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There’s a lot we can take away from the Cowboys’ 24-23 win over the Denver Broncos last night, so let’s dive right in. . .
- I was impressed with rookie Dan Bailey’s kickoffs. If he can consistently garner touchbacks, he should make the roster over David Buehler. If he cannot, I think the Cowboys should carry two kickers. Despite the 42-yard field goal last night, Buehler’s placekicking is simply too erratic to count on.
- The defense did some blitzing, but the pre-snap alignments weren’t as chaotic as I anticipated. It is likely that Rob Ryan was playing “vanilla” due to a lack of practice time and the fact that he wants to see players’ athleticism take over (as opposed to them “thinking” too much about assignments).
- The numbers don’t really show it, but the Cowboys need to improve their run defense at the point of attack. Too often this team lets the running back get five yards downfield before anyone puts a hat on him. Having said that, I liked the play of the defensive ends, particularly Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher. Both will be allowed to freelance far more in 2011 than last season. Hatcher looks a lot quicker than usual.
- Felix Jones could have a big-time year. If he stays healthy (a big if), he has the explosiveness to be one of the premiere running backs, is underratedd in short yardage situations and at running between the tackles, and is improving mightily as a receiver. He was my sixth-highest rated Cowboy in 2010, and I think he has a legitimate chance at being a top three player on the team in 2011. Early prediction: if healthy, 1400 total yards and 8-10 touchdowns.
- One of the reasons I think Jones will have a career season is the offense’s ability to run screens. With Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis gone, this offensive line is far, far more mobile. I wrote on Twitter last night that you can expect a lot more screens from Dallas in 2011. Here are some 2010 screen statistics. Dallas ran 71 screens in 2010, including 44 to running backs. You can expect these totals to increase to around 100 and 70.
- You can still expect Jason Garrett to dial up plenty of screens following play-action looks. The ‘Boys did it a couple of times again last night. In my 2010 Play-action Pass Guide, I noted the Cowboys ran a screen on 19.3% of play-action passes–nearly double the 10.0% rate on non-play-action looks. Garrett loves to run screens out of Ace formation.
- Good news and bad news. The bad news is Garrett is still running a lot of plays from Double Tight Strong. In my study on the formation, I noted he called a strong side dive from it on 77.6% of runs and 64.2% of the time overall. The team averaged only 2.15 YPC on these runs. The good news is 1) Garrett called far more runs from the formation in the preseason last year than he did in the regular season, so its presence in 2011 could be as a gauge to judge players, and 2) he ran weak side out of the formation more often than usual. If he can use his “predictability” out of the formation to his advantage by occasionally faking the strong side dive and throwing deep, it can be a valuable tool. Otherwise, it needs to be scrapped.
- Victor Butler is a beast. He is a terror off the edge and dramatically improved against the run. He had an incredible move last night that led to a Clifton Geathers sack of Tim Tebow. He needs a legitimate chance to beat out Anthony Spencer. I’m not as low on Spencer as most, but I now think Butler is the superior player.
- Rookie cornerback Josh Thomas and Alan Ball could be battling for a roster spot. I think Thomas wins the job due to upside and incredibly quick feet.
- Bryan McCann struggled last night. He was called for pass interference once and got away with another penalty on Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. With Terence Newman’s injury history, McCann needs to step up this season.
- I really liked what I saw from Tyron Smith. His versatility is incredible, as he can overpower in the run game and get out in space on screens. I didn’t like that Garrett kept him in the game for so long. He’s far more valuable to the offense than most people realize.
- Sean Lissemore played a lot of nose tackle last night. He looks noticeably bigger and his versatility should land him a roster spot. Hopefully it comes at the expense of Igor Olshansky.
- After a rough start, Stephen McGee rebounded to go 14-for-24 for 208 yards, three scores and a pick. He is still struggling to read the blitz and get out of the way of pressure, but his athleticism makes up for it sometimes. He’s improving.
- Rookie receiver Dwayne Harris had a monster game. The stats were nice (five receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns), and his run-after-catch ability is superb. If he keeps it up, he could beat out Kevin Ogletree for slot receiver duties. I’m pulling for him.
- I liked what I saw from rookie guard David Arkin. He surprised me with his ability to get out in space and move around–a trait that wasn’t considered his strong point. Still, I’m not sure the Cowboys can count on him for much production in 2011.