The Dallas Cowboys surrendered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, giving up the game-winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds to play. But since this was the preseason opener, the takeaways from the team’s performance are not diminished by the final score. Here are a handful of quick hits from the Cowboys’ defeat at San Francisco on Thursday.
- Defense generates turnovers – The defense stole the ball from their opponent three times throughout the night, twice on interceptions created by a deflected pass at the line of scrimmage, and once on a fumble recovery. This was an encouraging sign for a team that has been lacking in this department for years.
- The linebackers are fast and athletic – A common occurrence during the game was the sight of a linebacker pursuing and tackling ball carriers running around the formation. These often resulted in a loss of yardage or minimal gain. The addition of Leighton Vander Esch and Joe Thomas has been a boon to the sideline-to-sideline range of the linebacking corps.
- The run defense is good – With the exception of one or two plays, the first- and second-string defense was a menace to the 49ers’ ground game. Defensive linemen were winning their one-on-one battles and shedding blocks while linebackers quickly filled gaps and stuffed runners.
- The linebackers blitzed often – Rod Marinelli called at least eight blitzes during the game, a rate of 20.5 percent. This was a slight increase compared to last year when the defense blitzed only 17 percent of the time. What was noticeable in last night’s affair, however, was that the majority of the blitzes were interior pressures involving linebackers — coincidence or a sign of the team’s 2018 philosophy? Jaylon Smith has hinted during the offseason that he was going to be used as a pass rusher more often. He blitzed twice over a three-play span and produced positive results.
- Tavon Austin appears to be a legitimate threat – The explosive space-player converted first downs on two consecutive plays. The ball traveled 10 or more yards in the air on each pass. The team has said that Austin will be a key part of the offense. His performance last night backed that up.
- The defensive end rotation could be among the best in the NFL – Both Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong consistently showed up in the backfield when in the game. Charlton displayed good awareness and discipline to pressure the quarterback on at least two bootleg passes. Although neither recorded a sack, they both got their hands on the quarterback and created pressure. Armstrong also showcased some speed off the edge, something he’s been doing in practice, as well.
- The 21 personnel group could allow Ezekiel Elliott to catch more passes – Although Dallas’s starting running back didn’t play, the team showed one way it could increase Elliott’s workload in the passing game. On the Dak Prescott 30-yard touchdown pass, the offense was in 21 personnel: two running backs and one tight end. Fullback Jamize Olawale lined up in the backfield and served as an extra pass protector, while Rod Smith shifted into the slot. This allowed the offense to face San Francisco’s base personnel grouping where a linebacker was assigned to guard the running back, an advantage for the Cowboys. Even though that advantage wasn’t exploited on that particular play, it will be in the future.
- Don’t forget that Prescott can scramble – The team’s passing attack as a whole is still a work in progress. One dimension to the Mississippi State Bulldog’s repertoire is his ability to improvise on the ground. On the starting offense’s lone drive, Prescott converted a 3rd-and-9 by scrambling for 12 yards. His skillset in this regard can jumpstart a stalled drive to keep the offense on schedule. It can also serve to demoralize and frustrate the opponent, who expects to get off the field on 3rd down.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22