The Dallas Cowboys were visibly short-handed in their first preseason game with 27 inactive players, but that provided an opportunity to evaluate their depth even more than a typical preseason game. The Cowboys started well on offense, but ultimately were able to pass the Chargers’ 48 yard line just twice in nine drives. Compared to last season, they showed more balance between run and pass plays in the first half before trying to play catch-up in the second half. On the other side of the ball the Cowboys were little resistance for the Chargers’ offense, which was not helped by being without at least five projected starters.
The hosting San Diego Chargers started with a long drive into Cowboys’ territory that ultimately ended with a fumble, but their offensive success continued for most of the game. The Chargers’ defense didn’t have many big plays, but they were able to keep Dallas in check throughout the game. Here are three performances to look at from each team.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Backing Up Romo
Between Tony Romo undergoing back surgery in the offseason and the release of Kyle Orton, much has been made about Dallas’s quarterback situation. With Romo out, offseason addition Brandon Weeden (+2.3) was given the start and performed well in his first game as a Cowboy. He was accurate on 14 of his 15 aimed throws (93.3%) and his touchdown pass came on third and goal play while scrambling under pressure. Caleb Hanie replaced Weeden in the third quarter, but had little impact on the offense. He was sacked on two of his six dropbacks and picked up just one first down through the air.
Rookie undrafted free agent Dustin Vaughan (-1.2) led the Cowboys’ only other series that reached the red zone, but the drive stalled in the final minutes as they turned the ball over on downs inside the five yard line. Vaughan’s first pass was a late, forced pass on a hitch outside the numbers in which he lucked out that it did not get intercepted and returned for a touchdown. However, it did not faze the rookie’s confidence as he came back to throw the same route on the very next play for a completion.
Rough Outing in the Secondary
The Cowboys struggled mightily in pass defense, and being without their top three cornerbacks certainly did not help. Second-year player B.W. Webb and rookie Terrance Mitchell played all 65 defensive snaps in the game as result. Webb (-0.7 overall) allowed just one catch for ten yards, but also was called for an illegal hands to the face penalty on first down and 20 that resulted in an automatic first down. Mitchell did not fare as well in his first NFL action, allowing three receptions for 54 yards, all of which moved the chains. He was also called for two defensive holding penalties resulting in a -3.5 coverage grade for the game. Fellow cornerback Korey Lindsey (-3.8), who was signed earlier in the week and had yet to practice with the team, had two holding penalties of his own and also was beaten deep for a 70-yard touchdown pass on his eight coverage snaps. In the end, the Chargers’ quarterbacks were extremely efficient, combining to complete 14 of their 16 pass attempts.
Bright Spots in the Front Seven
After parting ways with DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the defensive line is even more concerning than last season with little proven depth. However, the Cowboys saw encouraging performances from two undrafted free agents versus San Diego. Rookie defensive tackle Davon Coleman finished with the defense’s highest overall grade at +1.7 on 37 snaps. Coleman beat left guard D.J. Johnson in the third quarter with a great spin move inside, took on the blocking back, but came up just short of a sack. The play still resulted in a sack though, due largely to his quick pressure.
Second-year defensive end Kenneth Boatright (+1.4), who was picked up after being released by Seattle in the offseason, tallied a quarterback hit and came up with a stop in the run game. Behind the defensive line, fourth-round rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens was a force against the run. He led the team with four run stops in 24 run defense snaps and with a +1.5 run defense grade.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
There was a noticeable focus on the run game by the Chargers early on, which was probably enhanced down the stretch with a multiple touchdown lead. San Diego missed out on a scoring opportunity on their opening drive as Ryan Mathews (-1.9) fumbled on the one yard line. Danny Woodhead (+1.4) and Donald Brown (+0.2) played a combined 11 snaps, but Brown was able to pick up at least seven yards on each of his three carries. Sixth-round pick Marion Grice had an impressive 18 yard run in the fourth quarter, but he was only able to gain 17 yards on his other 13 carries for a -1.3 overall grade, worst among the Chargers’ running backs. Undrafted rookie Branden Oliver (-0.3) actually looked as the more impressive back overall. Oliver gained 64 yards on just seven carries while averaging 3.0 yards after contact. It’s unlikely that the Chargers keep more than four running backs into the season, so Oliver and Grice might be fighting for one spot despite the use of a draft pick on Grice.
Edge Pass Rush
The Chargers were able to get after the Cowboys’ quarterbacks often, combining for four sacks, three hits, and 15 hurries. There were two edge rushers that stood out in particular though, Thomas Keiser and Colton Underwood. Keiser did not have a good year last year in limited time (-13.3 overall), but he made a big impact in his 8 pass rush snaps (+1.8 pass rush). Keiser had a strip sack of Caleb Hanie inside Dallas’s own 10 yard line that setup a touchdown two plays later. On the next drive he beat Jermey Parnell for a pressure that helped force a third-down throw away. Underwood (+1.3) was just as impressive, tallying three hurries and a sack all in one drive. If it weren’t for an out of control missed tackle on the quarterback, he would have graded even higher. Both cases are very small sample sizes, but each showed potential in their limited time.
Improvement in the Secondary?
Cornerback Brandon Flowers did not make his Chargers debut, but the secondary still looked improved compared to last season. Just two defensive backs graded ‘red’ in pass coverage, Steve Williams (-1.2) and Richard Marshall (-1.3), both of whom were called for defensive holding penalties that were large portions of those grades. Free agent signee Brandon Ghee and undrafted rookie Greg Ducre each had a pass defense as well. That said, even with first-teamers getting very few reps, the Cowboys were also without their top three offensive stars in Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten.
– Former CFL wide receiver Dontrelle Inman made quick impact for the Chargers despite running just seven routes. He caught all three passes thrown his way for 107 yards, including a 70 yard touchdown where he showed impressive speed to outrun the entire Dallas secondary.
– Mackenzy Bernadeau finished with a -3.1 overall grade on 46 snaps. However, outside of an illegal hands to the face penalty, all of his struggles came when playing center.
– Cowboys’ defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford played nine snaps in his first game back after an Achilles injury during training camp last season. The former third-round pick picked up a hurry on one of his four pass rushes.
PFF Game Ball
Dontrelle Inman showed his performance in the CFL carries over to the NFL with a couple big plays as he competes for a roster spot.