Observation deck: Cowboys-Vikings

August, 27, 2011
8/27/11
10:11
PM ET

Yeah, I know the game's not over yet. And I want to see DeMarco Murray as much as the next guy does. But I'm in New Jersey and I'm not sure how much longer the power will stay on. So I thought it made some sense to get something down now, rather than later, about the Dallas Cowboys' preseason game Saturday night in Minnesota.

First off, everybody's going to want to talk about the defense, which gave up 216 yards to Adrian Peterson, Donovan McNabb and the Vikings in the first half. Peterson looked unstoppable, which he often does against many teams. The Vikings' offensive line beat up the Dallas defensive line in the run game, and Peterson cashed in for 69 yards on 11 carries. Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam got burned on a long touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian, and it's very easy to come out of that first half saying the Dallas defense looks like more of the same from last season, when only the Broncos gave up more points.

But I'm not sure Cowboys fans should be so quick to get so down about this, and for a number of reasons.

First, and most importantly, it's only preseason. I'm constantly preaching here that you can't make sweeping predictions or evaluations about team performance in preseason, because you don't know what you're watching. Some teams game plan, others don't, and sometimes plays get called for the express purpose of identifying how a certain player will do in a certain matchup. To say the Cowboys' defense is in trouble because it gave up a bunch of yards in the first half Saturday night is a classic overreaction.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Andy KingThe Vikings pressured Tony Romo for much of the first half, but Romo still managed to amass 141 yards and was 15-of-20 passing.
Secondly, the Cowboys did do some good individual things. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick had a couple of nice pass breakups in big spots against Berrian. Jason Hatcher got his hand on a McNabb pass and Sensabaugh made a nice diving interception before the ball hit the ground. I thought Anthony Spencer was very active and busy around the ball, whether it was pressuring McNabb (he sacked him once) or making a play or a tackle in coverage. Overall, the tackling (which was a major issue for the Cowboys last season) was fine. Peterson had a couple of chances to break long gainers and didn't. So while the Cowboys didn't do a good job containing him at the point of attack, they did manage to keep him from destroying them.

Finally, the Cowboys are not at full strength on defense. They're still missing starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, and starting defensive end Marcus Spears. And those who are playing have had only a month's worth of practices in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's system. It's perfectly understandable if frustration from last season's defensive performance leaks into this season. But it's unfair to assume based on preseason games that it won't be better. It's a work in progress, getting healthier and more comfortable. And considering how strong the Cowboys' offense should be, remember: The defense doesn't have to be one of the best in the league to make the team a contender. It only has to improve from the back of the pack to somewhere near the middle.

As for that offense, there were quite a number of highlights, which I'll hit on as I mention some other things I saw:

1. Tony Romo looks great. He was pressured early up the middle (remember, Dallas started a third-string center) but held up fine and threw with impeccable accuracy and confidence all night. He was 15-for-20 for 141 yards in the first half, and even some of his misses were well thrown. The near-touchdown on which Kevin Ogletree couldn't get his second foot in bounds was a perfect throw. The throw just out of Dez Bryant's reach at the goal line shortly before Felix Jones' touchdown run was in a place where Bryant was the only one who would have even had a chance to catch it. Romo's accuracy is his greatest strength, and it was on display Saturday.

2. Bryant is a physical beast. He can overpower defensive backs to make a catch. When he makes a catch, he's hard to bring down. He's 6-foot-2, 225 pounds with great hands and great instincts. Once defenses have Miles Austin to worry about as well as Bryant, Romo is only going to look better.

3. Felix Jones continues to impress. But while Jerry Jones is out there saying Tashard Choice needs to play better on special teams to make the roster, Choice looked good on a couple of runs while spelling Felix. Murray was also set to play at some point Saturday (and I'll update with stuff on him if the storm allows), and as great as Jones has been this preseason, it's good for the Cowboys to see what their other options are for giving him a break and helping to keep him healthy.

4. Jesse Holley is working hard to make the team. Made a couple of very nice third-down catches, missed a tackle on a kick return ... mixed bag kind of a first half for Holley, but if Romo's comfortable throwing to him and he's making the catches when he does, that's got to help his case.

5. The offensive line got better as the game went along. As mentioned, there were some issues early with the Vikings getting pressure up the middle. Rookie Bill Nagy still looks like he needs to add strength, and Tyron Smith looked as though he was struggling with his footwork again on the first offensive series. But things tightened up as the first half moved along, and the Cowboys were able to keep Romo clean and allow him to make his plays. On the sack, left tackle Doug Free got beaten by Jared Allen, who forced Romo up in the pocket where Christian Ballard got off a Nagy block to bring Romo down. I wonder if Nagy is supposed to hold that block longer, or if I'm watching the rookie too closely.

6. Shayne Graham should be the kicker. Dan Bailey and Graham each hit mid-range field goals (37 and 38 yards, respectively) at this writing, but given Graham's track record I have to think he gets the job as long as he doesn't miss kicks in the preseason. He didn't look great on kickoffs, but the new rules make that less important this season.

Again, more later if I'm still online. But that's what I have for now.


Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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