NFC East: Nate Clements
Feeling good: In spite of the losses of defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo to season-ending injuries, the Redskins ought to be able to get pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton today. Washington has depth on the line to cover for the Carriker loss, and they like the potential of Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson to help fill the Orakpo void. But even if they're going to need time to adjust, Cincinnati doesn't offer the stiffest first test. The Bengals have struggled in pass protection this year, and Dalton isn't the most mobile of quarterbacks. The Redskins' defense needs to create pressure up front due to concerns in the secondary, and they should be able to rely on that formula to their benefit today, even without those two key players.
Cause for concern: The Bengals' defensive weak spot is in the secondary, where corners Leon Hall and Nate Clements have struggled in the early going. But the Redskins are not at full strength in their wide receiver corps, and the likely absence of top wideout Pierre Garcon will limit Robert Griffin III's ability to beat Cincinnati deep. If the Bengals can keep the Redskins in a short-yardage offensive game plan, the advantage swings their way, especially with defensive end Carlos Dunlap likely returning from injury to play in this game.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Washington Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray has been given permission to talk to the Detroit Lions about their head-coaching vacancy, according to the Washington Post. Gray was defensive coordinator in Buffalo for five years before joining Washington in 2006. I used to watch him play at the University of Texas before he went onto a nine-year playing career with the Rams, Oilers and Bucs.
He was a shining star in the coaching community when he took over the Bills defense and he actually had some solid seasons before the Mike Mularkey-led team went 5-11 in 2005 while Kelly Holcomb and J.P. Losman were splitting time at quarterback. Gray had linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher on that team. And Nate Clements was the star cornerback. He's coached the Redskins' excellent safeties the past three seasons and I thought he did a really nice job of integrating DeAngelo Hall into the secondary midway through the 2008 season.
Gray's interview will allow the Lions to satisfy the Rooney Rule, but hopefully it will be about more than that. Gray's succeeded in some tough situations, and the way he held the secondary together in the aftermath of Sean Taylor's death in 2007 was pretty remarkable. For a while, he could barely speak when he'd show game film that included Taylor. A really, really solid guy and coach.
|Nelson Chenault/US Presswire|
|Dallas receiver Terrell Owens found his groove Sunday with seven catches for 213 yards in the Cowboys' 32-22 win over San Francisco.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
DALLAS -- Worried about his limited role in the Cowboys' offense, Terrell Owens invited Deion Sanders (and a camera crew) to his downtown Dallas penthouse for a chat last week. And judging by T.O.'s performance in a 35-22 victory over the 49ers on Sunday, it's something he may consider doing more often.
"They unleashed me today," T.O. said before ducking out a back exit of the interview room.
At the end of the two-part interview Thursday, T.O. blamed his declining numbers on offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's "system." And the next morning, owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips basically said the outspoken wide receiver had a good point.
After a slow start Sunday, quarterback Tony Romo and T.O. got back to their old ways. And they were aided by one a baffling game plans by the San Francisco defense. When Owens lined up, he saw 49ers cornerback Nate Clements playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Never mind that the Redskins provided the blueprint for slowing down Owens last month when they had Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers jam him at the line of scrimmage.
With some breathing room, an out-and-up route by T.O. resulted in a 75-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead. Romo extended the play by sliding away from two defenders, and T.O. finished off the score by high-stepping his way out of Clements' grasp. The play energized a team that looked vulnerable early in the game. The 49ers had first-and-goal at the Cowboys' 4-yard line twice in the first quarter, but had to settle for field goals both times.
By halftime, Owens had three catches for 128 yards, and the Cowboys (7-4) held a 22-6 lead. After the game, the interview room doubled as a comedy lounge. Even Phillips, not a regular on the after-dinner circuit, got in a zinger.
"We might put him in the West Coast offense," Phillips said. "But I thought [this offense] worked out OK."
Phillips was referring back to the Sanders interview in which T.O. professed his love for the West Coast offenses that he once flourished in. To be sure, one win against a 3-8 opponent doesn't make a trend, but it's certainly a positive sign for a team making a November playoff push.
T.O. walked into the interview room and addressed a local columnist who'd suggested Sunday morning that wide receiver Roy Williams should become the focal point of the Cowboys' passing game.
"So I ain't got it, huh?" he said while staring down the columnist. " ... You guys have been waiting for me to blow up. But I've been patient. Every week, I practice hard and try to perfect my craft. Regardless of the situation and how the games turn out, I've tried to be patient and take advantage of the opportunities I get. When I get my hands on the ball, things happen. It's not a mystery."
Romo also brought up the newspaper column, saying, "This morning there was some newspaper out with an article that someone said T.O. wasn't doing very good anymore. But you could see he's still got it. He's a fantastic player."
Romo said that his broken right pinkie felt much better Sunday -- especially on deep throws. He's hoping to lose the splint after Thursday's game against the Seahawks, but it didn't seem to limit him at all Sunday. He threw for a season-high 341 yards and three touchdowns, and he used his mobility to make several plays downfield.
Still, Romo joined the masses who were caught off guard by the 49ers' defensive game plan.
"They didn't want to do anything special to take him out of the game," Romo said. "They ran a lot of coverages, but nothing that said, 'We're going to take him out.' They're one of the first teams in a while that decided to do that and we tried to take advantage of it."
Witten has been taking pain-killing injections for broken ribs before every game, but Clements appeared to hit him underneath the chin. Clements wasn't flagged for the penalty. He led with his shoulder, and it looked like a clean play.
In other injury news, rookie cornerback Mike Jenkins has left the game with a right hamstring injury and will not return. Cory Procter has replaced Kyle Kosier at left guard, but Kosier appears to be fine.
The 49ers just made it 32-16, but this game's been over for a long time.