Thoughts from the Cowboys' 20-7 preseason loss to the visiting Chargers.
Defense is what matters for the Dallas Cowboys. Defense is what killed them in 2010, and defense will determine whether or not they can rebound and return to playoff contention in 2011. And so, when you tune in to watch a Cowboys preseason game, you're going to watch the defense. And it is, as we mentioned in Camp Confidential, a work in progress.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense is based on multiple and varied looks. It's intended to confuse the opposing offense, but before it can do that, the players playing the defense must learn the scheme and develop trust and confidence in it. Since the lockout eliminated OTAs and minicamps, the Cowboys couldn't start practicing their roles in Ryan's new scheme until a couple of weeks ago, and the lack of experience in the new system has shown in both of their preseason games so far.
The best example was Randy McMichael's touchdown catch from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. The Cowboys' pass rush had Rivers cold and he looked as though he was about to throw the ball away. But because cornerback Alan Ball and safety Gerald Sensabaugh had both gone after the same receiver, McMichael was wide open. Rivers saw him and found him for the touchdown, and Ryan had something to say to Sensabaugh when he came off the field.
There were good things that happened, too. Barry Church had an excellent game, knocking down a touchdown pass in the first half and making a great open-field tackle in the third quarter. And Ryan lined top linebacker DeMarcus Ware in several different spots -- left side, right side, dropped him into pass coverage. As a coordinator, Ryan's never had a player as good as Ware, and he's going to have more and more fun with him as everybody gets comfortable in the new system and he can keep moving Ware (and others) all over the field into unexpected spots.
But the question is how soon that will be. Can this Cowboys team learn and become comfortable in this new system in just two more preseason games and three more weeks of practice? There are still communication issues in the secondary, and injured starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman haven't even played yet, so there's no way to even know if they'll be good enough to allow Ryan to do what he wants to do up front. Long way to go before the Cowboys' defense looks like a cohesive unit, and they don't have a lot of time.
Here are some other things I saw in the loss to San Diego:
1. The first-team offensive line looked good. Especially rookie right tackle Tyron Smith, who is big and strong and athletic and just looks like a nightmare to try and get past. They've been working with Smith on his footwork, specifically the alignment of his left foot, and it's a matter of him getting comfortable with the new foot position and trusting it. He looked better and protecting the outside Sunday night than he had in the first game. Fellow rookie Bill Nagy got the start at left guard and handled himself well, but he gets overpowered by stronger defensive linemen, as rookie David Arkin did a bit last week. If everyone's healthy (including starting center Andre Gurode), I still think either Montrae Holland or Phil Costa starts at left guard three weeks from now in New York. But Nagy and Arkin will still get opportunities in the meantime to show what they can do, and there are plenty of reasons to like both -- for the near future, if not immediately. You can always build strength.
2. I don't have anything, really, to say on Tony Romo. Yes, his interception was terrible -- terrible decision, terrible throw, terrible all the way around. But from the Twitter reaction you'd have thought it was his 700th consecutive pass attempt that resulted in an interception. His touchdown pass was a very good throw, and while it seems clear that those who don't like Romo will always be looking for reasons to point and shout, "See? Told ya!", he has offered no reason to worry and remains very low on the Cowboys' list of concerns.
3. Lonyae Miller and Phillip Tanner. With Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray injured, the younger running backs on the Cowboys roster have had a chance to show their stuff. Miller looked good early, and the block he threw against the blitz early in the third quarter will show up on his personal highlight film. But his fumble will not, and fumbles can kill a fringe guy's chances of making the team. Tanner struggled in pass protection last week, but he looks like a better runner than Miller does. I don't think any defenders let up on the play after he lost his helmet on the touchdown that got called back, so on tape that's going to show up as a tough touchdown run. Difficult call, if it comes down to two of these guys for one spot, or if they're looking to see whether or not one can unseat Choice.
4. Oh, and the starting running back. Felix Jones, for the second week in a row... wow. Fast, tough and resilient. Guy is moving up those fantasy draft boards, I guarantee. He's running like he means it. His teammates like the spark he brings. He's seeing the field and his lanes from the backfield, and he's working for extra yards against a very good defense in a game that doesn't count. Everything you'd want to see out of Jones when presented with a chance to be the every-down guy, he's showing. My only concern? He's taking a lot of hits, and hasn't exactly shown himself to be Mr. Durable in the past. If he can hold up, he's got a chance to bring something special.
5. The No. 3 receiver issue. If it's Kevin Ogletree's job to lose, he didn't do anything to lose it Sunday. He looked very speedy and very determined, and we didn't see any of the Dwayne Harris magic we saw last year. Manuel Johnson was the down-the-roster receiver who made the strongest second-half impression with Stephen McGee under center. Which is probably another reason for Ogletree to feel good about things.
6. No blood in the kicking battle. Neither Dan Bailey nor David Buehler got a field goal attempt, and I'm not sure I get why neither got one in the final minute. Is it more important right now for the Cowboys to see these guys kick or see if their third-team offense can get in on fourth-and-goal? I guess you could say a 20-yard field goal would be a poor indicator anyway, but still. Why not put one of the kickers in a real game situation if you can?
7. Finally, I'm a little bit surprised by the choice of James Spader for "The Office." My hope is that it allows the very funny people that populate the rest of the cast to shine now that they don't all have to orbit Steve Carell.