Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys conducted their annual Blue-White scrimmage. In years past, these events were hotly contested and provided a more realistic glimpse of actual football before the pre-season. But in recent years, particularly with the current collective bargaining agreement, such ferocious play has been dialed back to prevent injury.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t insights to glean from last night’s practice. Here’s a list of thoughts, observations, and questions I have after watching the scrimmage.
*Note: Remember, this is only the start of the second week of training camp. Try not to read too much into a single scrimmage.
Tavon Austin continues to impress
Despite his blazing speed and quickness, the five-foot eight-inch Austin has never fully met expectations after being drafted eighth overall in 2013 by the Rams. Scott Linehan likely plans to deploy him in a similar role to Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill.
Expecting the former West Virginia Mountaineer’s impact to be a carbon copy of Hill’s is unfair, as he’s yet to display the same downfield consistency as the Chiefs’ star. However, the sixth-year pro continues to flash speed and ball skills on intermediate and deep passes in Cowboys training camp. Watch how he tracks the ball on this red zone pass and snatches it above Charvarius Ward’s helmet.
👀 Tavon Austin pic.twitter.com/nE6oC9LlfO— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 6, 2018
If Linehan can replicate one-half to two-thirds of Hill’s usage and production with Austin, then this offense should return to its 2016 level of lethality, or perhaps exceed it.
Will playing from behind be this team’s Achilles heel?
Although Dallas’ starters were impressive in red zone work, they struggled mightily in the two-minute drill. Down four from his own 28 yard line with 2:28 remaining, Dak Prescott’s first throw was intercepted. The Cowboys’ quarterback took a little too long to target Cole Beasley on an out route. Anthony Brown showed good play recognition and closing speed to pick off the pass and return it for a touchdown.
The starting offense continued to unravel after Jason Garrett reset the scenario to their own 42 yard line and down two. Taco Charlton spun past La’el Collins for an easy sack of Prescott, dropping them to 3rd-and-18. Two plays later, on 4th-and-long, Dallas’ starting quarterback scrambled from the pocket and tossed an underthrown ball to Terrance Williams. The pass was easily deflected then intercepted by Jeff Heath.
Fortunately, this is only a small sample size, and there’s still over a month of camp and pre-season to fine-tune the offense. But if they don’t improve in this area, the team will have a critical deficiency heading into the season. The team can’t rely solely on their running game to win every week. Contenders need to be capable of compiling game-winning drives through the air, even when the defense is expecting a pass.
No surprise, the running game looks good
Ezekiel Elliott had explosive gains on the same running play, a power sweep. On the opening play of practice in 11-on-11 work, Prescott handed off to Elliott on a read-option. The defense was gashed as the recently turned 23-year-old sprinted into the open field.
On the first play of the second drive of red zone drills, the Cowboys called virtually the same play. Elliott ran almost untouched into the end zone.
The RPO is in full effect
The front-line starters were two-for-two in the red zone portion of practice, the first score being a Y-seam/bender run-pass option (RPO) they like to call when in scoring range.
This is a similar concept to the touchdown they scored against the Giants last year.
RPOs such as the ones above will be an important dimension in the 2018 offense. The fact that they appear to be executing them with proficiency is encouraging.
Has Antwaun Woods leapfrogged Brian Price on the depth chart?
Brian Price was an underrated addition to the defensive line last season. Before a left knee injury landed him on injured reserve, he showed a much-needed strength and get-off at the 1-technique spot. This year, he looked to start training camp as the “big man” to beat in the defensive interior.
He may have recently been dethroned, as Antwaun Woods received first-team work in goal line Saturday, as well as in 11-on-11 drills yesterday. The team might decide to keep one full-time 1-technique on the roster, and the former Trojan appears to be holding that spot heading into their pre-season opener.
Will turnovers finally make a comeback in Dallas?
With the exception of one or two seasons, the Cowboys have struggled to consistently create turnovers for many years. Although there’s a major difference between practices and games, the defense managed to get their hands on the ball seven times last night.
Anthony Brown and Jeff Heath intercepted Prescott and returned one for a touchdown. Bubble players Marquez White, Charvarius Ward, and Kam Kelly each earned a pick off of quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Mike White. And there were three fumble recoveries, one from a sack and one returned for a touchdown, during the Blue-White scrimmage.
Interceptions in camp don’t automatically equate to interceptions during the regular season, but with a talent-laden defensive line, a young and athletic roster, as well as new secondary coach Kris Richard, could this be the year?
Is Rico Gathers staking a claim for the 53-man roster?
After a slow start to his camp, both literally and figuratively, the tight end earned at least one first-team red zone rep in 7-on-7 drills. He’s hard to see in the video below, but Prescott tosses Gathers a touchdown after rolling to his left.
Dak to Rico Gathers pic.twitter.com/HZiFzM13Sl— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 5, 2018
The former basketball player later used his size and hands to catch a touchdown pass from Cooper Rush. The large and lumbering tight end beat Kavon Frazier on a quick out-and-up move from inside the five yard line.
Cooper Rush to Rico Gathers pic.twitter.com/DAdYyGoMs5— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 5, 2018
Here’s another angle of the play. Look at Gathers’s awareness to keep both feet inbounds.
Gathers is nowhere near a lock for the 53-man roster. But if he continues to make plays like the ones above, he’ll give Garrett and Doug Nussmeier a lot to consider on September 1st.
There are a lot to of intriguing possibilities on this team, but nothing is set in stone at this point. The first pre-season game is this Thursday in San Francisco. The events over the next month will give everyone a much clearer picture of how far the Cowboys could go in 2018.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.