The Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 win over the Oakland Raiders in their 2017 preseason dress rehearsal left us with plenty to digest - including a potentially season ending injury to MIKE linebacker Anthony Hitchens. As expected, the Raiders were a fantastic test for the Cowboys across the board. Dallas' starters remained in the game to some capacity through the first half, until Cooper Rush came in for most of the second half at QB and allowed us to continue evaluating this offense at a high level.
Here are my biggest takeaway's on both sides of the ball in another edition of Sean's Scout.
- La'el Collins keeps finding his way into my notes for the right reasons, and it is because he's done nothing but improve with every rep he gets at RT. Going up against one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Khalil Mack, Collins' ability to flash his athleticism and steer Mack around the pocket multiple times showed off his mental sharpness at the position as well. It is well-known that Dak Prescott struggled as a rookie at sensing pressure off of that left edge as a rookie. With Doug Free as the starter at RT, his struggle was always allowing his rusher to flatten the corner and power right towards Prescott in the pocket. Collins' play with his hands was also improved, as he did not overextend on many blocks. He will be just fine in protecting Dak Prescott this season and allowing him to step up in the pocket when needed.
Dak Prescott to Jason Witten TD. Oakland LBs get drawn in by play action leads to easy pitch and catch pic.twitter.com/VQcxjd7ORy
— Ben Baldwin (@guga31bb) August 27, 2017
- Speaking of Dak Prescott, before he gets put in bubble wrap this week against the Houston Texans, his ability to throw the ball with confidence and elite accuracy down the middle of the field continues to be a thing of beauty. On Jason Witten's touchdown, Prescott easily executed a play fake that opened up a throwing lane over the middle for Witten. Being so close to the goal line, the window was still tight with a DB breaking across on Witten. Prescott's accuracy caused the DB to be flat on the play, giving him no chance as #82 simply had to catch it in stride and score. Even more impressively is that Prescott missed some shot plays down the sidelines earlier in that drive, but was able to recover and wear down the middle of the field to keep the offense moving. I'm not sure there's a team in the league right now that feels good enough about their depth in the secondary if asked to defend Dallas' spread looks on offense.
- The Cowboys were 25th in the league last year at yards after the catch, and I expect this number to dramatically increase in 2017. So much of Prescott's early success as a rookie was due to a simplified offense that allowed him to verify every throw with his eyes before he made it. With his pocket presence and movement ability improving by the day, Prescott is hitting his targets in stride all over the field. Brice Butler - who's already been a fan favorite pick for the "breakout player" award - could benefit the most from this, along with of course Cole Beasley, a leaner Dez Bryant, and eventually Ryan Switzer.
DaMontre Moore with sack/turnover pic.twitter.com/ZLZi34V9wU
— Dre'Lin Jackson (@drelinas1) August 27, 2017
- Damontre Moore's two game suspension to start this season is unfortunate, but I am hopeful that by week three he can help ease the loss of David Irving through the following week and continue to play well after that. Rod Marinelli has used him as a jack of all trades, reminding me of Irving in his ability to be disruptive inside and out. Moore may not have the same length, but his first step off the ball is probably unrivaled with these Dallas pass rushers right now. Moore has dominated this preseason with his ability to finish, turning this explosive ability into some bend and power on the edge - forcing a fumble in this game with a sack tightening off the corner.
- Lewis Neal has been just about everything the Cowboys should have expected with their seventh round pick DT Joey Ivie out of Florida. Both may be long shots to make this team, but to this point the UDFA in Neal has outperformed Ivie at the 3T spot with his ability to play with his hands and read blocks. I've been critical of both of these areas in Ivie's game, as he was a penetrating player relying on speed on tape in college. Neal has comparable speed, paired with the physical traits to shoot gaps and rally to the ball down the line.
— Dre'Lin Jackson (@drelinas1) August 27, 2017
- It is hard to undermine just how valuable Damien Wilson has been this preseason, and his regular season value may have just increased dramatically with Anthony Hitchens injured last night. I'm not sure if Wilson is this team's every-down MIKE LB, but he was out there nearly all night against the Raiders all over the field. Wilson has been one of the few constants at the LB position for the Cowboys through training camp and the preseason so far, as he's excelled in a scheme that fits his ability to play in space at the correct depth and run hard to the football. Doing this at SAM is even more impressive, as Wilson still possesses the strength to hold the edge at this strong side position. Should he miss time due to a suspension the start the season the Cowboys are going to be in some serious trouble at linebacker.
- This was likely the only chance we'll get this preseason to evaluate the depth the Cowboys have at running back from Ezekiel Elliott all the way down. Elliott received six carries and looked just fine, slashing through even the smallest of holes in the offensive front while continuing to run with speed and power. You have to continue to be pleased with what the stable of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, and Ronnie Hillman are doing, but there is simply not a back on this team that can provide what Elliott does out of the backfield. Alfred Morris has run hard as always, but leaves a lot to be desired in reading his blocks quickly, sticking his foot in the ground, and banging up the field with any balance. Morris typically picks the right hole, but it takes an extra beat compared to Elliott - which leaves him stumbling across the line of scrimmage too many times. As a pass catcher, it was actually Ronnie Hillman that looked like the shiftiest back on this team aside from Zeke, but with limited reps this preseason he faces an uphill battle making the 53 man roster. Ezekiel Elliott's appeal of his six game suspension to start the season is set for Tuesday.
Just one more preseason game remains for the Cowboys to evaluate this roster and cut it down to the 53 players that will host the Giants on September 10th. Getting young players, particularly this 2017 draft class, back onto the field during practice this week would be encouraging as most starters will likely sit out the entire game on Thursday night.
Linebacker Group Key to Cowboys’ Defensive Success in 2018
In 2017, it was evident just how much the Dallas Cowboys were hurt by their lack of linebacker depth. When Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured, especially Lee, the defense struggled. Look to the games against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams and it's easy to see just how ineffective the defense was without their top two linebackers.
With more and more teams employing RPO and read-option concepts, more is expected of linebackers as they read the quarterback.
With teams like the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans all on the 2018 schedule, the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker corp is going to have their hands full each and every week defending quarterbacks who are really good at utilizing these concepts.
While the edge defenders are instrumental in containing the run concepts in the read-option and RPO, the linebackers are the next line of defense against the run and their discipline in the run-pass action is monumental to defending the passing concept of the RPO.
Jeff Ratcliffe from Pro Football Focus broke down who the best and worst teams using RPOs were in 2017 by quarterback yards per attempt and quarterback yards per carry.
The Philadelphia Eagles ran the most RPOs and, as Ratcliffe described in his article, "For Doug Pederson, no run concept could not have an RPO attached to it."
The Kansas City Chiefs were second in the NFL in the amount of RPOs utilized with quarterback Alex Smith, now with the Washington Redskins, under center. Speaking of the Redskins, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they accrued the highest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL when throwing out of an RPO.
So, if you do the math, you can bet that the Washington Redskins will utilize a lot of RPO and read-option concepts in their offensive game plan.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys' week one opponent, ran RPOs the fourth most of any team in the NFL and had 5.5 yards per carry when Cam Newton kept the ball himself. Cam is one of the best running quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Newton is the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to rush for double-digit rushing touchdowns twice in his career. Before he did it in 2011, no quarterback had accomplished the feat since Daunte Culpepper in 2002. The Dallas Cowboys and their front seven will have their hands full containing Newton in week one.
Also according to PFF's Ratcliffe, the New York Giants were the fifth best team in 2017 when the quarterback decided to keep the ball and run as they averaged 5.5 yards per carry out of RPOs. That has to be the most shocking element of his post. When you think of Eli Manning, you don't think of a running quarterback.
That just shows you how effective the RPO and read-option can be in the NFL.
With the speed of the game light years faster than it was 20 or 30 years ago, teams are having to use more and more misdirection to gain an edge in the run and pass game.
Another team on the Dallas Cowboys schedule was very effective throwing out of RPOs: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the AFC Championship Game, they made a lot of headway against the New England Patriots using this concept.
Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week https://t.co/gYJWIPYIjj
In 2017, the Jaguars averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, the fifth best number in the NFL, just 0.3 yards per attempt behind the Philadelphia Eagles, who were fourth in the league when throwing out of RPOs.
This note from Jeff, I found particularly interesting:
"When the quarterback did pull, league-wide last year, the average yards per attempt was 6.52 and there was a 78.8 completion percentage. Once again, easy money."
Jeff Ratcliffe - Pro Football Focus
Most of the NFL is beginning to employ more and more RPO and read-option concepts into their offensive game plans, making the defense's job a lot more challenging. Especially at the linebacker level.
No longer can the linebacker just simply read run or pass based on the way the quarterback drops or turns to hand off, but they have to determine:
- Is the quarterback giving the ball to the runner?
- If the quarterback kept it, is he looking to run?
- If he's going to pass, where's the ball going?
All of that has to be decided within one to two seconds of the play. A linebacker is taught to read and react to the play as quickly as possible, which can create a significant advantage for the offense if the linebacker reads wrong.
The whole point of the read-option and the RPO is to create a lose-lose situation for the defense.
No matter what they do, it's a wrong choice.
If they read pass and drop into coverage, the ball carrier gets an advantage as he begins to go downhill. If the linebacker reads run and begins to attack the line of scrimmage, the QB pulls it and throws it to the spot vacated by the linebacker.
Having linebackers with elite athleticism, range, and coverage ability, like the Dallas Cowboys do in Sean Lee and potentially Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, will help them minimize the damage potential as they face increasing RPO usage.
Even if we talk about standard run and pass play calls, the defense was a much better unit when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were in the game. Points per game, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per game were all lower when those two were available. When the team had to rely on Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson as their top two linebackers, they were lit up like a pinball machine.
The Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can return to the All-American type of player he was with Notre Dame, but if he doesn't, Vander Esch is a good insurance policy for 2019.
The Boise State product is good in the run game, but he excels in the passing game when he drops into coverage.
Having three linebackers that can play the run and pass like these three potentially can will be a huge key to the Dallas Cowboys success on defense in 2018. They will make life a lot easier for the rest of the defense if they are able to maintain play discipline against the read-option and the run-pass option.
Having these three linebackers and their dual-threat ability in the run and pass game will help the Dallas Cowboys be in far less lose-lose situations than they might otherwise be. And for the Dallas Cowboys to achieve the goals the hope to achieve, namely a sixth Lombardi Trophy, these three will be the key to that success.
Can TE Rico Gathers be More Than a Just Receiving Threat?
Rico Gathers is trying to follow in the footsteps of Tony Gonzales, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham as someone who has successfully made the transition from college basketball player to tight end in the NFL. Unfortunately, that transition hasn't gone quite as smoothly as he probably would've hoped.
To date, Gathers really hasn't been able to put a lot on tape. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad with the Dallas Cowboys, but did gain some valuable experience working with Tony Romo. Last year he was just beginning to show what kind of threat he could be in the passing game when he unfortunately sustained a concussion in practice, pretty much ending his season.
As you can imagine, Rico Gathers still has a lot to prove heading into the 2018 season. In no way is his roster spot guaranteed right now. He may still be the most talented and physically gifted TE on the Cowboys roster, but that will only get him so far.
I for one think Gathers can be a tremendous threat in the passing game. I think the flashes we saw in preseason a year ago are exactly the kind of weapon he can turn into for Dak Prescott. He is even working a route running guru, David Robinson, to become even better in the passing game. But, we all know the Cowboys coaching staff demands a lot more from their tight ends.
In the Cowboys offensive scheme, the tight end is an important position. They have to be able to block in several different areas depending on the formation, especially at the point of attack as an in-line blocker, sometimes being left one on one against a defensive end. That means they have to be assignment sound pre and post snap, with the ability to make the right adjustments in a split second.
For Rico Gathers, this is the area of his game holding him back the most right now. We all know what kind of threat he can be in the passing game, but the Cowboys coaching staff wants someone they can trust to leave on the field down after down. This is where Gathers will have to prove himself the remainder of the offseason.
The Dallas Cowboys knew Rico Gathers was a developmental prospect when they drafted him in the sixth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. They didn't know how long it would take for him to be be able to contribute, but that time may be running out. Year 3 could be his last chance to prove himself in Dallas.
Gathers is a mismatch player in the passing game against smaller defensive backs, but that might not be enough for the Cowboys coaching staff to keep him around. I would personally get him involved in the receiving game, especially with all the new faces Prescott will be throwing to this season, but unfortunately I'm not making those decisions.
Do you think Rico Gathers is more than just a passing game threat?
Tony Romo Documentary in the Works
If you've missed seeing Tony Romo on the field, an upcoming documentary may be the cure. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback is reportedly the subject of a film chronicling his football career going all the way back to high school.
"Now or Never" will tell Romo's incredible story, going from undrafted to one of the top passers in the history of the Cowboys' storied franchise. It's being produced by a Texas-based company run by Christian Hanna (no known relation to James).
According to an article from MyRacineCounty.com, Romo's hometown newspaper, the tale of Tony's football career will be told going back to his days at Burlington High School in Wisconsin. It will follow him to Eastern Illinois University, the same QB hotbed that more recently produced Jimmy Garoppolo.
But what most of us will want to relive is Tony's amazing NFL career, which stands out among the most unexpected rises to stardom of any player in league history.
Romo, who was an undrafted free agent signed by the Cowboys in 2003, didn't play in a game for three seasons. He rose the QB depth chart through practice and preseason play, eventually becoming the backup and earning the respect of then-coach Bill Parcells.
In Week 7 of 2006, Parcells pulled struggling starter Drew Bledsoe at halftime and went with his intriguing young prospect. Tony's first pass in the NFL was one to forget; an interception.
About a decade later, Romo would retire as the Cowboys' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He currently ranks fourth all-time in NFL history for passer rating.
Tony's career never saw the playoff and Super Bowl success of predecessors Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, but he remains a beloved figure in team history. The controversial end to his football career, losing his job to rookie phenom Dak Prescott in 2016, created a major rift among Cowboys fans.
While no longer playing, Romo remains one of the hottest names in football. His charisma and football acumen have him in a featured role with CBS Broadcasting.
From obscurity to "anointing oil" to one of the most discussed names in sports, Tony Romo's story is fascinating. This documentary crew picked a great subject, and we look forward to enjoying their work and revisiting the Romo Era once the film is released.
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