This Saturday the Dallas Cowboys will take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a game in which the starters are expected to play an entire half. It will be the best opportunity of the preseason to begin shaping our ideas of how Dallas’ first string players will look like this coming season.
Although some projected starters such as Jay Ratliff, Mo Claiborne, and Anthony Spencer will not play because of injuries, most of the starters for week one will be on the field at the same time. Here are some of the starters that I will be watching most closely on Saturday.
- Demarco Murray. The fact that Murray has barely had any carries so far in preseason makes this choice a no brainer. Cowboys Nation has been waiting to see what the starting running back will do this season after two injury riddled years. Because of his history of injuries, the Cowboys coaching staff has been very careful with how much Murray has played so far. However, Jason Garrett seemed to indicate that Murray would be given more of a chance to get into the flow of the game against the Bengals. The running back’s health and play are very important to providing an offensive balance to this team. Hopefully, Demarco will get plenty of carries on Saturday to prove that he can provide that stability.
- Jason Hatcher. With Ratliff out for all of preseason so far, Hatcher has stepped into the role of under tackle and has handled the job fabulously. He has improved his technique this year under the coaching of Rod Marinelli and Leon Lett. If Hatcher plays well at the under tackle position on Saturday, Cowboys Nation can feel much better about the possibility of Jay Ratliff missing some games this season which would come as no surprise to me. I will also be watching Hatcher and the other linemen to see how they pressure the quarterback on Saturday. More often than not in Monte Kiffin’s defensive scheme, the four linemen will be expected to apply the pass rush alone.
- Doug Free. After a poor last season and a restructured contract, Free has appeared to be a man on a mission. In the time he’s been on the field he has done a fantastic job at right tackle and there’s no reason why fans shouldn’t expect more of the same against the Bengals. I will be watching to see if Free takes any snaps from the left guard position, where he has gotten some reps this week at practice. Although Jason Garrett said Free’s reps at left guard were simply out of necessity because of the lack of depth, I wonder if there may be more to it. Theoretically, the Cowboys could play Free at guard and Jermy Parnell at right tackle. It will be interesting if they try that combination on Saturday.
- Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. I listed this tandem together because I believe that they are two of the best young linebackers in the league and together they can wreak havoc on offenses under Kiffin’s defensive scheme. The Tampa 2 defense gives linebackers every opportunity to make plays on the ball and hopefully these guys can force at least one turnover during extended minutes on Saturday. The Dallas defense has only given up one touchdown so far through preseason, and the starters have not played much. I’m hoping that, led by Carter and Lee, the starting defense can pitch a shutout through the first half against the Bengals. Regardless, it will be nice to see both Lee and Carter flying around the field making plays against the run and the pass for an entire half.
- Barry Church. Watch Church closely on Saturday because although the Cowboys are confident he will be a good starting safety, we don’t really know all that Church can do. We simply have not seen him play in that many games after he went down early last year with an injury. Now, this one-half of a game may not reveal to us all that we would like to see, but I am hoping that Church makes some of those eye-popping plays that earned him the starting job last year. The safety play of Church along with Will Allen is essential to the pass defense being successful this year and fans can get a glimpse of how they are progressing on Saturday.
- Terrance Williams. Williams isn’t technically a starter because Dallas is starting two tight ends this year. He is, however, the third wide receiver, and will likely get almost as many snaps as the starters. Last week, Williams played in his first game as a Cowboy and would have had his first touchdown if not for a miscommunication with Tony Romo. Apparently, Williams made an adjustment on his route that Romo wasn’t expecting. The good news is that Williams can learn all of those small details. Expect him to take plenty of snaps with the starting group and hopefully we’ll see Williams and Romo on the same page this week. Williams has athleticism and size, and if he can find a niche within this offense that already has a large arsenal of weapons, he could help the Dallas receiving core become one of the best in the league. Look for Romo to get the ball to Williams often to help ensure that the two players smooth out any kinks that exist because of Williams’ missing some time during camp.
Of course it will also be good to see all the big stars in action, but we all know what to expect from Romo, Dez Bryant and Demarcus Ware. Hopefully they will all shine Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals in their first chance of the season to play extended minutes.