ReFo: HOU @ DAL, Preseason WK 4
Ben Stockwell evaluates the good and the bad from this all-Texas final preseason clash.
ReFo: HOU @ DAL, Preseason WK 4
The Cowboys and Texans wound down their preseason with an in-state contest as both teams’ fringe players staked their claims for a spot on the 53-man roster. Both teams walk away with positives and negatives to work on with the depth players that they choose to bring with them on the start of their respective journeys toward the promised land of the Super Bowl.
For the Texans, things got off to a fast start on the ground with as much credit going to the Cowboys’ defense making life easy for their running game as any excellent execution on their own part. After that fast start they saw what they needed to from the two quarterbacks they put out in the game and then just run the ball for the rest of the game, grinding the clock at every turn.
For the Cowboys, while there were some strong performances up front on defense after their dismal start to the game, questions will continue to be asked about the depth of their offensive line. There have been question marks throughout preseason as to how some of the starting line is coming together, but on this showing the depth is a grave concern as well and you have to wonder whether the Cowboys will be bringing in some backup linemen from elsewhere after they have made their final cuts.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Busy Night for the Backs
The Texans are noted as a run-heavy team and that was in evidence, if perhaps to an extreme, against the Cowboys. Backup running backs Cierre Wood and Dennis Johnson combined for 35 carries and 183 yards as the Texans’ running game got the better of the defense early and ground out the game through the second half. On their opening drive Wood and Johnson both picked up two of the easier long gains you’re ever likely to see. Firstly, Johnson capitalized on some poor defense for a 29-yard gain on a draw to get the Texans out from under their own goalposts, and then Wood gained 41 yards two plays later reversing field as the Dallas defense just crumbled. With Ben Tate and Arian Foster ahead of them on the depth chart neither player was winning regular season snaps in this game, but by putting the ball on the ground three times (one fumble and two muffed punts) Johnson won’t have ingratiated himself to the coaching staff.
Griffin Maintains his Perfect Preseason
After the departure of James Casey for Philadelphia there is an open spot for the Texans at their second tight end spot and, though he might not have the versatility of Casey to change his spots and play fullback at a whim, sixth-round pick Ryan Griffin has staked his claim for the job to challenge Garrett Graham. After snagging all five targets in this game for 87 yards, Griffin completed his preseason workload by catching all 14 of the passes that were thrown in his direction for a total of 173 yards. Griffin got through a variety of routes, from crossing routes to a post and even a release screen that picked up 17 yards and a first down late in the third quarter. Having figured well as a run blocker (+2.1) against the Vikings in the opening preseason game, he has hinted that receiving isn’t the only part of his game and Griffin could be an interesting player to keep an eye on as the season progresses. The Texans have a good recent track-record of producing quality tight ends behind starter Owen Daniels, and Griffin could be the next one off of this emerging production line.
Braman Book-ends his Preseason
After a tough couple of intervening weeks Bryan Braman got to finish his preseason the way he started it, with a strong outing as a pass rusher. Braman snagged seven pressures (2 Sk, 5 Hu) en route to a +2.3 pass rush grade which sees him finish the preseason with four sacks, one hit and seven hurries. Braman also contributed with his first two stops of the preseason that weren’t sacks, tallying a stop each in run defense and coverage. Having started and finished so brightly the intervening weeks will be a puzzle for Braman, however. Though he registered a sack against the Dolphins his grade in the Texans’ two home games was a disappointing -2.9 overall, including a missed tackle.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Defensive Line Redeems Itself
After the aforementioned slow start for their run defense, the heat would have been on the Dallas Cowboys’ reserve defense from their coaching staff. Players like Caleb McSurdy (-5.9) and Ernie Sims (-1.8) got off to terrible starts against the run, but the overall picture was skewed toward respectability by some excellent work from the Cowboys’ defensive line against the Texans’ reserve offensive line in the second half. Having got all they needed from the matchup, the Texans were running a very vanilla ground game for much of the second half, but they still required the offensive line to reach defenders such as Landon Cohen (+3.8), Ben Bass (+1.4) and Jason Vega (+3.4), a task Houston’s backup linemen weren’t up to. Cohen in particular got consistent penetration against Tyler Horn in the second half, and rookie tackle Brennan Williams didn’t cover himself in glory in his preseason debut struggling just about every time he tried to seal a block on the edge against Vega in particular.
Offensive Line Woes
Unlike the Texans who were run heavy in the second half, the Cowboys took the opportunity throughout the game to get a long hard look at Alex Tanney (+0.7 passing). But it wasn’t just the Cowboys’ coaching staff getting a good look, the Texans’ defense also got themselves an up-close-and-personal encounter with the Cowboys’ signal-caller. Tanney dropped back to pass 40 times in the game and saw pressure almost the time (19), being sacked seven times. If the second group in this game were hoping to unseat any of the “starters” on the final 53 then they did themselves no favors. Though Jeremy Parnell (+0.5 pass block) and Phil Costa (+0.5 pass block) did reasonably well, Edawn Coughman (-1.1 pass block) and Demetress Bell (-4.3 pass block) just looked totally out of their depth. Bell in particular cut a forlorn figure coming into the game late at right tackle. He set to pass protect on 17 snaps, surrendering three sacks and two hurries — that means he surrendered pressure on just about one in three pass plays. The end of the game descended into a farce for the unfortunate Tanney. He had a touchdown dropped by Tim Benford and got sacked on four of the Cowboys’ final six offensive snaps, not the ending he would have hoped for.
Randle Caps Off Solid Preseason
DeMarco Murray is under plenty of pressure to stay healthy this season and prove himself as a top quality running back for the duration of an NFL season, but on their showing this preseason he has runners behind him capable of helping to lighten that load. Though Lance Dunbar went down to a foot sprain against the Cardinals, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle have picked up the baton to suggest that the Cowboys aren’t a one-man running attack. Both players figure toward the top of our Elusive Rating signature stat in preseason (Tanner sixth at 90.6 and Randle 24th at 43.5) and among the league leaders in missed tackles (Tanner has forced 12, while Randle has forced 10). In spite of some inconsistent run blocking, the backs have been solid contributors and though the focus has to be on Murray there should be a greater confidence that if the injury bug strikes again the team doesn’t need to revert to pass, pass, pass behind Tony Romo.
– Rookie corner B.W. Webb (+0.7 preseason) finished the preseason as the Cowboys’ team leader with 253 snaps on defense. Webb played more than half of his snaps at right corner (142), but also played 92 snaps in the slot.
– The Texans were also paced by a rookie in preseason, with offensive lineman David Quessenberry (+1.6 preseason) registering 196 snaps split between left guard (185) and a brief sojourn at left tackle (11 snaps).
– Of the seven sacks surrendered by the Cowboys’ offensive line when Alex Tanney was in, four of them came from a base pass rush while three came when the Texans blitzed.
PFF Game Ball
For standing in and taking a beating yet still leading what could, and should, have been a touchdown drive to close out the Cowboys’ preseason, I’ll give it to Alex Tanney. This was far from a polished or textbook quarterback performance, but he nearly got the perfect ending to preseason in spite of his offensive line’s best efforts to the contrary.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.