The Dallas Cowboys' second preseason game was a 28-20 exhibition loss to the San Diego Chargers. Yet it gave Cowboys fans more reason to feel good then did their 3-0 preseason victory over the Raiders on Monday night. Such is life in the preseason, where everything seems much bigger and realer than it actually is.
But what we saw from the Cowboys on Saturday, when the first-teamers were in the game, was pretty good. For instance, Tony Romo had much more time to throw in this game than he did in the first one, and he completed 9 of 13 passes for 75 yards. Nothing too special, but (a) Miles Austin and Jason Witten were out with injuries and (b) the most important thing was that the line held up well enough this time for the Cowboys to actually operate their offense. On the first drive, that meant a lot of running back DeMarco Murray, who was the focal point of five of the first six plays -- three carries and two receptions. The protection and the reliance on Murray might have been the result of the Chargers devoting more of their energy to coverage than to getting into the backfield, but again, the result was that the Cowboys got to run plays this time. And I don't think it's fluky that they went to Murray a lot on that first drive. Even when everyone's healthy, I get the sense they're going to lean hard on Murray as their featured back this year. And the fact that he didn't return after that first drive is most likely because they want to keep him healthy.
Here's what else I noticed:
1. Brandon Carr looked big-time. The Cowboys' prized free-agent acquisition had two interceptions, and he flat-out worked it. On the first one, he let the receiver get past him and baited Philip Rivers into throwing the ball, then closed quickly and made the leaping interception. His play on the second one was also smart and athletic, and he showed good skills staying with the ball in spite of bobbling it a few times before securing it in his hands. Carr has been a star in offseason workouts and in training camp, and so far has done nothing to make the Cowboys question their investment.
2. Kevin Ogletree is staking his claim to the No. 3 receiver spot. Again, you can't assume that a guy will play well in the regular season because he does so in the preseason. So there's no way to know what Ogletree would do if given the role. But what we see is a guy on the verge of winning the role. He's also looked good in practice, and the performance in Saturday's game only underlines what the coaches already like about him. He caught four passes for 60 yards, including a very tough one from Kyle Orton in double coverage, and seems to be a guy to whom Romo isn't afraid to throw the ball. Cole Beasley was also a standout in this game, and he caught one from Romo as well. Most of his damage was done late, against backup defenders, but Beasley ended with 104 yards on seven catches, was targeted a team-high nine times and left it all out on the field. Literally. Worked so hard, cameras caught him throwing up on the sideline just before the end of the game. I also thought Dwayne Harris looked good as a receiver and a punt returner, and rookie James Hanna looks like a very strong pass-catching tight end. Assuming Austin comes back soon and Witten doesn't have to miss too much time, Romo should have plenty of guys to whom to throw. We haven't even mentioned Dez Bryant, who had a quiet night but still dazzled with an athletic near-catch just out of the back of the end zone. I believe he should emerge as Romo's red-zone favorite.
3. The line did play better, but David Arkin continues to have a tough preseason. Kept getting caught downfield illegally, and he's committed too many penalties in these first couple of games. The team wants Arkin to develop as a backup center, at least, but he's struggling.
4. Morris Claiborne's debut was fine, but uneventful. The rookie first-round pick made a couple of tackles and looked fine in coverage. For some reason, the Chargers seemed to want to throw in Carr's direction more than they did in Claiborne's. If Carr keeps picking off two passes a game, I have to imagine that will change. But it was good for Claiborne to get his feet wet against NFL competition.
5. Sean Lee looked like a playmaking monster, again, but I would think Bruce Carter is currently ahead of Dan Connor in the competition at the other inside linebacker spot. Connor had trouble in coverage on tight end Randy McMichael, and Carter seems like the more athletic option at this point. This is a Cowboys defense that wants to prioritize an ability to make plays on the ball, and an inside linebacker who can't cover a tight end is not likely to find himself with much of a role in that kind of a defense.
6. The Butlers did it. Linebacker Victor Butler and defensive back Mario Butler both showed good things. Victor had an early sack and pressured Rivers a couple of times. Mario looked good in coverage but missed a big tackle that led to a touchdown. Victor Butler is a guy who should be able to emerge as a helpful pass-rusher if the coaches can find snaps for him.