The first four quarters of Dallas Cowboys football are in the books for 2021. As is usually the case with the Hall of Fame game, the fanfare of the season's first kickoff is quickly interrupted by a game that resembles a training camp scrimmage by the second half. There were still plenty of names on both teams hoping to make a good first impression in their fight for a roster spot, in a game that ended 16-3 in favor of the Steelers.
The Cowboys came away injury free, and in Jerry Jones fashion made headlines before the game even started when Jones announced that Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Johnson will go in the team's Ring of Honor.
As we'll do following every Cowboys game this season, here are a few of my immediate takeaways.
- Micah Parsons creating a turnover on the Cowboys first defensive series was the type of “right place, right time” play that has the team so excited about their first round pick. Dallas has thrown a ton at the Penn State linebacker early on, moving him around on the second level and rushing him off the edge. No matter where Parsons lines up, his nose for the football and finishing speed jumps out.
- It was nice to see WR Cedrick Wilson get involved early. With CeeDee Lamb expected to line up on the outside much more this season, the one spot the Cowboys may have snaps available beyond their big three at receiver is in the slot. Wilson's suddenness and change of direction separates him from other depth players looking to carve out a role at the team's deepest position.
- CB Maurice Canady brought a strong start to training camp onto the field in Canton, and made a great downhill run stop on Steelers' first-round pick Najee Harris in the second quarter. Overall, the Cowboys secondary did a good job in run support and showed some of Dan Quinn's plan to play with size on the boundary. Give credit to LB Luke Gifford on this flash play by Canady, as he quickly filled his gap and forced the run outside.
- Speaking of Gifford, a sequence late in the fourth quarter showed why he'll continue to gain the trust of the Cowboys staff and receive playing time. With the game all but over, Gifford stopped a third-and-short run that led to a turnover on downs when rookie LB Jabril Cox pressured Josh Dobbs. This is the type of sequence the Cowboys can show their young defense to help set a new standard on this side of the ball.
- Rookie DL Osa Odighizuwa flashed multiple times this game. On the Steelers' final possession of the first half, the Cowboys sent pressure with two linebackers blitzing the middle. Odighizuwa did a great job holding the point of attack and allowing the pressure to force a hurried throw. The competition for snaps at DT is wide open, and Odighizuwa's ability to hold up as a run stuffer while also offering a pass rush plan can quickly earn him snaps.
- Malik Turner's would-be fourth down conversion should have been a highlight of the night, if not for his fumble leading to a Steelers recovery. On this big catch down the middle, give credit to Stephen Guidry, who did a great job getting down the field quickly and clearing out the safety to make room for Turner. Guidry was an opt out as a UDFA last season, and is once again fighting for a roster spot in Dallas out of Mississippi State.
- Ben DiNucci took over for Garrett Gilbert to start the second half, and the gap in the Cowboys QB depth chart was immediately realized. A backup QBs job is to give the offense a chance, especially given the Cowboys talent at the skill positions. Gilbert does this on a much more consistent basis than DiNucci with comfortable throws from the pocket and the ability to extend a play. DiNucci was rudely greeted on his first drive with a third-down sack. LT Brandon Knight was beat on the play, but it looked like he should have received help from UDFA RB JaQuan Hardy prior to releasing.
- For as woeful as the Cowboys run defense was a year ago, they held their own no matter the personnel grouping throughout this game. The only clear example of Quinn's defense getting blown off the ball came on Kalen Ballage's touchdown run. DT Austin Faoliu got a poor jump and was pushed into the end zone, creating the hole for Ballage. The UDFA out of Oregon struggled with his get off in college, and is competing for snaps at 1T in his first season with the Cowboys.
- The Cowboys coaching staff is high on DE Ron'Dell Carter, and he made a number of athletic plays lined up at both end and tackle. Carter was signed off the Cowboys practice squad by the Colts last season, and now finds himself in a DL battle with even more young talent. His best path to a roster spot is continuing to make plays on the edge, where his quickness and pad level can make it tough for blockers to get into his frame.
- Your guess is as good as mine as to how OC Kellen Moore is going to sort out this depth chart at TE. Blake Jarwin was not with the team in Canton, and Dalton Schultz continued to make plays in his absence. Sean McKeon also caught two passes for 26 yards, and has made a strong push to be TE2/3 since the start of training camp. The list of positions the Cowboys may be forced to go long at is growing, with TE in the mix.
The Cowboys will return to Oxnard and welcome the LA Rams for a joint practice on Saturday. As the roster competition heats up, they'll prepare for their next preseason game in Arizona on August 13th – three days after the premier of this season's Hard Knocks featuring America's Team.