Preview: Cowboys Solid Throughout

While Terrell Owens' "to play or not to play" saga grabs the national headlines out of Dallas, the Cowboys come into Thursday night's game against the Vikings solid personnel all around. It should be a good measuring stick for the Vikings in their final preseason game.

Football teams hate going into cities that are hosting big events like political conventions, huge concerts or competing sporting events. But, as the Vikings head into Dallas for their final preseason game Thursday night, they arrive while the circus is in town.

While the Ringling Brothers aren't setting up their tents, no lions or tigers or elephants are being fed and no clowns are bailing out of an unusually small car, the circus has been in Dallas for months – a media circus surrounding wide receiver Terrell Owens. Few players can generate as much publicity for not playing as Owens has in Dallas. While Bill Parcells has been putting him team through its drills, when it comes time to step to the podium to talk to the media, all that seems to be on everyone's mind is T.O., a lightning rod for controversy who has made quite a splash in his new landing spot.

Owens has been the center of controversy for some time and, after re-taking the practice field Tuesday, he again has become the focus of attention. Whether good or bad, it has taken the spotlight off the rest of Cowboys, who many think have a legitimate shot of winning the tough NFC East this season.

Parcells created his own controversy during training camp when he said it wasn't a guarantee that veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe would be his starter. After releasing former multi-sport wunderkind Drew Henson, Parcells began expressing his own man-love for backup Tony Romo, maintaining that there was still competition for the starting job. Bledsoe responded by having one of his better outings in the Cowboys' last preseason game and seemed to solidify his position as the starter, but expect to see a lot of Romo against the Vikings as he makes one last push to make an impression on the coaching staff.

The questions on offense don't end there. The running back position has also been the source of some controversy. Julius Jones was supposed to be the running back of the future, but injuries last season got him in Parcells' dog house, much in the same way nagging injuries put Mewelde Moore in a similar spot with Mike Tice. When Jones went down last year, former University of Minnesota star Marion Barber III got his shot and made the most of it. He's earned his chance to see playing time and there is the belief that, despite Parcells' track record of going with one featured back, the two might split time in the offense this season. Tyson Thompson has the best speed of any of the Cowboys running backs, but he is raw and, while the Vikings will likely see plenty of him Thursday, he's still being viewed as a longer-term project.

With Owens on the sidelines with his hamstring injury, it has opened the door for some of the existing Cowboys to make a defense for their inclusion in the game plan. Terry Glenn has arguably had the best camp of any Cowboys player, both in practice and on the field. Replacing Owens in the starting lineup has been unknown Sam Hurd, a player who was viewed as a long shot to make the roster but has jumped into a starting spot in T.O.'s absence. He's joined by third-year man Patrick Crayton and rookie Skyler Green as deep threats in the vertical passing game. Another player looking to make his mark as the team's potential go-to threat is tight end Jason Witten. A third-round pick in 2003, Witten has become one of the most deadly pass-catching tight ends in the NFC and is expected to remain a focus of the offense – one that has always made good use of the tight end.

Up front, the Cowboys have long maintained one of the best offensive lines in the business for many years, but there finally appear to be some cracks in the armor. With perennial All-Pro Larry Allen retired, the line has gotten significantly younger, with fourth-year veteran Marc Colombo at right tackle and fifth-year players Kyle Kosier at left guard (replacing Allen) and Andre Gurode at center. Dallas still has a pair of aces on the line in left tackle Flozell Adams and right guard and former longtime Packer Marco Rivera at right guard, as well as depth with tackle Jason Fabini, center Al Johnson and guard Stephen Peterman all looking to crack the starting lineup, so while the final score may not have a lot of importance, how this unit plays will be closely monitored throughout the game.

For the third straight game, the Vikings will get a look at another 3-4 defense and a group that Dallas observers believe will be strong enough to win games even when the offense is struggling. Deep with talent, nose tackle Jason Ferguson anchors the line. He's expected to be flanked by Chris Canty and Marcus Spears once the season begins, but second-year pro Jeremiah Ratliff has been making a stand to hold onto the starting left defensive end spot. A player to watch closely is Greg Ellis. Disgruntled by the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4, Ellis has shifted from end to stand-up pass-rushing linebacker, which, if he can accept his new role, could make him a dangerous pass rusher.

Depending on where Ellis ends up, the Cowboys have one of the deepest, most active linebacker corps in the league. On the outside, second-year pro DeMarcus Ware has turned heads as a potential breakout superstar this year. He's already fought off Al Singleton, Kevin Burnett and Rocky Boiman for a starting job, while 2006 first-round rookie Bobby Carpenter and free agent signee Akin Ayodele join Bradie James on the inside. To make a 3-4 defense work, the linebackers have to be active and athletic, and Dallas has as many as eight ‘backers that could start for a lot of NFL teams.

In the secondary, the Cowboys made short work of re-signing safety Roy Williams before he could even get close to the free agent market. A dominating player whose strength led to Owens' knee injury in 2004 and spurred the league to make a rules change concerning "horse collar tackles," Williams is already among the top safeties in the league entering his fifth season. The free safety spot isn't as clear, with Keith Davis, Marcus Coleman and Pat Watkins battling for a starting spot. At the corners, the Cowboys also have some depth, thanks to the draft and free agency. Terence Newman is a former first-round pick of the Cowboys and Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn were both signed as veteran free agents. With the top-end talent provided by Williams and depth at all four positions, this is a position of strength for the Cowboys and a unit capable of making big plays.

While Thursday's game is more likely to be a battle of the backups playing for their pro football lives, the Vikings and Cowboys would be advised to pay extra attention to the schemes both teams are using in this game. While they aren't scheduled to meet again during the season, many believe there is a good possibility that there may be a rematch of this game when January rolls around.

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