If things go as expected for the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys, Thursday's preseason meeting could be a precursor to the NFC Championship Game in mid-January. Both teams are improved and loaded on both sides of the ball. But, because they meet in the final preseason game, it isn't expected that either team is going to be throwing out its starters, making this a junior varsity matchup.
Tony Romo isn't at all and neither is former Viking Brad Johnson, opening the door for first-year pro Richard Bartel to get plenty of playing time, but his spot isn't safe on the final roster. The Cowboys have been a team mentioned prominently as being interested in QB Chris Simms, who will be released by Tampa Bay on Saturday, if not traded. Owner Jerry Jones said the team wants to get younger at backup QB, which could mean that if Simms comes in, Johnson goes out. But, with Simms' recent injury history, Johnson may be kept as an insurance policy. Both QBs will be looking to make a case for the team to keep them, so, while the game won't have much significance, their individual performances will be watched closely.
The Cowboys are undergoing a transition in the running game. Former leading rusher Julius Jones was allowed to leave via free agency, turning the primary ball-carrying duties over to Marion Barber. A hard-charging runner nicknamed "Marion the Barbarian" by his teammates, Barber is a bruising runner who never shies away from contact. Replacing Julius Jones is rookie Felix Jones, who could actually see action and be a good gauge for the Vikings' defensive backups. An electrifying runner who played in the shadow of Darren McFadden at Arkansas, Jones is expected to bring the big-play ability to the Cowboys backfield as a speedy complement to Barber. Another rookie, Tashard Choice, is competing with first-year RB Alonzo Coleman for backup spots. Both are expected to make the team, but their contributions likely will be minimal barring injury. Deon Anderson played eight games as a rookie at fullback and is expected to have the starting job locked down, giving him an edge over unproven Julius Crossling.
The Cowboys made a lot of overtures to other teams in search of a big-time wide receiver, looking into the possibility of trading for Larry Fitzgerald, Chad Johnson, Roy Williams and Anquan Boldin. Nothing panned out, so the unit remains almost unchanged from last year. Terrell Owens is the primary threat after catching 15 TD passes last year. Patrick Crayton blossomed as the No. 2 receiver after Terry Glenn went down during training camp in 2007 and was released earlier this month. Crayton is a solid route-runner with good hands, but will likely be facing a challenge from third-year players Sam Hurd and Miles Austin. The two combined to catch just 24 passes last year, but both are expected to see their contributions rise this year. Converted quarterback Isaiah Stanback is making quite an impression in his second training camp and has appeared to lock down a spot. The battle for depth at the position is likely going to fall to unknowns Danny Amendola, Mike Jefferson and Mark Bradford. There might only be one spot available (if that), so Thursday's game will be critical for all of them. Mark Witten emerged as one of the game's top tight ends last year, leading the Cowboys with 96 receptions. The battle for his backup is led by rookie Martellus Bennett, a huge target and solid blocker. Backups Tony Curtis and Rodney Hannah are likely battling for one roster spot.
One of the strengths of the Cowboys dating back to their glory days of the early 1990s has been the offensive line. Most linemen are anonymous, but even casual fans are likely familiar with some or all of the front five for Dallas – tackles Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo, guards Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier and center Andre Gurode. All five of them are entrenched at their positions barring injury and the primary thing to watch will be the position battles among the reserves. Tackles Doug Free and guard Joe Berger are seemingly set as backups at left tackle and right guard, respectively, but the other battles for roster spots are up in the air. Third-year man Pat McQuistan is being challenged by Cory Lekkerkerker at right tackle, practice squad player James Marten is battling Adam Stenavich for a backup guard spot (where Kosier could miss up to a month with a foot injury) and Cory Proctor and Ryan Gibbons are fighting it out to be the backup center.
The Cowboys offense has been adept at stealing the headlines, but the defense has been making its share of believers as well. For the last several years, the Cowboys have shuffled between a 4-3 base defense and a 3-4 and, for 2008, the team has reverted to a 3-4. They are loaded up front with ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty – a pair of high draft picks both in their fourth season – and nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Knocking on the door are third-year men Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen, who are fighting off challenges from rookie Marcus Dixon and first-year man Marcus Smith. At nose tackle, former Bear Tank Johnson is trying to beat out Junior Siavii and Remi Ayodele for the backup spot.
To make a 3-4 defense work, defenses need active, hard-hitting linebackers and the Cowboys are loaded at that position as well. Former first-round picks Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware are as good as it gets on the outside, able to both rush the passer, make tackles in the running game and cover backs and tight ends in the passing game. The Cowboys already had a steady performer in Bradie James on the inside, but got an upgrade with the free-agent signing of former Miami Pro Bowler Zach Thomas. While not as fast as he was a few years ago, Thomas is a tackling machine. Depth isn't an issue in the middle with Bobby Carpenter and former part-time starter Kevin Burnett back in the fold. On the outside, former top pick Anthony Spencer started six games as a rookie last year and has his spot on the team assured. The same isn't true for youngsters Tearrius George, Darrell Robertson, Erick Walden and Justin Rogers – four players who may well be competing for just one roster spot and see plenty of action against the Vikings.
As good as the Cowboys are up front and at the linebacker, no team in the league is as strong in the secondary as Dallas. The team has four legitimate starters at cornerback. Terence Newman is one of the best cover corners in the game and eighth-year man Anthony Henry has proved himself worthy in both man and zone coverage. The Cowboys made one of the bigger signings by getting Pacman Jones in a trade from the Titans. He is expected to be cleared to play in the regular season and is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Also in the mix is former top pick Mike Jenkins, who may have found himself starting for a lot of teams, but is the fourth CB on this roster. At safety, the Cowboys invested a lot of money last year in Ken Hamlin and weren't disappointed. A Darren Sharper-type safety, he has great instincts and tracking skills. He's lined up next to Roy Williams, who doesn't have the greatest coverage skills, but hits like a Mack truck. Special teamers Pat Watkins and Courtney Brown have a leg up on the backup jobs, but are getting challenged by rookie Dowayne Davis and first-year man Tyler Everett.
The true sign of a champion is being able to replace star players when they go down. Few teams in the league, if any, have as much in the way of depth as the Cowboys do, which is why they are the favorite of many to advance to the Super Bowl and represent the NFC. That depth will be on display Thursday and, while the score will be irrelevant in the big picture of things, the Cowboys that lose roster spots later this week will be watched closely, especially by the Vikings – who will get a first-hand look at them.
The marquee names will be sitting out Thursday, but this game has the makings of being the opening act for a sequel game that could take place in January – with a lot more at stake.
Cowboys Preview: Backups Galore
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