NFC East: Donnie Avery

Observation deck: Rams-Cowboys

August, 26, 2012
8/26/12
8:00
AM ET
I don't know. Maybe the preseason is finally getting to me. Maybe I was brainwashed by the beautiful California weather at their training camp. Maybe they just looked really good against a lousy St. Louis Rams team in their 20-19 preseason victory Saturday night. Maybe it's all of the above, but as crazy as this looks to me even as I type it, I kind of like this Dallas Cowboys' defense.

The cornerbacks are covering their men. Brandon Carr was a star of last week's game, and rookie Morris Claiborne made plays on second and fourth downs on a goal-line stand Saturday. Safeties Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh are both playing well, patrolling their zones and making their tackles. The linebackers (of which injured DeMarcus Ware was not one on this night) have been active and aggressive, led by Sean Lee on the inside. Jason Hatcher was back on the defensive line and disrupting things in the backfield. Coordinator Rob Ryan was showing off more options, scheme-wise, for the pass rush, and the improved coverage on the back end has been helping with with that. The only points the Rams scored in the first half were on field goals of 52 and 55 yards.

Now, the postgame news of Jay Ratliff's ankle sprain certainly puts a damper on things for the Cowboys going forward, as it sounds like the season opener is in doubt for him. And yeah, I know those guys on the back end were covering Donnie Avery and Danny Amendola and that it's going to be 100 times tougher 10 days from now when it's Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz instead. I get it. I write all the time that we can't draw long-range conclusions from preseason games, and I'm not doing that. But it's completely fair to like the way the Cowboys' defense has performed on the practice field and in these preseason games. And if they're building confidence based on those performances, that's the kind of thing that could conceivably carry into the regular season. So, good for them. Neither matters in the long run, but playing well in preseason is better than playing poorly in the preseason.

Here's what else I saw Saturday night:

Tony Romo was excellent, dodging the rush, extending plays and completing 9 of 13 passes for 198 yards, including touchdowns of 61 and 38 yards to Dwayne Harris. Romo's starting receivers in this game were Harris and Kevin Ogletree, and his starting tight end was John Phillips. Romo is ready to start the season.

So is Harris, by the way. Ogletree went into the game the favorite to be the No. 3 wide receiver, and he might still be, but Harris more than made his case. Yes, the touchdowns were partly the result of poor tackling by the Rams in the secondary, but Harris made the catches and the plays, he looks good in the return game and he made a key block on a DeMarco Murray run one play before his 61-yard touchdown catch. He's certainly made the team, I'd have to think, and he could continue to play himself into more time. Ogletree led the team in targets with six, and he caught five passes for 75 yards, so you can't exactly consider him out of the picture. He had a bad third-down drop, but he caught a ball up the right sideline that you couldn't help but thing looked like the one Miles Austin didn't catch in the first Giants game last year. You know the one I mean. I know you do.

Murray also looked very good against the team that let him rush for 253 yards in his starting debut last year. Murray had 26 yards on five carries and 16 yards on two catches before leaving the game with a hand injury that he said afterward is not serious. Next you'll see him is Sept. 5 in the Meadowlands, I'd imagine. The Cowboys plan to run a lot of their offense through Murray this year.

I'm sorry, but the offensive line still looks awful to me, and I commend Romo and Murray for succeeding in spite of its performance. David Arkin can actually snap the ball to the quarterback now, but he still doesn't look strong enough to hold up at center. The guards looked like they were getting pushed back into the pocket all night. Doug Free is a mess, and even Tyron Smith got beaten on the outside by Robert Quinn on a play early in the game. If the best thing you can say about the offensive line is that it'll be better when Phil Costa gets healthy, you've got a problem. At offensive line, I believe the Cowboys have a significant problem.

The Ratliff injury is a big deal if it lingers deep into the regular season. The Cowboys expect to know more about its severity Sunday. My guess is Josh Brent would fill in at nose tackle, but it could also be Sean Lissemore. Lissemore is also in the mix at defensive end.

I'd take Bruce Carter over Dan Connor as the starting inside linebacker next to Lee. Connor may look better going forward, and maybe they can use him in certain pressure packages. But Carter looks faster and better in coverage, and I think that's going to matter more at that spot.

Felix Jones made a nice blitz-pickup block on Harris' second touchdown, but he whiffed badly on one later that resulted in a Kyle Orton sack. Phillip Tanner also missed in blitz pickup with Orton behind him. Orton has to be wondering what he did to make the backs not like him.

Rookie tight end James Hanna continues to look good as a receiver, and Adrian Hamilton continues to make plays on defense. Remains to be seen what roles the team will have for them this year.

Special-teams ace Danny McCray left with a neck injury, but he told reporters after the game that he should be fine.

Exclusive Beast chat transcript

February, 23, 2010
2/23/10
2:40
PM ET
For those of you who were unable to plan your lunch around our weekly Tuesday chat, here's the entire transcript. And here's a glimpse of some of the dialogue that took place:
Phillip in Dallas: Aside from what all the Beast teams are gonna be doing, which players are YOU excited about seeing at the combine, and where do you think they will go in the draft? Thanks Mosley!

Mosley: I'm looking forward to Colt McCoy's throwing session -- especially when you consider how his season ended. Anxious to see how [Taylor] Mays and [Nate] Allen look at safety. And I'm told [Eric] Berry is a physical freak, so that will be enjoyable to watch. I'll also be looking for some of the under-the-radar guys. I've always enjoyed getting to know the Donnie Avery's of the world at the combine. No one thought that much of the University of Houston product a couple years ago, but then he was the first wide receiver taken in the draft. Pretty cool. I really like the combine. You'll hear other reporters grumbling about the cattle call, but I think it's an excellent opportunity to gather information for the offseason.
Programming note: The Beast chat begins "promptly" at noon ET every Tuesday -- unless I'm on vacation. And one more note: I just finished watching some '07 highlights of Nate Allen against West Virginia. I'd take him based on that one game alone. And now you know why I'm not an NFL scout.

The Rams' perspective on the Witherspoon trade

October, 21, 2009
10/21/09
3:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

I don't think you'll find anyone in St. Louis who will speak poorly of new Eagles linebacker Will Witherspoon, but the folks who cover the Rams for a living seem generally pleased with Tuesday's trade for wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round pick in 2010.

Longtime columnist Bryan Burwell took Tuesday's trade as a sign the Rams weren't giving up on the '09 season despite their 0-6 record. He thinks it will weaken the defense in the short term, but he absolutely thinks that Gibson can help a struggling receiving corps that features the talented Donnie Avery and a bunch of other guys who can't get any separation. Gibson couldn't get on the field for the Eagles because of their depth at the position, but he was quite impressive during training camp. In fact, he was better than first-rounder Jeremy Maclin throughout much of training camp. Of course, that had a lot to do with Maclin's holdout. Here's what Reid told reporters in Philly about Gibson on Tuesday:

"Listen, I normally don't keep that many wide receivers," Reid said, referring to the fact that he kept seven wideouts entering the season. "But I kept him here. So that I think speaks for itself. I think he's going to have a great career in the National Football League, and that doesn't make it an easy situation."



If Gibson goes on to become a nice player in the league, I'm sure Reid will be second-guessed, but it's hard to blame them for going after a pretty solid linebacker in Witherspoon. Here's what St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Jim Thomas had to say about the Eagles' new linebacker:

"He was a popular, high-character player," writes Thomas. "But his play declined last season, and he had a quiet season despite a switch back to his natural weak-side position. He had no interceptions, no sacks, no forced fumbles (or recoveries), no pass breakups and one quarterback pressure."



Not exactly a ringing endorsement -- but it probably beats what the Eagles have been going with. Regarding Gibson, I hate to see the guy go. He was one of the biggest surprises during training camp and I was curious to see if he can turn into something for the Eagles. But it's not like it was going to happen this season. Barring an injury or two (sorry), Gibson wasn't going to see the field much -- if at all.

Sounds like a win-win to me. The good folks (Jimmy Shapiro) at sportsradiointerviews.com provided a link to the interview Witherspoon did with 101 ESPN in St. Louis.

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