. It is particularly intriguing because, in my estimation, the versatility of safeties Ball and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah will allow Dallas to keep just four corners .
Each guy has advantages over the others. Cletis Gordon’s experience has him in the lead as of now. Bryan McCann is the most athletic of the group. Coach Phillips has even labeled him the best in coverage “when he is on,” but he is also quite frail and may not be physical enough in live action. Rookie Jamar Wall has struggled a bit, particularly in coverage, but the ‘Boys invested a sixth-round draft pick in him.
Right now, I’d give a slight advantage to Gordon with McCann’s upside putting him right in the mix. Wall will need to show he can make some plays to stick around.
6. How will Alan Ball tackle?
Ball missed 22.2 percent of tackles last season, forcing me to provide him with a“D” in run support . His athleticism and speed should allow him to make some plays in the passing game, but he really needs to show he can hold up against the run. He could get a few series worth of work on Sunday night to prove he can do so.
7. Will Anthony Spencer, who has a bruised Achilles tendon, receive any reps?
Spencer hurt his Achilles before Tuesday’s practice and is now questionable for Sunday night. I’d presume the Cowboys will hold him out for precautionary reasons, not risking putting the potential Pro Bowl player in for even a series.
8. If Spencer doesn’t start, who will replace him: Victor Butler or Brandon Williams?
Butler is currently listed as Spencer’s primary backup at strong side OLB on theinitial Cowboys depth chart , but Williams has been a beast so far in camp. It will be interesting to see if Williams’ superior run defense skills and tremendous training camp play are reasons enough for the Cowboys to place him on the strong side as the starter opposite DeMarcus Ware.
9. Will either Robert Brewster or Sam Young, both of whom have played well at offensive tackle during training camp, step up in their first game action?
Brewster tore his pectoral muscle before even getting started last season. Both he and Young have played pretty well so far in San Antonio. With Doug Free, Alex Barron, and Marc Colombo all locks to make the final roster, Brewster and Young could be fighting one another for a job.
10. Will left tackle Alex Barron limit his false starts and outperform starter Doug Free?
Barron should see a ton of reps this preseason in his effort to take over the starting left tackle job. I’ve already explained why false starts aren’t all that costly to an offense , but Barron will definitely need to limit them as to not infuriate the coaches. I personally think Barron has a tremendous opportunity to unseat Free, and it starts this weekend.
11. Will we see left guard Kyle Kosier play any center?
The Cowboys don’t really have a true backup center, making Andre Gurode one of the most vital components of the offense. Cory Procter moonlighted at center during his time in Dallas, but he is gone now. Kosier has gotten some reps at center in practice, but not yet in live game action. Watch carefully, particularly if the ‘Boys are in Shotgun.
12. Is Titus Ryan really the No. 1 kick and punt returner?
He’s listed that way on the official depth chart . Yes, Dez Bryant is out with an injury (as was AOA), but perhaps Ryan has a better shot of making the team than we anticipated. His special teams play, particularly on kick returns, will be anenormous factor in Dallas’ decision to retain or unleash either Patrick Crayton or Sam Hurd in favor of the speedster.
13. How will David Buehler perform on both field goals and kickoffs?
I’ve beaten this subject to death, but it really is crucial to the Cowboys’ success this season. Buehler’s primary competition right now is his own mind. I think he has the confidence to be a solid field goal kicker, but he won’t have much room for error. Either way, the Cowboys need to land a reliable kicker to garner the extra win a top-notch one can bring to a club .
14. How will offensive coordinator Jason Garrett use tight end/H-Back John Phillips?
Some analysts have proposed that Phillips’ versatility could allow the Cowboys to release fullback Deon Anderson, but Phillips does not yet possess the requisite blocking ability to make that move. The offense averaged nearly two yards more per carry with Anderson in the game as compared to Phillips in 2009.
Still, watch to see where Phillips lines up on Sunday night. Will he primarily be an in-line tight end, will the Cowboys again utilize him in the fullback slot, or will he move around the field like an H-Back?
15. Will the Cowboys run more to the weak side?
The Cowboys ran to the weak side of the formation less than one-in-five runs last season. They averaged a half-yard more per carry when running weak side , including a larger percentage of big plays and a small rate of negative runs. Let’s see how often offensive coordinator Jason Garrett dials up weak side runs on Sunday night, particularly with Felix Jones in the game.
16. How many plays will the Cowboys run out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” ?
Last season, they averaged 7.25 plays out of the formation (and variations of it), 71.6 percent of which were strong side dives. When they motioned into the formation, they ran the strong side dive 85.7 percent of the time (42 of 49 plays). Let’s see how frequently the Cowboys dial up the formation Sunday night, and if they decide to switch up the playcalling from it.
17. How often (and when) will Dallas run playaction passes?
The Cowboys figure to be very “vanilla” in their playcalling, not running much other than their basic plays. They averaged less than six playaction passes per game last season, and only 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go. If Garrett plans to run more playaction passes (particularly in short-yardage situations), you’d expect the offense to practice it in the preseason.
18. What will the Cowboys do in the red zone to improve?
I previously suggested three ways by which the offense could improve in the red zone . No matter their strategy, Dallas’ red zone performance will go a long way in determining their final win total this season.
For this game, be sure to track the run/pass ratio when the ‘Boys are inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (and 10-yard line).
19. Will the ‘Boys run more on 3rd down?
Jason Garrett is really a tremendous 3rd down playcaller . If there is one thing I’d like to see him do more, however, it is run the ball more 3rd down . The Cowboys ran only seven times last season on 3rd and 3-6, even though running in those situations is actually statistically as efficient as passing .
I will track Garrett’s run/pass ratio on 3rd down this weekend and report back to you on that early next week.