And on the day of the Week Four preseason game, the starters rested.
The NFL mercifully put an end to the Cowboys preseason schedule, as Dallas won a preseason game for the first time in two years. The in-state rival Houston Texans on were the victim, as Dallas defended the Governor’s Cup, 21-14.
No starters or key players suited up, as this was more a contest to determine who would round out the bottom of the roster. A boring game turned exciting after the half,time break as Dallas turned a pick six and a forced fumble into a quick 14 points. Late in the game, Dallas’ Lucky Whitehead broke a big punt return to near midfield, and the Cowboys were able to capitalize. They’d drive down the field to score a touchdown on a Ben Malena run to take the lead for the final time.
For the Cowboys, the focus was more on individual performances than team success, as is the case with every preseason game. In that sense, the team got some good work in despite the game being penalty-filled, as several players either confirmed prior assessments or gave the coaches something new to think about.
With Brandon Weeden still sidelined with concussion symptoms, Dustin Vaughan received the start and played the entire first half. He played the entire game and failed to impress once again. His final stat line: 11 for 20 for just 115 yards.
Dallas decided not to play fourth-string QB Jameil Showers, possibly so that they could stash him on the practice squad after final cuts on Saturday. It will be interesting to see the extent of Weeden’s concussion problem and whether his availability for the Giants game affects the initial 53.
While Vaughan struggled, several other players with their roster spots on the line shined, leaving some difficult decisions for the Cowboys coaching staff and front office. WR Lucky Whitehead got his opportunity to win the returner job, and did more than enough to impress. He had one big punt return nullified by penalty, but his 33 yarder midway through the fourth quarter set up Dallas for the game winning drive.
Whitehead had five punt returns for a 13.8 yard average, and kicked in two kick returns for a 28 yard average. On offense, Whitehead was Vaughan’s primary target the entire evening, hauling in four passes for 40 yards. He seemed to secure the fifth wideout spot, should the club choose to carry that many.
That decision might hinge on the plans at tight end, as Gavin Escobar played much of the night since Jason Witten and James Hanna were out. Escobar made a great play in the first half, on 3rd and 17 catching a ball well short of the marker, but bulldozing through several Texans defenders for an additional 10 yards. His second catch of the night showed the same fight for more yardage.
Ben Malena, who scored the game-winning drive has little chance to make the 53, but could have made a case for this or another team’s practice squad with 80 yards and the score on just 13 carries. He played behind Gus Johnson, who had his own 21 yard touchdown and 68 yards on 16 carries. Johnson still has a remote chance of being the fourth halfback to make the club.
The majority of the roster battle stars were on the defensive side of the ball, though.
Free agent corner Corey White continued his strong offseason after being cast out in New Orleans. With Houston pinned at their one-yard line, he stepped right in front of a Tom Savage pass and sauntered into the end zone to put Dallas on the board for the first time early in the third quarter. White also contributed five tackles on the evening.
At defensive end, fifth round pick Ryan Russell likely cemented his place on the team. His strip sack of Tom Savage on the drive following the pick six gave Dallas the ball right back. It was Russell’s second sack of the preseason. Lavar Edwards entered the game as the sixth DE and registered his second sack of the exhibition season, as well as two tackles for loss. Edwards is in direct competition with Ben Gardner who also had two TFLs. The Cowboys suddenly seem rich and deep at defensive end.
Not wanting the outside guys to have all the fun, Davon Coleman was a terror at defensive tackle. He made several plays, including a hit on Tom Savage late in the game that knocked the quarterback out of the contest. Coleman is likely in competition with Ken Bishop who checked in with five tackles on his own.
Both are likely behind Terrell McClain, who has been sidelined with a knee injury. He showed the penetration and burst that people have raved about all offseason in his first snaps of 2015. He checked in with four tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss.
The linebackers didn’t want to be left out. Keith Smith has shown up all over the place since he rejoined the club. He forced a fumble, and returned the Russell strip sack for a score, but the play was whistled dead by the refs. Dallas got the ball after a replay review.
Jasper Brinkley, who received a $2 million guarantee finally looked the part of a potential Rolando McClain sub, making plays all over the field in the first half. His five tackles were one behind Keith Smith’s.
The game’s leading tackler though was rookie UDFA Tim Scott. The safety from North Carolina recorded seven tackles, including several special team tackles as the gunner. His performance could land him on the practice squad, or even a surprise addition in place of Danny McCray, who was brought back for his special teams prowess but isn’t getting many snaps.
Everything wasn’t all good for Dallas, who played a sloppy game as could be expected considering it was a contest of third, fourth and fifth stringers. The Cowboys committed a whopping 11 penalties for 82 yards, stifling their first half drives and allowing Houston to keep their drives alive.
Darrion Weems, penciled in as the swing tackle, committed two of his own and struggled in pass protection. It’s been mentioned on CowboysHQ several times over the last couple of weeks, but fans should expect Dallas to seriously consider adding personnel to the offensive line should someone of merit be released by another team by Saturday’s deadline. Trading for a player shouldn’t be ruled out either; Dallas doesn’t seem to have a capable answer should Tyron Smith or Doug Free miss any time.
The rest of the line didn’t fare much better, as rookie Laurence Gibson struggled along with most of the guys that played up front. They only allowed three sacks, but penalties added to the heartache.
Now, the real work begins. Dallas will faceoff against the rival New York Giants a week from Sunday night. In the meantime, the coaches will huddle up and decide which players will form the initial 53 man roster, then confer with the front office to see if they will bring in any help from the outside via trade or signing other team’s cuts. All 32 NFL teams have until 4pm eastern to trim their rosters, and then practice squads will be formed the next day.