ReFo: DAL @ ARZ, Preseason Wk 2
In a Week 3 matchup, Arizona and Dallas met in the desert in a game that had a distinct preseason feel to it, featuring six Dallas turnovers and the Cardinals’ subsequent inability to convert them into touchdowns. The Cowboys were able to move the ball well, especially through the air, but managed to fumble away a couple of big plays and ended the 1st half with five turnovers. That helped Arizona make several trips into the redzone, but their own dysfunction on offense led to five field goal attempts and a turnover of their own. Lost in the messiness of the game, however, were some significant performances that deserve highlighting.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Last year the Cowboys really struggled in pass protection, ranking 25th overall in the league, and there was concern the trend would continue into this year. So far, however, the offensive line has been holding their own, ranking eighth after their three preseason games. The two main culprits last year were right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (-10.4) and right tackle Doug Free (-4.2), the latter a recipient of a huge contract extension last offseason. So far this preseason, Bernadeau and Free have been holding their own in protecting the quarterback and they had another good showing against Arizona. They managed a combined pass block grade of +1.9 on 22 drop-backs. As a team this preseason, Dallas pass protectors have managed grades of -0.5, +3.9 and +3.0. If they can maintain that momentum into the regular season, that will go a long way towards helping keep QB Tony Romo upright and slinging the ball all over the field.
While Kyle Orton is entrenched as Tony Romo’s backup, it was third–stringer Alex Tanney who looked the part in this game. Orton struggled mightily (-3.9), throwing two interceptions in just eight drop-backs, while Tanney completed his first 10 passes and finished 14-of-19 for 136 yards and a TD while directing Dallas’ only scoring drive. He led them on a 17-play drive of almost 10 minutes, converting four third downs in the process, one on a very timely scramble. Although he did end the game with an interception trying to lead the Cowboys to the go-ahead score, it was a very impressive performance for the second year QB from Monmouth. While still very green, Tanney solidified his roster spot with this performance and may be a viable backup option at the position down the road.
Dallas receivers overall had a very good day in Arizona. Wide recevier Dwayne Harris (+1.3) led the way with five receptions on six targets, totaling 52 yards, although he did lose a fumble on a punt return. WR Dez Bryant (+0.6) caught all four passes thrown his way for 74 yards, including an impressive back-shoulder catch with corner Patrick Peterson draped all over him, but continued the turnover theme for the Cowboys by getting stripped after a 27-yard catch-and-run. After struggling in the preseason opener (-3.8), rookie second-round pick tight end Gavin Escobar had his best game by far, catching all five passes thrown his way, including the game’s only touchdown and a crucial third-down conversion earlier in the drive. The hope is he can provide solid depth, and ultimately even replace, long-time franchise cornerstone Jason Witten.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
One of the Cardinals’ biggest question marks on defense going into training camp was at safety. After releasing longtime veterans Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes this spring, Arizona was essentially starting over from scratch at the position. Although returning veteran Rashad Johnson will start at the free safety spot, the rest are pretty much all new faces. One of those new faces who made a real splash in this game was Tony Jefferson (+5.0), an UDFA rookie from Oklahoma. He had two interceptions and three stops in the game, showing impressive instincts and play recognition. On the first interception, he came out of deep center to jump an Orton pass that had floated a little, and later had the game clincher when he undercut a in-route throw from Tanney. Although he lacks ideal size, if he continues to display that kind of playmaking ability in the next two weeks, Arizona may not want to risk exposing him to waivers to get him signed to the practice squad, which would be the likely alternative to a roster spot.
What’s the Rush?
After losing defensive coordinator Ray Horton to Cleveland, there was a question of whether the Cardinals could continue to mount pressure on opposing quarterbacks without an elite pass rusher. Horton had done a masterful job using different schemes and formations to generate pressure, but would Todd Bowles be able to replicate that? So far the results are not so encouraging. Last week the Cardinals generated little pressure in Green Bay (-7.4 pass rush), and they did poorly again against Dallas (-4.2), especially with the starters on the field. Defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are expected to provide a lot of the push upfront, but finished the game with just one total pressure combined in 15 rush plays. A revamped Arizona secondary won’t be able to hold up long with so little help coming from the defensive line. The risks were obvious against Dallas, epitomized by Tony Romo’s whopping 14.2 yards per attempt.
One point of emphasis from coach Bruce Arians was the ability to finish drives, but despite five forced turnovers by their defense in the first half alone, the Cardinals were unable to convert a single one into a touchdown. There was plenty of blame to go around: a Michael Floyd fumble prevented a third–down conversion early on, and QB Carson Palmer one-hopped the RB on fourth down after Arizona passed up the field goal attempt. Backup QB Drew Stanton also had his chances, just missing WR Kerry Taylor and TE D.J. Jefferson in the end zone on consecutive plays in the second quarter, and later overthrowing a basic dump-off pass on the following possession, which ended up being intercepted.
One problem is the Cardinals’ struggles running the ball (-3.5 in rushing this preseason), which allows defenses to focus more on Larry Fitzgerald and company in the secondary. Hopefully the combination of new starting RB Rashard Mendenhall (+1.2) and some improved run-blocking will keep defenses honest and give Arizona more balance inside the 20.
– The Cowboys’ defense lined up with exactly four down-lineman on all 76 of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps.
– Cardinals WR Kerry Taylor (+1.3) continued his strong work in the preseason with four more receptions for 85 yards.
– Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick and defensive tackle Jerome Long led all Cowboy defenders with grades of +2.5.
PFF Game Ball
Although Dallas’ Tanney impressed, our game ball has to go to saftey Tony Jefferson.
Follow Roland on Twitter: @PFF_RolandB