There are many around the NFL who believe that the Dallas Cowboys are one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. They have good reason for that belief. The Cowboys have one of the most powerful offenses in the league and, thanks to the table being set through the draft by former coach Bill Parcells and the defensive-minded schemes of new head coach Wade Phillips, the Cowboys may have the best balance of offense and defense of any team in the conference.
Because this is the final preseason game, we're likely not to see much of the regular starting cast, but for Vikings fans, that won't diminish the interest, especially at the quarterback position. While starter Tony Romo will likely only be on the field for a series or two, it will mean that former Viking Brad Johnson will see plenty of duty. Signed in the offseason after the team allowed former starter Drew Bledsoe to leave, Johnson has been soaking up a new offense and needs all the live-action reps he can get. Acknowledged as a solid game manager, Johnson succeeded with the Vikings when he came in with an identical role, leading the team to a 7-2 record after Daunte Culpepper went down with injury. He has the same opportunity with the Cowboys. Third-stringer Matt Moore will likely see action late, but expect to see plenty of Johnson in his return to the Metrodome.
The Cowboys are among the growing list of teams that have abandoned the single-back RB theory, instead opting to go with a two-headed approach. Last year, it worked out well in every respect, unless you were a fantasy football player. Julius Jones was the starter and had 15 or more carries in nine of the first 10 games for the Cowboys. While slowed with injuries later in the season, he had nearly twice as many carries as backup Marion Barber, who had more than 10 carries in a game just four times in 2006. But Barber became a red zone machine, scoring 16 touchdowns – 14 rushing and two receiving. He was a prototype of a Parcells offense, where one runner carries the load between the 20-yard lines and a bruising back finishes off the drives. There's no telling if Phillips will keep the same approach, but expect to see plenty of action for both backs. For Thursday's game, however, expect to see more of third-year man Tyson Thompson and fullbacks Lousaka Polite and Deon Anderson in the second half of the game.
The receiver corps has also been undergoing some changes in the preseason. The most startling change has been the relative lack of attention paid to Terrell Owens. When he came to Dallas last year, it was like the circus had come to town with him. Slowed during training camp with a hamstring injury, Parcells got tired quickly of answering questions about a player who wasn't on the field as opposed to those who were. This season, the media frenzy has died down and Owens has just stuck to his business – a refreshing change for Cowboys fans. But fellow starter Terry Glenn has been sidelined almost all of the preseason. With Glenn on the shelf with a knee injury, it has allowed backup Patrick Crayton to showcase himself and get full-time reps with the first team. Crayton caught 36 passes for 516 yards last year, including 104 yards and a touchdown in the one game last season that Glenn missed. Depth is a concern, with the top backups being Sam Hurd and Miles Austin, both of whom saw playing time as rookies a year ago.
At tight end, Jason Witten is one of the best pass catchers in the conference. His 64 receptions last year was third on the team. With backup Anthony Fasano slowed with a shoulder injury, undrafted free agent Tony Curtis may get much more of a chance to show what he can do.
One of trademarks of the Cowboys, dating back to their Super Bowl dynasty, has been a massive offensive line. That said, the current crop of O-linemen for the Cowboys is the biggest in team history – averaging 6-6 and 324 pounds across the front. Led by massive tackles Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo, guards Kyle Kosier and free agent signee Leonard Davis, and center Andre Gurode, the Cowboys have one of the most impressive O-lines in the league. With the starters appearing cemented in their roles, the primary competition remaining is for backup positions. Doug Free has been sidelined for parts of the preseason due to injury, giving Pat McQuistan and James Marten a chance to compete for backup tackle spots. At guard, Joe Berger, Trey Darilek and Steve Franklin are competing for two roster spots and centers Cory Procter and Matthew Tarullo are fighting it out to win a spot behind Gurode. Thursday's game will likely be the last for three of those players.
While the Cowboys know what they have on offense, defense has been a different story. Phillips has long supported the 3-4 defense and he has the personnel to make the Cowboys one of the best defenses in the league. While Parcells ran the 3-4, Phillips' version of the defense is much more aggressive and blitz-happy. For a 3-4 to work, the nose tackle position is crucial and the Cowboys have a good one in Jason Ferguson. He re-emerged last season as a two-gap clogger who takes up two linemen and fills the middle on running plays extremely well. Depth is a concern with first-year pro Remi Ayodele as the next line of defense, but the Cowboys are confident depth won't be an issue – they were confident enough in Ayodele to release underachieving Montavious Stanley in the first round of roster cuts. On the outside, the Cowboys have a pair of very good DEs in Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. While they haven't always lived up to their incredible athleticism in terms of consistency, both can be dominant at times and are expected to shine in Phillips' all-out attacking defense. The bigger question is how the final roster will shake out. Four players – third-year pro Jeremiah Ratliff, second-year men Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen and undrafted free agent Marcus Smith – are competing for supporting roles. Ratliff saw action in 15 games last year and the team likes Hatcher's pass rush ability, giving the team confidence that there won't be a dropoff in production if a starter goes down.
The Cowboys have an embarrassment of riches at linebacker that will only get stronger when injured Greg Ellis returns. Ellis is slated to start alongside inside 'backers Bradie James and Akin Ayodele and weakside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whom many believe is going to be the next big thing among OLBs. With Ellis sidelined, rookie first-round pick Anthony Spencer (a converted defensive end) has been given his chance to show what he can do. A DE-LB ' tweener, Spencer is still learning the linebacker position after spending most of his college career as a down lineman, but his athleticism is a perfect fit in the Cowboys system. While Spencer has assured his roster spot on the outside, the one remaining opening will come down to fourth-year pro Junior Glymph and first-year player John Saldi. The inside looks set with Bobby Carpenter and Kevin Burnett entrenched behind the starters.
The Cowboys have never been at a loss for talent in the secondary and this year is no different. Terence Newman and Anthony Henry are two very good cover corners, but Newman has been bothered with a torn plantar fascia in his right heel. While extremely painful, players are known to play through the injury. But with the twisting and turning required to play cornerback, it's more than just a minor concern to the Cowboys. With questions surrounding Newman, it has opened a chance for 14-year veteran Aaron Glenn to see playing time. While clearly past his prime, Glenn has a lot of savvy and ball-hawking skills. A pair of fourth-year players – Jacques Reeves and Nathan Jones – are battling first-year man Quincy Butler for the remaining roster spots at corner. The free safety position has been a revolving door over the last few seasons, but the Cowboys believe they have solved that problem by signing veteran Ken Hamlin to play alongside hitting machine Roy Williams. Pat Watkins, who started nine games at free safety last year, is competing for the starting job with Hamlin, giving the team solid depth at the position. Keith Davis and Abram Elam, who both played in 15 games last season, are likely competing for one spot behind Williams.
The Cowboys even have a question in the kicking department due to injuries. Veteran Martin Gramatica has been sidelined with a hip-pointer, opening the door to rookie Nick Folk. He's expected to handle all the kicking duties against the Vikings and, if he does well, has a very good chance of winning the job away from Gramatica.
The Cowboys that other teams will face during the regular season will have a much different look from the team the Vikings will see Thursday night, but with the depth and skill the team boasts on both sides of the ball, it's no wonder that a lot of analysts are looking at this team as one of the top contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl when February comes around.
Preview: Cowboys Loaded with Depth
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