Dolphins 25, Cowboys 20: Dress Rehearsals

The Dallas Cowboys entered the “tune-up” game against the Miami Sea Mammals with almost as many questions as they began training camp with. The lineup is all but set on offense, but on defense? Finding a consistently healthy combination will be the first step in deciding who will play Week One. We recap the game and take a detailed look at the first teams.

The Cowboys found themselves on the wrong end of another close game, this time letting a nine-point lead evaporate with just over seven minutes remaining. Dustin Vaughan was unable to complete a comeback for a second week in a row, this time falling to the Miami Dolphins 25-20. With the first round of cuts coming Tuesday, and the big one next Saturday, many players were auditioning for their careers here. Last week’s “find” DT Zack Minter was replaced by CB Tyler Patmon as the hot name this week. Patmon forced a fumble and intercepted two passes, including a return for a touchdown to go along with his team-leading five interceptions.

Tyler Patmon gets congratulated by the most important opinion. (Getty Images)

Patmon, who Monte Kiffin said reminded him of Ronde Barber during his rookie mini-camp tryout, was able to make plays against all levels of the Dolphins depth chart. His first pick came off starter Ryan Tannehill and was inside Dallas’ own 10 yard line. His pick-six in the fourth should have given the Cowboys an insurmountable lead. With Dallas facing cornerback depth issues thanks to Orlando Scandrick’s four-game suspension to start the year, it won’t surprise many if this performance puts Patmon on the initial 53-man roster.

For the team, it was a tale of two halves, as Dallas’ surprising protection issues kept their offense in single digits during the first 30 minutes. That was matched however by a defense that refused to break, giving the Cowboys a meager 6-3 lead at the break.

After not giving up a single play over 20 yards in the first half with their first team defense; Miami was able to run roughshod over the reserve defenders in the second half. The Dolphins had two plays of over 50 yards, and another five that went for over 20 yards each.

Dallas limited the Dolphins to just 173 first half yards; not great, but not bad. Miami would end up with an astounding 490 yards on the game, 200 of them on the ground. Through the first two games of the preseason, Miami had totaled just 98 yards, although that was without starter Knoshown Moreno.

The third game of the preseason is referred to as a dress rehearsal for a few reasons. For one, teams normally play their projected starters through at least a half to give them some game-action as a cohesive unit for multiple series. Secondly, most teams differ in the way they prepare. Most preseason games, plays are scripted and chosen for pure talent evaluation purposes. Teams normally do not scheme for an opponent, and often times will not reactively call defenses based on matchups. Dallas clearly changed this up, as Miami spread them out early and often and the Cowboys replied with a healthy dose of their nickel coverage.

The Cowboys were still without several players they hope will be able to help them to start the season. Although Brandon Carr returned, Morris Claiborne was still out at corner while Henry Melton and Terrell McClain were held out from making their debuts. Gavin Escobar, who hurt his shoulder last week, was held out despite practicing some leading up to the game. Safety Jeff Heath sat with an elbow.

During the game, the team lost DE George Selvie from an injury to the same shoulder he had off-season surgery on. Tight end Jordan Najvar who is trying to convince the team to carry four tight ends, tore his Achilles near the end of the game. Joseph Randle, Dwayne Harris and Ryan Williams all suffered what appear to be very minor injuries.

On offense, fans saw Tony Romo take his first hit of the season, and then another, and then another. The much ballyhooed new “Great Wall of Dallas” didn’t look to be representing history very well, allowing Romo to be pressured throughout the night.

On the flip side, Dallas’ version of a first-string defense appeared to play rather well, despite employing the bend-but-don’t break style. The goal is always to force turnovers first and foremost, and then also prevent the other team from scoring. The expectation is that once the field begins to shrink, the defense can force stops because there is less ground to cover, and hold the opposition to field goal attempts.

No one will complain about three and outs, of course, but keeping skill guys in front of you and limiting big plays is the key. Dallas was relatively successful here with their first teamers.

Here’s a look at what Dallas did in the various facets of their roster.

First Team Offense

Put it in the basket. (Getty Images)

First Drive:

The Cowboys received the ball first and immediately showed the difference in their depth charts. KR Dwayne Harris, a 2013 Pro Bowl snub, took the opening kick from 2 yards deep and was tripped up at the 27, inches away from cracking a big run. The difference bettwen Harris and the backups is clearly evident.

Dallas started out in 12 personnel, with James Hanna filling in for Gavin Escobar, who sat out the game with a bad shoulder. Escobar did get some practice in during the week, but was held out of the game. Dallas again started with the offensive line of Tyron Smith – Ron Leary – Travis FrederickZack MartinDoug Free. Penetration allowed by Leary forced an incompletion, then running a no-rush, no-huddle, Dallas failed to capitalize on a trap block by Leary when Murray cut inside of him instead of outside and only gained four.

Dallas converted their first third down attempt of the evening. Again out of 12 personnel but with Hanna slot left, Romo finds Bryant on a 5-step curl against off coverage to perfection for the completion. Murray would gain 5 behind Zack Martin, but a open field tackle on a quick out to Terrance Williams brought up third and four.

Dallas went to S11 for the first time, but Cole Beasley was unable to secure the pass and the Cowboys would have to punt the ball away.

Second Drive:

After fielding a high-bouncing punt, Dwayne Harris returned the kickoff just shy of midfield; again proving his worth and the special teams value of coach Rich Bisaccia. Maybe because it’s only preseason, but Jason Garrett uncharacteristically went for it on fourth down after a challenged play was overturned. Dez Bryant’s elbows touched out of bounds first after making a fantastic scoop while falling over the sidelines.

Four-wide brought Dwayne Harris into the second slot, ahead of rookie Devin Street. A contested slant was snared by Dez Bryant for seven yards and a conversion. Murray would gain eight yards on back-to-back runs before Cowboys Nation finally had their camp-long question answered.

On third and two, Ron Leary allowed Phillip Wheeler inside of him. Romo would climb the pocket to avoid the hit, but was then hit squarely in the back. After offseason back surgery for the second consecutive year, many have questioned how well Romo would hold up after a hit, and this looked to be the litmus test. Dan Bailey would make his 52 yard attempt to square the score up at 3.

Third Drive:

Dallas decided to replace Ron Leary with Mackenzy Bernadeau on this drive, without much change in performance. The impressive Dolphins defensive line forced a three and out, sacking Romo on a play where several players were able to collapse the pocket. Doug Free’s man, Cameron Wake, registered the sack, but Bernadeau’s man also got in, as well as the linebacker that RB Murray was assigned to pick up.

On the ensuing punt, Dallas forced a fumble when rookie Anthony Hitchens hit the returner coming out of a spin move, but Miami would recover the loose ball.

Fourth Drive:

Lance Dunbar replaced Murray as the back of choice, with the rest of the offense staying the same. The offensive line issues continued as a hold by Tyron Smith put Dallas in 2nd and 13, from which they wouldn’t recover. On third and three, Dunbar was unable to pick up the blitz and his man closed the pocket when Smith was also beat. The Cowboys would have to punt.

Fifth Drive:

Dallas would get the ball one final time in the first half, after a punt for a touchback with just under 4 minutes left on the clock. Fifth round rookie Devin Street finally got a chance to work with Tony Romo in a game, and was rewarded. Street was in for Dez Bryant, which would likely be the situation if there was an injury to the star. On third down, Romo would find Street on the same route, in the same situation, as he found Bryant on the first drive. The five-step curl worked just as beautifully.

The following play, Romo and TE Jason Witten connected for the first time this preseason, as Romo climbed the pocket and fired a shot to Witten who was running a 12-yard in route.

A few plays later, we got a glimpse of what Lance Dunbar looks like in space. Romo would hit him in stride on a screen and Dunbar actually outran his blockers or he would have had more than the 17 yards he got. After a penalty killed the Cowboys momentum, Tony Romo would be sacked for the third and final time. A holding call on Doug Free, who was beaten as well as LT Tyron Smith, was declined. Dan “Split’Em” Bailey would be brought on to kick his second 50-yard field goal of the game and give Dallas the lead at the half.

First Team Defense

First Drive

The Cowboys opened up in their nickel package, to combat Miami’s grouping of two wideouts (S11 personnel) stacked on top of each other. Of course, this was still a bit of a makeshift bunch, with Davon Coleman and Nick Hayden making the starts for Henry Melton and Terrell McClain respectively at the 3-tech and 1-tech positions. George Selvie and Jerermy Mincey were your nickel edge rushers, with Justin Durant and Bruce Carter as the nickel linebackers. Sterling Moore was the nickel corner with Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick manning the outside corner positions.

The Dolphins got a quick first down after a read option run by QB Ryan Tannehill was followed by the new breed of penalty calls; the ticky-tack defensive holding call. Scandrick made a nice play to break up a pass to Mike Wallace but was flagged for the automatic first. Two plays later, a shotgun pitch to Lamar Miller on third and three gained eleven yards and a first down with ease as an alley was created outside left.

After Scandrick sniffed out a RB flat pass for a short gain (with Zach Minter moving into the three-technique), the Cowboys countered by scrapping their nickel, even though the Dolphins went pistol (abbreviated shotgun) and flexed out both tight ends from a 12 package to the right.

Anthony Hitchens gets the nod. (Getty Images)

The interesting note here is that it was rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens that got the first rep at 4-3 middle linebacker, and not Rolando McClain. Justin Durant flexed out wide for coverage on the additional tight end. A zone-read run up the middle gained the Dolphins only three yards and brought up third and six.

Back in nickel, and with Coleman back at 3-tech, Dallas matched up Durant with TE Charles Clay. After motioning the back to the left for an empty set (Carter in coverage) we saw a possible liability with Durant unable to cover the underrated tight end. Tannehill found him easily on a slant for a quick gain of 19 yards.

Nick Hayden asked off and was replaced by Ken Bishop; Tyrone Crawford subbed in for George Selvie at SDE. Immediately, the Dolphins were able to gash Dallas up the middle. Miami motioned both tight ends to the right side of the formation, then a pull by the outside TE sealed off the backside to a huge alley created inside the two tackles. Hitchens made the tackle 18 yards down the field and Miami was at the Dallas 11.

After being blocked to the ground on the last play by Ju’Wuan James, Tyrone Crawford won this battle. He was able to shed the block and tackle Moreno for a two yard loss. Church would tackle Moreno for a short three yard gain on the next play, and Brandon Carr was able to make a nice open field tackle on a short pass to keep Miami out the end zone. After a successful field goal, the Dolphins led 3-0.

Second Drive:

Again, the Cowboys employed the bend but don’t break philosophy. Sticking with their first team, they allowed the Dolphins to cross midfield as they earned first downs on three of their next four plays. The quarter break interrupted the drive, and when the second stanza kicked off, Dallas shuffled their lineup a bit.

Out was corner Brandon Carr, who was playing for the first time this preseason, and in was Patmon. Ken Bishop and Zack Minter were now the 1 and 3 techs, with Tyrone Crawford returning to strongside defensive end. The linebackers remained Carter-Hitchens-Durant, strong to weak.

The addition of Patmon soon paid off, when he put his helmet on the ball after what would have been a first down reception from Dion Sims. Barry Church was able to pounce on it and Dallas escaped a drive where they were giving up yardage by the chunk.

Third Drive:

Dallas would open this drive in the nickel; Sterling Moore in the slot with Anthony Hitchens and Bruce Carter the linebackers. Davon Coleman and Nick Hayden were back in at the D-tackle positions. On the first play, Coleman was able to penetrate the pocket with his spin move and force a throw into the dirt as he was getting his arms around Tannehill.

After Hayden made a nice stop on a run for a short gain, more insight into how Dallas might deploy was given. Kyle Wilber checked in for his first action (still, ahead of Rolando McClain) replacing Coleman. Jeremy Mincey slid inside to play 3-tech next to 1-tech Ken Bishop. There wasn’t any pressure, but LB Bruce Carter made a nice play, breaking up a pass intended for Dion Sims.

Carter trailed Sims across the field then jumped the route right on time, almost picking the ball off for what would have been an easy jaunt to the other side of the fied for a score. On the punt, Dwayne Harris was tackled awkwardly, and injured his hip. He would tweet after the game that he was fine.

Fourth Drive:

The Cowboys thought they had forced a three and out and had a game-changing play. After Bruce Carter made a stop, he was joined in the LB corps by Rolando McClain for one play to spell Hitchens.

Carter, in his best action of the preseason, knifed through the defensive line and laid out to block the punt; something he was famous for in college. The refs, however, made a call that upon review was incorrect. They flagged Tyrone Crawford for illegal formation, even though his lineup over the center was legal; he was 1 and a half yards away from the center.

The Dolphins used the extra life to push the ball past midfield, but would eventually punt the ball back to Dallas.

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