Cowboys Comprehensive: Fall 23-6 To 49ers

Dallas avoided major injury for the second week in a row, which was the biggest "must have" for a team with a long injury list in the preseason. Still, there performance against San Francisco left much to be desired and plenty to work on.

The Cowboys finally returned to preseason action, taking on the San Francisco 49ers ten days after their opening effort against the San Diego Chargers. Under new head coach Joe Tomasula, the 49ers seemed much more invested in their performance than the Cowboys did, dominating the first half and keeping Dallas without a first down until midway through the second quarter. A defensive line pick-six highlighted the first half performance, while a blocked punt TD accented the second half, leading to a 23-6 49er victory. A late Jameill Showers to Nick Harwell touchdown kept Dallas from being shut out.

San Francisco is a franchise in transition, losing several key members to both free agency and retirement. Preseason performance for new coaches is also about establishing a winning culture, and that emphasis showed in the effort of both teams. For Dallas, the main goal was once again escaping the game without suffering a major injury, and in that they got what they came for.

Cowboys fans got to see just a glimpse of quarterback Tony Romo, playing just three snaps, for the first time since January in Green Bay.

Said Romo, “It’s always good to get out and play. I would have liked to go a little longer, but we were just going to go the one series. I pushed to get back in, but the coaches have a plan.”

Romo was also joined by right tackle Doug Free, as he saw his first action of the preseason. Still missing, however, were left tackle Tyron Smith(biceps) and right guard Zack Martin (stinger). Left guard Ron Leary also missed the game with his sore back. With Dez Bryant (hamstring) sidelined, there was little reason to do anything except let Romo knock some rust off; over a third of the starters were missing.

The San Francisco defense gave very little opportunity to evaluate much of anything from the early Cowboys offense. Four drives, four three and outs; with the first commanded by a 1 for 1 for -1 yards performance by Tony Romo. It was the star quarterback’s first action of the preseason and the team obviously just wanted him to get some work without risking him behind a makeshift offensive line.

The Cowboys offense would end the first half just 1 of 6 on third down conversions, with two turnovers courtesy of Dustin Vaughan interceptions. Backup quarterback Brandon Weeden exited with a head injury after three lackluster series. Head coach Jason Garrett wasn’t too enthused with the performance.

“We didn’t get much going on offense early on in this ballgame, and that’s disappointing. They controlled the line of scrimmage, and we didn’t make very many first downs with that unit. I felt we moved it a little better as it went on, but the turnovers in the second quarter killed us.”

On the flip side, the Dallas defense did a good job of limiting the 49er passing game, but the run game bludgeoned the Cowboys defense early and often. With Frank Gore in Indy, the 49ers didn’t miss a beat, running for 124 yards and a 5.2 ypc before letting their fifth-string back take over. Combined with the Chargers gaining 135 ground yards and two scores last week, it appears the Cowboys have some work to do to shore up their “stop the run on the way to the QB” philosophy.

The “on the way to the QB” part, seemed to be working a lot better than 2014, though. Randy Gregory had an extremely effective night, notching his second sack in two games and drawing multiple holding penalties. Gregory, in the proper mindset, wasn’t satisfied.

“In my opinion, I didn’t get to the quarterback enough. I ran past the quarterback too much; didn’t keep containment enough. It’s something I will work on in the second half.”

Rookie Ryan Russell also contributed a first-half sack, as did redshirt rookie Ben Gardner. That’s six sacks in two games for Dallas, who’s Achilles heel was the lack of pressure they exerted in 2014.

The defense played without Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden, Rolando McClain and the top four cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and first-round pick Byron Jones.

Darren McFadden earned the start for Dallas, stirring questions as to the pecking order for the Cowboys running backs. Those that are privy to camp talk and practices know the coaching staff seems to believe that Joseph Randle will be the starter week one, but McFadden got tonight’s start. Was it to evaluate McFadden behind the best assembly the team could muster at offensive line? Was it a “punishment” of sorts for Randle’s niggling injuries that kept him out of practice this week?

Regardless, there was little to evaluate behind the makeshift line. However, Randle seemed to show much more juice in his carries, but did have a holding call in pass protection; the one area with a lot of question marks surrounding it.

For the first time in seven months, quarterback Tony Romo returned to the field to lead his troops. The Cowboys won the toss and chose to receive, giving Romo the ball first. Unfortunately, there was little to evaluate him. The 49ers blew up the Darren McFadden run attempts on first and second down, in the free agents first snaps with the team. On 3rd and 10, Lance Dunbar slipped after catching a swing pass in max protect and the drive was over. The offensive line was unable to keep the vaunted 49ers run defense from penetrating on the run downs. Of course, the line still isn’t whole, with Tyron Smith, Ron Leary and Zack Martin all sitting out the game nursing various injuries. When the Cowboys would return to the field for their second possession, Brandon Weeden took over.

After a big return, San Francisco gained a first down behind two runs from Carlos Hyde. Colin Kaepernick ran a read option for nine yards before sliding to bring up second and short. San Francisco was able to drive the field with apparent ease, as the read option worked multiple times and the zone runs weren’t corralled on the edge. However there were three positive plays.

On the only true dropback (SF ran three-step drops almost exclusively) DeMarcus Lawrence was able to crash through two defenders and get a hand on Kaepernick, forcing a roll-out and an incompletion. Later in the drive, Corey White broke up a back shoulder fade to Torrey Smith in the end zone on 3rd and goal, forcing a 49er field goal. White, who shined against San Diego last week, is proving to be a very capably commodity for Dallas in their defensive backfield.

With Weeden in at quarterback, Darren McFadden got his chances again. A swing pass gained four, but he was unable to get to the corner around LB Nick Moody. On 2nd and 6, McFadden had a lane but couldn’t keep his balance on the questionable field at Levi Stadium. Gavin Escobar came open across the middle on third and three, but dropped a pass placed right on his hands and the Cowboys were three and out again.

For the second consecutive week, the Cowboys special teams coverage was lacking. A 35 yard punt return had to be stopped by punter Chris Jones. Cowboys fans should be familiar with preseason woes on teams, it has been a staple of Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia that always seems to be well-ironed out when the games actually count.

The Cowboys defense was able to create pressure at midfield, with Davon Coleman collapsing the pocket and pushing Kaepernick back. Randy Gregory released from his block to being the QB back for his second sack of the preseason and a big loss. San Francisco called a safe run and punted to pin Dallas deep into the end zone.

On the third Cowboys drive, Joseph Randle got his first action of the game, taking the first down carry left, reversing field and earning six yards on the carry. His good work would be nullified by a holding penalty on third down, when he was trying to pick up the rushing linebacker. Another three and out for the Cowboys led to another big punt return setting the 9ers up with great field position.

Blaine Gabbert took over at quarterback for San Francisco, leaving Kaepernick 2 for 5 for 13 yards. Rookie RB Mike Davis sauntered through a huge hole on the left side for a gain of 15 to move the 49ers inside the Cowboys 25. The drive would stall as the quarter changed, and San Francisco would tack on another field goal for a 6-0 lead.

When the Cowboys offense returned to the field, a false start on T John Wetzel set the drive back, and a third down stunt led to a huge sack when the interior of the line was unable to pick it up. Another three-play drive for Dallas’ offense.

Dallas’ defense returned the favor, as rookie Ryan Russell sacked Gabbert on third down to force the three and out.

Dustin Vaughan took over as the Dallas quarterback on the next drive, and handed off to Randle on first down for a gain of three. Gavin Escobar made a nice grab in front of the linebacker, snatching the ball out the air and converting the Cowboys first first down of the game, with 9 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Cowboys would get another first down, then Dustin Vaughan made the big mistake.

Pressured to his left, Vaughan tried to hit the underneath tight end, completely missing the 300 lb lineman in his face and throwing it right to him. Nose tackle Mike Purcell returned the pick 37 yards for a score. Vaughan would later through a second pick, and a third bad ball that would’ve been picked if two 49er DBs didn’t fight over it. His night ended just 7 for 16 for only 84 yards. He did stand tall in the pocket in the face of pressure on multiple occasions, on his behalf.

Dallas kept fourth-string QB Jameill Showers under wraps until well into the fourth quarter. He had a couple would-be interceptions, and then finally put one on the ledger when Deontay Greenberry was out-wrestled for a contested pass on the sideline. The Cowboys quarterbacks would end the night 18 of 39 for just 155 yards, 1 TD and three interceptions.

Now, the team will turn their attention to the true dress rehearsal, next Saturday evening at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

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