Both the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos experimented with their rosters in each team’s first preseason game Thursday night, but football began 2011 with a bang inside Cowboys Stadium. The first, second and third team offenses and defenses of both teams provided an abundance of big plays and the Cowboys’ third-string offense saved the best for last, winning the game with a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the final seconds. Much will be taken from the exhibition, but not nearly all of it was positive. Dallas needs to improve on both sides of the ball, but especially defense. Here’s what we learned from the first preseason game:
Even though new Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought a new attitude to this unit, the Cowboys’ defense has not been fixed overnight. Several starters were absent from the exhibition with injuries, including cornerback Terence Newman. This gave a couple of young defensive backs some extra reps and their inexperience showed. Broncos quarterbacks Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn all found holes in the Cowboys’ secondary early and often.
The most notable mistakes in pass coverage where in Cover 2 and zone coverage in the flats. Tebow and Quinn each split the safeties for long completions to Denver receivers Matt Willis and Mark Dell. Those two plays were only a prelude to all the short passes completed by all three Broncos signal-callers to receivers wide open in the flats. Time and again, guys like Denver receivers David Anderson and Eron Riley were covered right off the line of scrimmage and then just floated to soft spots in the Cowboys’ zone coverage. Nine times out of 10, it was a backup Dallas linebacker who missed the assignment.
This was the end result of the Cowboys’ pass rush not getting enough pressure on those particular plays. That’s definitely not to say the pass rush was ineffective; DeMarcus Ware virtually high-fived Orton as he knocked a pass down on the game’s first play. However, the Broncos passers were able to find those receivers in the flats mostly on plays where pass protection was the best. It was obvious that a few more weeks learning Ryan’s complex blitzing schemes will most likely fix all the little mistakes.
Offensively, Cowboys running back Felix Jones made fans and coaches very optimistic about the 2011 season. Jones must be looking forward to his first year as the undisputed starter in Dallas as he ran for 23 yards on three carries and took a screen pass 16 yards in only one series of play. Jones showed speed and tackle-breaking ability on his few runs and looked very capable of being a featured back in the NFL. To make things even better, he did it with two rookies starting on the offensive line in right tackle Tyron Smith and left guard David Arkin.
Dallas running back Lonyae Miller has been highly touted in training camp, but was unimpressive with the second and third offensive units. Gaining just 11 yards on nine carries, Miller was stopped in the backfield on four of his carries and was not able to break any tackles during his other five. The Cowboys reserve running back who did impress was undrafted rookie Phillip Tanner, who rushed for 44 yards on nine carries. True evaluation of both backs was made possible by the fact they both rushed behind the same players on the offensive line. However, Tanner showed excellent tackle-breaking ability as he mowed down defenders of all sizes in his way. Tanner could easily find himself on the Cowboys’ 53-man roster if he continues to run this well during the remainder of the preseason.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo connected on three of his five passes for a total of 33 yards. Romo’s first pass was a bootleg to fullback Chris Gronkowski for 11 yards. Rollout passes are not common in Dallas head coach and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s playbook, but this one was extremely effective as Gronkowski came open out of the backfield almost immediately and Romo had all kinds of time to get him the short pass. Romo also completed a pass to Witten and then the screen to Jones. Another pass to Witten and a longer throw to receiver Dez Bryant were both a hair off the mark, but the plays were executed well, showing potential.
The Cowboys’ second-team offense did not play much against Denver, but the third unit did. Dallas quarterback Stephen McGee was rattled early by a heavy Broncos pass rush, but found his rhythm and led the Cowboys to an exhibition victory. After the teams traded field goals for most of the first half, McGee connected continuously with Cowboys tight end John Phillips and undrafted rookie receiver Dwayne Harris. Phillips resembled Witten as caught three McGee passes in traffic and showing great hands.
Harris is all the rage in Dallas now after he amassed 127 receiving yards and two touchdowns on just five receptions. With Dallas trailing by six in the fourth quarter, McGee hit Harris over the middle and the East Carolina product sprinted 76 yards for a touchdown to tie the game due to a botched snap on the ensuing extra point. The Broncos answered with a Quinn touchdown pass to Riley with under six minutes to play. McGee then drove the length of the field and fired his second touchdown pass to Harris with only 15 seconds remaining. Not wanting to force overtime during the preseason, Garrett elected to go for two. McGee was flushed out of the pocket and lofted a pass to Dallas tight end Martin Rucker, who made a juggling catch for the game-winning conversion.
Although it was only preseason, a thrilling, last-second victory was the best thing Cowboys owner Jerry Jones could possibly want. There were mistakes made, but the exhibition provided several needed evaluations, like Dallas kicker David Buehler, who connected on his only field goal attempt of 42 yards. Now Dallas knows what areas need the most work and can go forward from there with confidence after an early preseason victory. The Cowboys’ quest to improve has begun.