The Cowboys entered the contest with several questions needing positive responses. First and foremost, how would Tony Romo look? Would he be able to complete the deep ball? Would his throws have any zip on them? How would Rolando McClain fare in his first action of the season? Would the team be able to generate a pass rush, or stop runs up the middle? Would the offensive line continue to look like a potentially dominating unit? Of course a preseason game is the same as the regular season, 60 minutes of one team’s offense against the other’s defense; but it is nowhere near the same in reality.
Compartmentalization. That’s the key to evaluating what one sees when watching a preseason game. The score says the Ravens defeated the Cowboys 37-30 on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium. Along the way, though, Baltimore was dominating the scoreboard; holding a 34-10 lead until the final second of the third quarter.
The Cowboys were able to make a game of it late in the contest, outscoring Baltimore 20-3 over the final 15 minutes. The comeback was too little, too late as the last 10 seconds of the game were runoff by what appeared to be a bad referee judgment that fourth-string QB Dustin Vaughan crossed the line of scrimmage on what ended up being the final play of the game. It would have been a last-ditch effort to be sure, but the minimal drama was ingloriously sucked out of the contest by the zebras.
In the end, the final score adequately reflected the difference in performances between the two teams in the game. The battles that took place on the field add significantly more context when trying to glean insight into how this team will perform in the regular season. Save for the opening two drives, the two teams rarely lined up across from each other using the same lines of the depth charts. Dallas continually was one level down from the Ravens until the fourth quarter; Dallas’ 2’s against the Ravens’ 1s, the 3’s and 4’s against the Baltimore 2’s. This is where being able to separate performance comes into play.
The Cowboys first team offense looked inconsistently sharp; mixing big gain plays in with three crucial mistakes. The pseudo-first team defense, sans three of the top four corners and both interior starting tackles, was able to hold Baltimore to 45 yards and a field goal on their drives. That included several nice pressures and limited running room for the Ravens backs. For all the doom and gloom surrounding this unit, it certainly didn’t resemble a performance by the worst defensive in the league-in-waiting.
Tony Romo works the kinks out. (Getty Images)
Quarterback Tony Romo took his first game action snaps since Week 16 last year and all eyes were undoubtedly fixated on him. He escaped the test without taking any major hits, although he was called to exert himself and stretch out on a play on the first drive.
Two holding penalties (rookie RG Zack Martin, then franchise LT Tyron Smith) handcuffed the team prior to a failed QB-RB exchange. The fumble was scooped up and returned for a touchdown when Tony Romo couldn’t catch up with Courtney Upshaw who rumbled for 26 yards to pay dirt. Those mistakes negated a great play by WR Dez Bryant, who had caught a cross from the right slot and broke himself free of multiple defenders for a gain of 22 yards.
In the Cowboys second series, Romo and new play caller Scott Linehan were able to engineer a nine play scoring drive that should have made all observers comfortable with where the Dallas offense is as they approach next week’s dress rehearsal against the Dolphins.
RB DeMarco Murray opened the drive with his third consecutive gain of five yards. Two plays later, Dallas converted the first of their two third-down conversions on the drive; a Romo completion to Bryant for six. The referees whistled the play dead, but Bryant never appeared down as he broke away from multiple Ravens again. The next play, Murray bounced in between a great trap block by Martin and a lead block left by FB Tyler Clutts to break free for 15 yards. Three plays later, he’d catch a beautiful screen pass, led by Travis Frederick and Martin, to the right without a Raven in the picture. The gain went for 21 yards and was their second third-down conversion. The team would end up 4 for 10 on third downs; a huge issue for the 2013 Cowboys offense where they only converted a league-worst 63 on the season.
Two plays later, the Cowboys first stringers emphatically ended the drive with a score that tied the game. Out of S11 personnel (shotgun, 1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WR) a pump fake and a stutter move by Bryant was followed by a Romo heave that brought Dez back under cornerback Dominque Franks. Bryant slowed, then leapt in the air to snatch the pass at the catch point and throw up his trademark ‘X’ in the end zone.
That ended the evening for Romo, Bryant and Murray. Romo completed 4 of 5 passes for 80 yards and score; a 158.3 QB rating on the evening. Bryant would haul in all 3 of his targets for 59 yards and a 19.7 yards-per-target average. Meanwhile, Murray ended up with 43 yards on eight carries, a 4.3 average, with a total of 64 yards on his nine touches. Only Jason Witten didn’t get in on the action.
The tie was short-lived, as the Dallas kick coverage unit allowed Deonte Thompson to escape the end zone and race 108 yards for the score. Dallas’ Special Teams looked anything but in the first two games of the season, giving up 230 kickoff yards in this game.
Considering the stellar performance of Rich Bisaccia’s crew in the 2013 regular season, alarm bells shouldn’t ring. Dallas was equally putrid in the preseason last year, allowing two punt returns of 75 yards and plenty of big yardage on kickoffs as well. Chalk these mistakes up to trying out techniques and players that will not be locked in until after the preseason is over.
Dallas’ initial team defense actually fared extremely well.
The team started with Jeremy Mincey at right defensive end (instead of Demarcus Lawrence), with UDFA Davon Coleman manning the three-tech defensive tackle position that would normally be occupied by Henry Melton. Nick Hayden, last year’s starter was at the one-tech instead of Terrell McClain who sat out with an ankle injury. The lone projected starter along the line was Tyrone Crawford at left, or closed, defensive end.
Justin Durant manned the middle linebacker position, flanked by Bruce Carter at the Will and Kyle Wilber on the strongside. The secondary was again missing Brandon Carr (personal reasons) and Mo Claiborne (shoulder), while also missing dime corner Sterling Moore. Technically, this was the first team defense, but with only half of the projected starters and a third string corner starting opposite Orlando Scandrick, who will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension.
Trailing 14-7 before they ever hit the field, Coleman and Crawford immediately crashed the pocket forcing Joe Flacco to retreat and throw an incompletion into the dirt. On the next play, Mincey was able to beat the initial block of the left tackle to pressure Flacco into an errant throw before getting hit in the back. A backside hold on Bruce Carter gave Baltimore a free first down, though. On the third play of the game, the defensive line again made an impact, with Nick Hayden batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage.
On second down, Durant and Coleman combined on a stop of Bernard Pierce for a gain of 4. The Cowboys D was able to get off the field on their first third-down opportunity when Flacco’s pass was behind JaCoby Jones.
The Raven’s second drive started near midfield after another huge kick return. Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme opened a huge cutback lane to the right and Bruce Carter was blocked off, allowing Ray Rice to gain 18 yards before safety J.J. Wilcox delivered a crushing blow. Rice would tote the rock the next play, but would soon leave to be examined in the Ravens locker room.
J.J. Wilcox is locked in as he tries to secure a starting job. (Getty Images)
After an Orlando Scandrick holding penalty gave Baltimore another first, the Dallas defense stiffened and got off the field when Wilcox was able to knock the ball loose on a pass attempt to Steve Smith with B.W. Webb in close coverage. Justin Tucker’s 40-yard field goal extended the lead to 17-10.
The next time the defense hit the field, they again proved their worth. This was MLB Rolando McClain’s first action of the game, replacing Durant.
On first down, the Cowboys blitzed he and Sam LB Wilber, while dropping RDE Jeremy Mincey in coverage. Flacco’s screen pass attempt was knocked down at the line by Tyrone Crawford. Mincey would shut down a run on the next play. Tyler Patmon, sixth corner on the depth chart but nickel guy here, broke up a pass to Steve Smith on third down and the Cowboys had a three and out.
The first wave of Cowboys defenders had a great night. Three drives, only 45 yards and three points allowed.
Brandon Weeden took over at quarterback and initially looked similar to the QB that was impressive against San Diego in the preseason opener. Weeden lined up behind the starting offensive line and promptly found Gavin Escobar out of 21 personnel for a first down. The drive moved along well until he underthrew an open Terrance Williams down the left sideline. Williams had cleared his man by at least a step, but the throw was short, allowing the corner to catch up to the ball and tip it away. Williams didn’t help matters by tipping the catch was getting near and opening his cradle early.
The Cowboys new backup QB would have a decent drive on his next series, leading to a 53-yard field goal by Dan “Split’Em” Bailey. Weeden’s final two passes of the series were off target, and might have been a precursor for his performance the next time out.
Weeden’s reputation in Cleveland was that of someone unable to handle pressure. When the Cowboys moved from their first-team offensive line to their next group, that guy showed up. The line of Jermey Parnell-Ron Leary-Mack Bernadeau-Uche Nwaneri-John Wetzel didn’t inspire much confidence as a collective group. The obvious hope is that plugging one of them into the effective first unit will not be a “only as strong as your weakest link” deal breaker.
The Ravens responded with a mixture of their first and second team defenses.
On the first play after the Ravens had answered the Cowboys field goal, Parnell was badly fooled by Pernell McPhee, who blindsided Weeden for the sack and rocked his world.
Two plays later, under pressure, Weeden checked down to RB Joseph Randle for an eight-yard gain on third and 12. The Cowboys Chris Jones would punt it away for a net of 43 yards.
On their next drive, Brandon Weeden was badly affected by the pressure. Facing a player in front of him and behind him, Weeden let go of a throw off his back foot that was tipped and should have been intercepted. RB Joseph Randle did a bad job picking up the rusher while the Ravens had a free man coming off the offense’s right edge.
Brandon Weeden lets Joseph Randle do the work. (Getty Images)
On the next play, Randle redeemd himself on a delayed handoff, gaining 19 yards. He hit the left sideline behind blocks of Parnell, Bernadeau and rookie WR Devin Street. A quick slot dump off to Dwayne Harris gained 15 yards before the Cowboys O made their next big mistake.
Under pressure, Weeden let go a deep rainbow pass to Harris down the right sideline that had no chance of completion. Harris was pinned against the right sideline by the corner and the safety came over to intercept the ball at the Ravens’ four-yard line.
This unit would get one final chance before halftime, but a botched kick return pinned the team inside the 10 and two short passes by Weeden fell incomplete. Dallas would punt it to Baltimore and allow them to score a field goal just before the half.
It was at this point that the depth charts became lopsided. The Ravens offense, unable to get anything going to this point, kept their first stringers in the game. Dallas removed their only Top 4 corner, Orlando Scandrick, replaced Jeremy Mincey with George Selvie and Nick Hayden with Ken Bishop.
McClain was able to make a stop on first down for a gain of four by Pierce, but missed a chance to bring Pierce down on 3rd and 1 two plays later. Three plays later, it appeared that Dallas had earned a stop, but a questionable roughing the passer call on George Selvie continued the drive for Baltimore.
They’d capitalize on the next play, hitting a skinny post to Jacoby Jones on Terrance Mitchell for 38 yards. J.J. Wilcox appeared to take a misstep and was outside the receiver who was cutting inside. The very next play, after a Ravens timeout, Flacco found Torrey Smith after a double-move on Mitchell. Smith hauled in an over the shoulder catch for the score, and a commanding two-score lead for the Ravens.
The Baltimore first team offense would get one final drive, with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Dallas would respond with more subs; switching out George Selvie and moving in Martez Wilson at RDE. Rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens would replace Bruce Carter at WLB.
After a illegal use of hands penalty, Rolando McClain hit RB Justin Forsett and forced a fumble that went out of bounds. It was one of three forced fumbles by the Cowboys on the evening. It didn’t slow the Ravens, who were able to drive into field goal range. The attempt was forced by another nice play by McClain, who broke up a pass to TE Dennis Pitta on third down. The Ravens converted and took a 27-10 lead into halftime.
Baltimore took the second half kickoff and finally replaced their first team offense. Dallas responded with the bottom half of their roster. Jakar Hamilton and Jeff Heath, the only other noteworthy active safeties with Ahmad Dixon suspended by the team for missing a walkthough, replaced J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church at safety.
Cam Lawrence replaced Wilber at SLB and Dartwan Bush replacing Crawford at SDE. Davon Coleman was the lone remaining starter due to the lack of active DTs.
The Ravens promptly used 9 plays to drive the field and take the biggest lead of the game on a Taliaferro three-yard score, 34-10.
Cowboys TE Gavin Escobar hauls in a deep pass. (Getty Images)
Back on offense, Brandon Weeden was able to make one more play before retiring for the evening. He zipped a beautiful pass over the top to Gavin Escobar in between two Ravens defenders for a 37 yard gain. Escobar would injure his shoulder on the play and would not return. The drive bogged down after that though, resulting in another Chris Jones punt.
It wasn’t until the Cowboys got the ball back near the end of the third quarter that they finally snapped to life. After Baltimore missed a 61 yard field goal, Caleb Hanie took over. He also enacted a 180 degree from his sketchy performance against the Chargers a week earlier.
Hanie would find James Hanna at the Ravens 9, and the tight end would power his way into the end zone as the quarter expired for a 24 yard score. Penalties would ruin the next Cowboys drive, and a challenge on a 21 yard completion on third and fifteen would be overturned.
The Cowboys defense would send the offense right back onto the field. Zach Minter, signed earlier this week after the club shut down Ben Gardner, showed out. Minter would notch the first of two back-to-back sacks on QB Keith Wenning, to go along with another QB hit, and force a fumble that was recovered by Dartwan Bush.
From there, fourth string running back Ryan Williams made his case to make the Cowboys carry four halfbacks on the roster. After showing great hands last week, Williams showed he could carry the ball with power. On third and one, Williams took the handoff, escaped an arm tackle attempt and made a direct line for the safety. Williams lowered his shoulder and trucked through the safety at the 20, bowling him over, and continued on for a 27 yard gain down to the three. Two plays later he’d take a shotgun draw into the end zone to cut the Ravens’ lead to 10.
After forcing another three and out, it became apparent the bottom of the Cowboys defensive roster was now on even ground with the Ravens offense; a stark contrast to the middle quarters.
Dustin Vaughan was able to recover from two ugly throws to make two beautiful ones. On the first, a touch pass allowed Jamar Newsome to reach over the cornerback and haul in a 24 yard completion. The next play, a short corner route gained a completion that made it a one score game.
Unfortunately for Dallas, their defense was unable to keep the Ravens from both milking the clock and adding an insurance field goal to create the final marginof 37-30.
* Dallas ended the game with 397 total net yards, 117 rushing and 286 through the air. They allowed 331 yards, 151 rushing and 195 passing. The Ravens had 246 return yards on the game.
* Dallas had 7 “big” plays of 20 yards or more; they allowed the Ravens 3 on offense and a gillion on special teams, give or take.
* LB Devonte Holloman suffered a neck injury. He missed multiple games last year with an injury to the same region.
* LB Anthony Hitchens and TE Gavin Escobar both injured shoulders.
* DNP’s for Dallas included WR Chris Boyd, who did not appear to be injured. He may be a player Dallas is planning on stashing on the practice squad. S Ahmad Dixon also sat due to a reported punishment for being late to Friday's walkthrough.
* The Cowboys four halfbacks averaged 5.9 yards per touch, between rushes and pass receptions.
* Rolando McClain led all Cowboys with 6 total tackled, 4 solo, and also had a forced fumble. Cam Lawrence checked in with four tackles and a forced fumble as well.
* Cowboys won the net yards per pass differential battle, 7.8 to 5.6
* Both teams were two for two in red zone opportunities.
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Our review of Tony Romo's night is here - and it includes the Cowboys' review of his work, too, starting with Dez, who says, "He wanted to show the world he is '9' and he's a baller.'''