Before reading the Cowboys vs. Raiders preview below, take a look at our initial game notes from the Hall of Fame game, what we learned about the Cowboys, and our final player grades from Sunday night.
1. How much will the starters play and will they erupt against Oakland’s second-team defense?
The playing time for the starters will really be a situation to monitor in every preseason game. Coach Wade Phillips said the starters’ overall playing time will remain steady despite an additional preseason game. When you combine that with the fact the Cowboys will be coming off of just three days rest, you probably won’t see the starters too long.
A full quarter is standard for the second preseason game, although it wouldn’t surprise us to see the No. 1 guys leave a little earlier than that.
Don’t forget that this is Oakland’s first preseason game, meaning their starters will be out of the game before you know it. It is very possible the Cowboys’ first team offense and defense will still be in the game against Oakland’s second-team defense and offense.
2. Will the first-team offense score a red zone touchdown?
They didn’t on Sunday night despite four plays inside the five-yard line. Roy Williams was targeted on two of the team’s three pass attempts in that area. Tight end Jason Witten didn’t get a look, although Dallas is sure to use very bland plays in preseason. In fact, look at some of the trends we noticed from the Bengals game.
3. What will the Cowboys do at tight end? Will they run more three-receiver sets and off-balance lines?
Sicko probably won’t suit up (concussion), but he hasn’t been ruled out just yet. If he plays, he will probably get a lot of work. Whether it is this week or next, it will be interesting to see how Sicko performs knowing his chances of making the squad just skyrocketed with John Phillips out for the season.
With John Phillips out for the season, Scott Sicko will need to prove he is a capable blocker to make the 53-man roster.
Backup tight end Martellus Bennett is expected to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury. Bennett could theoretically be more valuable to the team now than ever, but not so if he is on the bench.
The Cowboys recently signed tight end DajLeon Farr to fill a vacancy at the position. Farr and Jason Witten are the only tight ends on the roster available to play Thursday.
The big questions is, with Farr having just been signed, how much will Witten play? It is unlikely the Cowboys will force Witten to play due to a simple lack of depth, so Farr is going to have to learn the offense quickly. Fullback Chris Gronkowski could also see some time at tight end.
No matter who plays tight end (and how much), expect the Cowboys to run a lot of three-receiver sets and offbalance lines to combat the tight end depth issue.
4. Will Doug Free come out on fire as he did in Week One? Can Alex Barron rebound after a disappointing start to his Cowboys career?
Free looked sensational in pass protection and strong in run blocking against a worthy adversary in the Bengals’ Antwan Odom. Meanwhile, Barron gave up a sack and struggled on a bunch of other plays. If Barron plays (he tweaked an ankle on Sunday night), how will he do after losing a ton of ground on Free?
5. How will the starting receivers do against Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha?
Asomugha generally mans one side of the field, so Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Patrick Crayton could all get cracks at him. Austin played fairly well against Asomugha on Thanksgiving last season.
6. Will the second-string offensive line perform better on Thursday?
Other than Barron, the rest of the second-string linemen were below average as well. Robert Brewster struggled at both left and right tackle and Pat McQuistan was awful at guard. Quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee were running for their lives, meaning an injury to any of the starting linemen could spell disaster for Dallas.
In our first “Grading the ‘Boys” segment of the season, we gave Barron, Brewster, Travis Bright, Pat McQuistan, and Mike Tepper grades of D, D, C-, D-, and D, respectively. Wow.
7. Will Robert Brewster get flagged for illegal formation?
We noted in our post-film study observations that right tackle Robert Brewster was very close to lining up in the backfield on a few occasions. Let’s see if the coaches noticed it and correct his alignment by Thursday.
8. Can Stephen Bowen continue the success he had in Sunday’s game? How about Victor Butler and Brandon Williams?
Bowen was a monster against the Bengals. He displayed incredible burst and really gave the Cowboys a lot of confidence about their defensive end situation.
The same can be said for outside linebackers Victor Butler and Brandon Williams. The Cowboys didn’t address the position in this year’s draft because of their confidence in these two players, and it appears to be paying off. We were particularly impressed with Butler, whose run defense looks much improved. He made multiple tackles after running across the backfield from the weak side of the formation. He really had a tremendous night.
Consistency will be key for all three of these players, so let’s hope they carry their success into Thursday night’s match-up.
9. Jamar Wall has struggled all preseason. How will he play against a less-intimidating Raiders receiver corps?
We would now label Wall a longshot to make the roster. He hasn’t played particularly well during any phase of the offseason or preseason. He made poor decisions in coverage, looked less-than-stellar on punt returns, and badly missed a tackle on Jordan Shipley’s long punt return.
He needs to pick up his play immediately to have a chance at cracking the 53-man roster (and perhaps even the practice squad at this point).
10. How will rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah perform in their first live game action?
Both players will probably suit up after returning to practice. Pay close to attention to Sean Lee’s coverage, as his primary role this season figures to be as a nickel linebacker.
Meanwhile, ‘Kwasi could return kicks and should see some time at free safety. Let’s see if the small-school product has NFL-caliber game.
11. Will the starting defense contain Raiders running back Michael Bush?
This is important because a few of the starting running backs the Cowboys will face this season are somewhat similar to Bush. Brandon Jacobs and Larry Johnson are both big, bruising backs who still have decent speed. The Cowboys’ big 3-4 defense usually comes out on top against those types of backs.
It is small, shifty backs that typically trouble the Dallas defense. Raiders running back Darren McFadden is out due to a hamstring injury, though, so the ‘Boys might see a bit more of Michael Bush.
12. How will David Buehler respond after a shaky start to his NFL field goal kicking career?
We have predicted Buehler will win all kicking duties and discussed why we think this would be the right move, but Buehler didn’t do much to help his case in Week One. His kickoffs were again sensational, but his accuracy on field goals (and even his extra point) left much to be desired.
He will get another shot to prove himself Thursday night, but a similar performance would probably force the Cowboys to add a veteran.
13. Can the Cowboys fix the problems that plagued their punt coverage unit against Cincy?
Jordan Shipley’s punt return to the Cowboys’ two-yard line was the result of poor punt coverage and a few missed tackles. The play of the special teams was a major reason for Dallas’ 2009 success, so that problem has to get fixed this week.