Perhaps the most anticipated preseason game of the year is the highly-touted “dress rehearsal” week where we generally get our most extended glimpse at a team’s starting group before heading into the season. The defenses get ratcheted up a notch, game plans are installed, and every fan can sense the season right around the corner.
On Saturday night in Dallas, the Cowboys’ first team offense controlled much of the first half, thanks to Cincinnati Bengals’ turnovers, and so we got a long look at their battle against the Bengals’ first team defense. Dallas took advantage of the favorable field position to “win” the first half 14-0 (the Bengals’ seven points came on a punt return for a touchdown), but perhaps the biggest takeaway was each team’s stout run defense. For two teams with high expectations coming into the season, it was a good, hard-hitting affair that should have both squads ready to go for the opener in two weeks.
Here are the key performances of the night.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Maualuga Looking Better
We’ve been critical of linebacker Rey Maualuga in the past, particularly last season when his -29.7 grade ranked last in the league among inside linebackers. As always, we’re more than happy to give credit where due, and Maualuga looks like a new man this August. He’s certainly moving a lot better, a great sign after getting exploited in coverage last year, and he’s taking on blockers with ferocity. In this game, he did his finest work taking on fullbacks and clogging running lanes for Cowboys’ running backs. He even got his hand on a pass in coverage, though it was a late read by quarterback Tony Romo on a flat route to running back Phillip Tanner. So far in the preseason, Maualuga is grading at +3.0 after grading at +2.2 in this game and if he continues to the turnaround during the regular season, it’ll just be another added weapon to a potentially loaded Bengals defense.
First Rounder Lost in Coverage
Already fighting an uphill battle for playing time, 2012 first-round cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had a rough night in coverage. After missing the majority of his rookie season and only seeing the field for 43 plays, the preseason is a vital time in Kirkpatrick’s development. He struggled on Saturday night as he graded at -5.9 in coverage including two missed tackle while picking up two pass interference penalties. He was unable to keep his hands off wide receivers Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams on deep balls and drew the flag both times. In the open field, he was one of a number of Bengals to whiff on RB DeMarco Murray on his touchdown reception late in the third quarter. For the game, Kirkpatrick allowed 9-of-10 passes to be completed his way for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
The one saving grace for Kirkpatrick was his work in the running game where he graded at +1.2 as he got in on two stops, though it wasn’t enough to save his -4.4 overall grade for the game. Kirkpatrick played a team-high 63 snaps, by far his most extensive action since college, so look for more of the same on Thursday night as the Bengals continue to challenge their former top pick.
Developing the Passing Game
The Bengals have crept toward “America’s Darling” status in recent weeks with their presence on HBO’s Hard Knocks series being paired with a number of national media predicting a Super Bowl appearance given the seemingly wide-open AFC. To reach these heights, however, much will be expected of third-year quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s at a crossroads in Year 3 as his rookie-year overachieving has worn off on fans and last year’s minimal development has now become a reason for concern. Is Dalton the quarterback of the future in Cincinnati?
To start, the Bengals have worked feverishly to put the necessary weapons at Dalton’s disposal. In this game, Dalton did a nice job of moving the chains in the short passing game and the Bengals did a nice job of creating matchups for him to exploit. They got WR A.J.Green isolated on a linebacker at the 12:25 mark of the first quarter as Dalton hit him with a well-placed slant. The Bengals found a similar matchup at the 11:58 mark of the second quarter as WR Mohamed Sanu found LB Bruce Carter covering him with the Cowboys deciding not to bring a cornerback over to match the doubles side of the Bengals formation. Dalton went with the slant again for the easy first down.
Unfortunately, for all the good that Dalton showed, it’s the negative plays that must disappear for Dalton to take the next step. Just a few plays after the conversion to Sanu, Dalton forced a ball into coverage and the underthrown post route was picked off by CB B.W. Webb. The sight is all too reminiscent of Dalton’s struggles last year where a handful of bad decisions became the hallmark for his season.
As we head into 2013, Dalton must continue to exploit the matchups given to him by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden while avoiding the back-breaking mistakes that stall any offense. If he can, this talented team can get over the playoff hump they’ve faced the last two years.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Center of Attention
One of the major surprises on draft day last April was the Cowboys’ moving back in the first round and their subsequent selection of center Travis Frederick. It was a shock, not only because Frederick was expected to be available a round or two later, but also because Dallas’ situation at center wasn’t all that bad last year, despite dealing with numerous injuries. The early returns on Frederick have not been good while backup Phil Costa had his struggles with the second team as well. Frederick graded at -3.6 for the game, including -3.0 in the running game. He saw a lot of Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko who tossed him to the ground on the way to a pressure at the 10:26 mark of the second quarter before shedding him for a tackle on the very next play. Costa wasn’t much better in the run game (-2.7) as Dallas’ centers combined to grade at -5.7 as run blockers.
Tyron Taking to the Left
Last year’s conversion from right to left tackle was not always a smooth one, but OT Tyron Smith has had a good start to the preseason and graded at +4.4 in this game. He didn’t surrender a pressure on his 27 pass block attempts while adding fine work as a run blocker. He made some quality blocks on DE Michael Johnson in the first quarter before handling overmatched DE Dontay Moch early in the second half. Watch Smith bullrush Moch right out of the play, not an uncommon sight on for Moch Saturday night, at the 11:22 mark of the third quarter. It was a good night for Smith who finished strong at the end of last season and has carried that momentum over into 2013.
Converting up Front
One of the biggest storylines in Dallas this offseason is the conversion from a 3-4 defensive system to new coordinator Monte Kiffn’s 4-3. The most notable player of course is DE Demarcus Ware who moves down to more of a traditional defensive end role after playing 3-4 outside linebacker his entire career. There aren’t many who are worried about Ware, as he’s one of the league’s best all-around players, and his transition has gone smoothly to this point (+2.0 on 40 preseason snaps).
The story on Saturday is the showing of the defensive tackles as Nick Hayden and Jason Hatcher helped to shut down the Bengals’ first team running game. Hayden graded at +1.4 against the run while Hatcher pulled a +2.3. Though Hayden was easily moved out of his gap on one 3rd-and-2 conversion, he also got in on three stops (one solo) on his eight plays against the run. Hatcher continued his strong play by getting in on three stops of his own (two solo) while doing most of his damage against a stout right side of the Bengals offensive line. Though DT Jay Ratliff is expected to start when healthy, Hayden has proved a valuable replacement while Hatcher continues to ascend into one of the most underrated players in the league.
-It’s tough to write a game recap without mentioning Bengals DT Geno Atkins who was his usually dominant self as he graded at +5.1 with four hurries on 17 rushes and three stops in the running game. He played 30 snaps on the night.
-Bengals rookie RB Giovani Bernard had his second strong game in a row grading at +1.9. He forced three missed tackles on the night, including one as a receiver.
-The Bengals missed 15 tackles on the night while the Cowboys missed seven.
PFF Game Ball
Even in preseason games as we try to get a look at some unknown players, it’s tough to ignore Geno Atkins who was his usual unblockable self. Dallas tried to run away from him and he tracked it down and running at him was a futile attempt as well. He’s a Top-3 defensive player in the league and played as such in this one.
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