On offense, the running game looked more powerful and consistent. The team pulled the starting OTs Tyron Smith and Doug Free after one series, but the backup OTs and the interior of Ron Leary, Travis Frederick and David Arkin kept the chains moving. Dallas amassed 97 first half rushing yards on carries by backs Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner. Bill Callahan could mix and match, running wide, inside, zone or man. Most impressive was the ability to run successfully in short-yardage situations.
The defense showed off the new scheme's big-play ability, accounting for 14 of the team's 17 first half point. DT Nick Hayden recovered a fumble on Miami's first play from scrimmage inside the 15. Later, LB DeVonte Holloman plucked a tipped pass out of the air and raced 75 yards for a touchdown, showing impressive straight-line speed up the near sideline.
Holloman's score gave the Cowboys a 17-3 halftime cushion, and the backups held off an intense Miami charge, which saw a late Dolphins TD ping-pong off several hands before winding up in the end zone.
The performance was not without warts. Defensive end Ben Bass' right knee was hit head by on teammate Kyle Wilber during a 1st quarter play, and Bass stayed down for an extended period of time. He walked off the field without assistance and was seen chatting with coaches and teammates later on. His status is unknown at this time, but the reactions of player and staff are positive.
Backup safety Matt Johnson's strong evening was cut short when he rolled an ankle making a sideline tackle early in the 2nd quarter. This may be the same ankle which Johnson tweaked in scrimmage last week.
Overall, the defense showed its new character in a positive way. Pressure was generated by the second team with four men. (Monte Kiffin tried some early stunts and they produced some of the Dolphins biggest plays of the night, as linebackers ran themselves ouf of position.) The secondary swarmed the football and made most of its tackles. Turnovers and defensive scores were quick to appear.
Here's a rundown of some of the biggest questions entering the night, and how they were answered through 30 minutes.
-- The offensive line: As I mentioned in the pre-game notes, the starters look pretty good. Kyle Orton had ample time to scan the field when passes were called on his series. Only once did he face pressure, and he had the time to locate Lance Dunbar on a dump-off for a first down.
The improved run push was evident, from the starters and from second team LT Darrion Weems. When Smith and Free left, the edges were leaky. Weems and RT Edawn Coughman push much better straight ahead. They need a lot of work on pass protection. Hope that the injured Jermey Parnell is keeping the backup OT mojo all to himself.
At the skill positions, the backup running backs all made their cases. Dunbar showed why he's running second team. He's got a burst to the edge. Tanner showed that relentlessness and his trademark spin to grind out big yards. He can't rest, because Joseph Randle made some big runs in the 3rd quarter. As I said in the late week camp notes, track Randle. He's got the 2nd spot in his sights and is going to fight for it.
At the tight end spot, a big night for Dante Rosario, who took the early lead for the in-the-backfield F-back.
On defense, there's plenty for the coaches to work on. Miami made its share of big runs, some due to calling away from stunts, others by simply out-flanking the Cowboys ends. Hope that Bass' injury is not severe. The team is already missing Tyrone Crawford and won't get Anthony Spencer back for a while. George Selvie made several plays and the team must be hopeful that he's ready to put it together after three disappointing pro seasons, but the numbers are woefully thin at DE.
The numbers are much better at defensive tackle, where Jeris Pendleton and Nick Hayden made some plays.
The biggest comfort came in the secondary, where the backup safety duo of Matt Johnson and J.J. Wilcox showed they have futures. Johnson fits this scheme. He's smart and can identify and close on passes. He missed a couple of blow-up opportunities because his targets dropped the ball. Wilcox showed similar range and pop, but he's still learning the scheme. He let a slot back behind him for a long gain in the second quarter.
On the downside, the replacement-filled line saw a lot of players jumping offsides on hard counts. This is something the Cowboys work on regularly. A matter of guys trying too hard?
More individual thumbnails in the next story.
Signature Play of the Game
Here's a wide stretch play from the early 2nd quarter which shows effective blocking by the kids, especially the trio of Leary, Frederick and Arkin.
The Cowboys line up in an unbalanced set on 1st-and-10, with Phillip Tanner the single back and two tight ends, Gavin Escobar and Dante Rosario on the right. Escobar is the Y and Rosario the F. The Cowboys used this formation a lot early and sometimes threw in a third TE. Here, the call is a simple stretch wide to the right, behind the power.
The goal is getting a push on the defensive tackle on the strong-side, who is lined up in the gap between right guard David Arkin (62) and right tackle Edawn Coughman (76). Frederick will help Arkin on a double-team to push this DT wide, and then Frederick will scrape off this block and take out the middle linebacker, just out of frame in still one. The key backside block belongs to Leary. He will have to move quickly to his right and cut off the nose tackle, who is angled towards Frederick's left ear-hole:
In still three, you can see the blocking developing. Frederick and Arkin have engaged the right DT and are sliding him wide. The RT Coughman and the TE Escobar have the end on that side engaged. Leary has moved quickly enough to give himself an angle on the back-side NT. You can see Leary diving on his block
Leary succeeds. He's got the NT rolling over him in still four. Frederick has moved off his double-team block and has the MLB lined up. Arkin is using the play-side DTs momentum against him and is riding the defender towards the near sideline. A seam is developing, and it's now down to RB Phillip Tanner to show patience and wait for the lane to emerge. He's skating side in still four. His movement towards the sideline keeps the Dolphins moving towards the edge, giving Tanner's blockers better angles.
When he sees the lane open, Tanner plants his right foot and darts straight upfield. His line has moved the bulk of the Dolphins left wide too wide to make a play. Arkin has the DT (89) turned. Coughman and Escobar still have their DE engaged. Frederick has taken on the MLB and turned him away from Tanner's cut. The back has clear sailing into the secondary:
Tanner gained seventeen yards, the biggest Cowboys run of the night. What's different from recent Cowboys contests is that this positive running play had company. Lots of company.
It's only one pre-season game, but the young offensive line sparked some hope among the Cowboys faithful tonight.