NFC East: Dre Bly
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
The Cowboys' starters had a 10-3 lead over the 49ers' starters at halftime, but the reserves weren't able to protect the lead. The 20-13 loss to San Francisco didn't really matter, although a local TV station in Dallas led its newscast with the following words: "The Cowboys' preseason winning streak in their new stadium is over."
Hey, it was good while it lasted. Since the game wasn't televised nationally, I'll try to give you a little more analysis than usual. You'll be relieved to know that neither punter banged a punt off the 90-foot-high video board during Saturday's preseason game. San Francisco punter Andy Lee made contact with the board before the game, but he admitted that he was trying to hit a moon shot.
Now that the dream of a perfect (home) preseason is over, let's take a look at what happened against the 49ers:
I think Kevin Ogletree, a rookie free-agent receiver out of Virginia, deserves the lead note. I don't think many people gave Ogletree a chance to make the team heading into training camp, but he kept making plays in practice. And unlike a lot of rookies, he was able to take those solid plays into the preseason games. During the Cowboys' first possession of the game, Ogletree used excellent body control coming out of his break to get some separation from Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements. And on the same drive, he ran a crossing route before catching a perfectly thrown ball from Tony Romo. There's no way you can keep the guy off the roster. Right now, he's running better routes than some of the more experienced wide receivers such as Miles Austin -- and Romo's looking for him a lot. In Washington, there's Marko Mitchell. In Dallas, it's Ogletree. Isaiah Stanback had a fumble in Saturday's game and he doesn't look as smooth as Ogletree. I'd be shocked if Stanback makes the final roster.
Why is everyone in the '09 draft class getting injured? Offensive tackle Robert Brewster and linebacker Brandon Williams are already out for the season. And on Saturday, rookie safety Michael Hamlin suffered a broken right wrist and linebacker Jason Williams had to leave the game with a sprained ankle. The Cowboys expect Hamlin to miss six weeks. The coaching staff loved Hamlin's ball skills and he catches the ball like a wide receiver. At this rate, the Cowboys will have a special-teams unit comprised mostly of starters at some point.
If Cory Procter wants to make this team, he has to find a way to successfully snap the ball to Jon Kitna. I'm not sure what the problem is with these two, but it's been happening since early in camp. On Saturday, a botched snap ended what had been a promising Cowboys drive. Kitna's not going anywhere, so it's up to Procter to figure out the problem. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett doesn't show a lot of emotion on the sideline, but you could tell he was upset with the play.
Courtney Brown's trying to learn how to play cornerback on the fly -- and it's not working out so well. That was a really bad pass interference when he basically face-guarded Jason Hill and then made some contact. That's one of the main plays that helped the 49ers win the game. I realize there's a learning curve for learing a new position, but Brown's running out of time.
That was Leonard Davis getting flagged for the holding penalty on Nick Folk's 49-yard field goal. You can't let that happen in the regular season. I didn't get to see a replay of what Davis did, but you have to be doing quite a bit to get noticed during a field goal attempt.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher must've been reading our blog. I basically said that Hatcher had been non-existent for much of the preseason. But he played a lot better Saturday. I saw him beat Alex Boone for a sack. I'm not familiar with Boone's body of work, but I know that Hatcher overwhelmed him at the line of scrimmage.
Also in the bad, bad penalty category was rookie DeAngelo Smith's horse collar tackle. I realize it's hard to bring someone down from behind without grabbing for their shoulder pads, but Smith will have to figure it out. Watching him in that No. 31 jersey reminded me of the man who inspired the horse collar penalty, Cincinnati Bengals safety Roy Williams.
Jay Ratliff is one of the quickest interior linemen in the league. On one play, 49ers guard Chilo Rachal didn't know what to do with Ratliff as he raced past him. Inside linebacker Bradie James and Ratliff teamed up to put consistent pressure on 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill. Wade Phillips is going to have a difficult time taking Ratliff off the field, but he needs to keep him fresh. I do not like the Cowboys' depth behind Ratliff at all.
That was very generous of the announcers on our local CBS affiliate to say that an upset stomach may have led to a Martellus Bennett drop. I don't think Bennett needs any apologists. He's extremely confident, but he does need to hold onto the ball. His drop in the first half was unacceptable. Everyone's going to drop the ball, but I didn't like how lethargic Bennett looked during Saturday's game.
I thought the Cowboys' first-team defense did an excellent job against the 49ers' version of the Wildcat fo
rmation. At times, defensive end Marcus Spears doesn't get off the ball quickly enough. But he did a really nice job of stuffing the run up the middle out of the Wildcat. Very heady player.
Late in the first quarter, I hear local TV anchor and former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg say that Romo's still "very early in his career" and that he's close to becoming a "really, really elite guy." On the next play, Romo fired an ill-advised pass that was easily picked off by safety Mark Roman. The Cowboys quarterback admitted after the game that he should've taken the sack and lived to see another down. Romo's doing a much better job of protecting the football in the pocket, but he still has to watch his throws. He gets careless with the ball -- and he could've been picked off by Dre' Bly on another play. And when is it OK to stop using the "he's early in his career" defense of Romo? He's been the starter since taking over for Drew Bledsoe six games into the '06 season. Now it's '09 and Romo's pushing 30. He can't play the "inexperienced" card any longer.
I think Keith Brooking's going to be a better fit than Zach Thomas in this defense. Brooking appears to be more physical than Thomas and he's putting some heat on the quarterback. The combination of James and Brooking at the inside backer spots already looks good.
Austin is too talented to remain in the shadows. I've been concerned about the lack of production Austin's had in the preseason. I love the way he blocks in the running game, but he has to get back to being a deep threat. Austin should've had the catch on the sideline in the first half. And later, he stumbled during a route, which nearly caused an interception. Austin bounced back and made a nifty catch on a ball thrown behind him. He needs to do more of that.
How dynamic is Felix Jones? I think he's on the verge of becoming one of the most elusive running backs in the league. He almost broke a 94-yard touchdown in the first half. He eluded a defender at the line of scrimmage and then he froze another player before darting into a clearing. (Shades of Tony D. in Minneapolis). The safety made a shoestring tackle on Jones, but it was still an exciting run. He's one of those rare players who can make a run of any distance seem entertaining.
In a halftime interview on local TV, Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would be looking for reinforcements at linebacker. They could wait until next Saturday and see who gets cut. Or they could try to make a trade this week. The Cowboys need someone who can rush the passer and I'm not sure if their latest addition, Tearrius George, is up to the task.
When he's healthy, Terence Newman's still an elite corner. He made an excellent play on the ball when the 49ers tried to go to Josh Morgan in the first half. And his 43-yard punt return had to please Jerry Jones. The owner's been looking for a dynamic return man for years. Maybe Newman's a guy who can return a couple punts per game.
Jason Witten is the best tight end in football right now. End of discussion. He's an excellent route runner, but the part of the game that has steadily improved is his blocking. He buried a 49ers defensive end on a fourth-and-1 play in the first half. Witten's just really smart with how he sets up his blocks. He engaged with the defensive end for a split second and then he turned him inside and shoved him to the ground. Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo also had nice blocks, but it was Witten who sealed off the player with the best chance to make a play.
I still don't think Doug Free's ready to start at left tackle in a pinch, but he has looked a lot better. And by the way, kudos to Davis for a pancake block on a running play in the first half. He cleared the way for a Felix Jones touchdown run. With Free, you can see that's he's improved a lot with his footwork -- and he's pretty aggressive. I just don't know if he's ready to go one-on-one with Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck. And throw in Trent Cole while we're at it.
It was interesting to see Marion Barber do all the legwork on the Cowboys' touchdown drive and then get replaced by Jones near the goal line. Jones looks more and more like a featured back to me every day. He just doesn't have a weakness. I was impressed with how he lowered his shoulder and banged his way into the end zone.