On Saturday night, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the St. Louis Rams, 20-19, in the first of two preseason games in the friendly confines of Cowboys Stadium. The offense racked up 342 yards in the first half and was clicking on all cylinders from the first snap of the ball. And for the third consecutive time this preseason, the first-team defense held the opposing team without a touchdown.
The third preseason game is obviously the one that matters when it comes to preparation for the real deal. And quarterback Tony Romo relished the opportunity by throwing for 198 yards and 2 TD’s on 9-13 passing. Romo did this all in the first quarter–the only one he played because of his success. His performance was particularly impressive considering the absence of top targets Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, who were both held out with injuries. Romo’s best throw of the night came halfway through the second quarter on first down on a 61-yard bomb to receiver Dwayne Harris. The former sixth round pick out of East Carolina ran a post and got behind the defense as Romo waited for the route to develop and dropped a perfect strike right into the sprinting receiver’s hands. Harris then coasted into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game and the first touchdown throw of the preseason for Romo. He would add another touchdown to Harris on the following drive.
Speaking of Harris..
Harris Stakes His Claim For Third Wide Receiver
In what has become a three-receiver battle, Dwayne Harris may have separated himself from Kevin Ogletree and Cole Beasley in the battle to be Tony Romo’s #3 man. Harris had an electric game, grabbing three balls for 118 yards and 2 TD’s. Harris showed great route-running ability on the night, separating himself from defenders on multiple plays. His second touchdown wowed fans, as he came across the field on a slant and then turned up the sideline. Harris put his shoulder down as two Rams attempted to tackle him and busted through both of them before diving into the end zone for the 38-yard score. It was the second consecutive week with a touchdown for Harris who has had 173 yards receiving with 3 TD’s total in three preseason games. He also showed some moves on punt returns, another job that could be in limbo (I do not believe Jerry Jones will keep Dez there the whole season, too risky)
Starting Defense Continues Streak
Last season’s weakness was obviously the defense. So far this preseason, the starting defense hasn’t given up a single touchdown and that held to form on this night. Ram’s quarterback Sam Bradford was never able to get into a rhythm, as he was pressured and not given the time to throw downfield (6 of 17, 64 yards passing). Linebacker Sean Lee had a spectacular night, collecting 5 tackles, a sack and one pass defensed. On the sack, Lee beat his man with ease and wrapped up Bradford before the second-year quarterback could blink. Dallas also saw the return of three key defensive players in this game: DT Jay Ratliff, DE Jason Hatcher and LB Anthony Spencer. Spencer had three tackles on the night and Ratliff and Hatcher both had one. However, Hatcher’s tackle was a sack on third down on the first offensive possession for the Rams.
Offensive Line Bends, But Doesn’t Break
Since the first preseason game at Oakland, the Cowboy’s offensive line had done a solid job in pass protection and keeping Romo on his feet. He was rarely touched in this game and given time to complete his throws. Early in the game, Romo had to dance around in the pocket a bit to get some breathing room, but it never outright collapsed on him. Only once did he feel any real pressure. It was a good sign for Cowboy fans to see center David Arkin have a solid game as he has taken the brunt of criticism, along with RT Doug Free, for their less-than-stellar performances in the first two games.
Running Game Does The Job, Felix Shows Burst Again
Don’t be so hasty to pass up on running back Felix Jones in the latter stages of your fantasy football draft. The former Razorback showed good field vision and that burst that had been missing the first few games, gaining 34 yards on six carries and catching 2 balls for 23 yards. Primary back, DeMarco Murray was also in fine form, carrying the rock 5 times for 26 yards and getting more involved in the passing game. Although he only made two receptions for 26 yards, he was targeted a multitude of times. Early on, Murray showed great lateral speed on a misdirection play, running to the left and stiff-arming a would-be-tackler on his way to a 16-yard gain. The Cowboys obviously need both running backs to contribute in order for the offense to operate at maximum efficiency
Here are some other observations from the rest of the game
*Wide Receivers Kevin Ogletree and Cole Beasley both had solid games. Ogletree caught 5 passes for 75 yards, including a sideline fade route in which he burned the corner who was trying to press him. Beasley showed all the signs of a good slot receiver like running quick while executing precise routes on the way to 3 catches for 40 yards. His best reception was a nifty one-handed grab thrown a little high by backup quarterback Kyle Orton. Ogletree had a drop on a slant route on third down in the red zone, which are the kind of plays that can really hurt his chances at becoming the Cowboys third wideout.
*First round pick Morris Claiborne had his first pass breakup on the preseason, and it was on a fourth and goal for the Rams. Claiborne dove in front of Rams receiver Steve Smith to swat the ball away and turn the ball over to Dallas on downs. On the flip side, Bradford went after Claiborne again in the red zone and got him with his back turned on a jump ball. Luckily, the receiver dropped it. If it were Hakeem Nicks or Jeremy Maclin, however…
*Special teams had an up/down game. Rams returner Isaiah Pead broke two kickoff returns that gave St. Louis solid field position on two drives, both past the 35-yard line. However, fullback Lawrence Vickers forced a fumble on a punt to former Cowboy Danny Amendola as he helicoptered through the air after a hit by running back Phillip Tanner. The Rams recovered, though. St. Louis also got Dallas on a fake punt on a fourth and one deep in their own territory. It was a risky call, but one that nobody expected. And it resulted in a 30-yard run. Beasley and Harris both showed promise on punt returns, hitting the holes hard. Beasley almost broke one that could have been a touchdown, but was tripped up just as he saw daylight.
*For the second week in a row, the backups gave up multiple long touchdown drives on defense and couldn’t move the ball on offense. The Rams running backs found plenty of holes in the second half and methodically drove down the field against Dallas. A few backup offensive linemen for the Cowboys were penalized in the second half. Ronald Leary was called for holding and Jeremy Parnell got caught on a false start.
*Backup QB Kyle Orton had a solid game, going 9-12 for 99 yards and leading the Cowboys on a 2-minute drill that ended in a Dan Bailey field goal.
*Can somebody please make sure Adrian Hamilton makes the team? The linebacker had a sack and a forced fumble, which came off of a vicious hit to quarterback Kellen Clemens. Hamilton has been one of the underdogs of camp and he is just always in the quarterback’s face.
*CB Mario Butler had a good sack blitzing off the edge, Clemens never saw him. Butler is a player whose stock has gone up because of solid tackling ability and good cover skills shown in the preseason. I expect him to make the team
The injury bug keeps biting the Cowboys. Safety Danny McCray suffered what the Cowboys have called a neck strain on the fourth and goal play that resulted in the pass defense by Claiborne. McCray came across the field and looked to hit the side of his helmet on teammate Gerald Sensabaugh, who was going for the tipped ball. McCray walked off under his own power, but went straight to the locker room.
DT Jay Ratliff reportedly left the Cowboys locker room on crutches and apparently suffered an ankle sprain. The severity of said sprain has not been determined and surely an MRI will be scheduled for next week. Dallas really cannot afford to be without Ratliff for any extended period of time. Sean Lissemore or Josh Brent will be called upon to take his place at nose tackle if he cannot go in the season opener.