I’ll be honest; as I’m watching the Cowboys’ preseason games, there’s really just one thing on my mind—how quickly Tony Romo and the other most vital players come out of the game. Momentum and player evaluation aside, the most important aspect of the preseason for the Cowboys is to simply remain healthy; they need to head to the Meadowlands on September 5th with their entire arsenal of weapons.
Nonetheless, it’s still fun to watch individual players and how the team performs in unison. Here are three specific things I’ll be watching in tonight’s game against the San Diego Chargers. . .
3. Victor Butler
I voted Butler as the Cowboys’ most underrated player. . .two years in a row. The fourth-year outside linebacker has been nothing but productive when he has received snaps, producing a pressure rate of 7.9 percent—superior to that of Anthony Spencer.
Many think Butler only ever rushes the passer, but that’s not true. In the past two seasons, Butler has rushed the quarterback on 51.9 percent of his snaps—lower than DeMarcus Ware’s 53.2 percent rate.
On top of that, Butler is much-improved as a run defender. I’ve tracked him as missing only three tackles in his entire career. He has also made a tackle on 4.6 percent of his snaps. In comparison, Ware’s tackle rate over the past three years has been 4.2 percent.
Butler was sensational in the Cowboys’ preseason opener, showing a burst off of the edge and always playing around the football. If you keep an eye on him tonight in San Diego, I think you’ll be presently surprised.
2. Offensive Formations
This will be an intriguing year to watch Jason Garrett as a play-caller. With the loss of Martellus Bennett (who was surprisingly the team’s best blocker), you might expect the Cowboys to run fewer two-tight end sets in 2012. There’s uncertainty at wide receiver, however, with the loss of Laurent Robinson and Miles Austin’s recurring hamstring woes. Thus, I don’t think anyone is really sure what kind of offense to anticipate this year.
In the preseason opener against the Raiders, Garrett called a two-tight end set on just three of the first-team offense’s 11 plays. The ‘Boys lined up with three receivers on four of those plays, and the offense was in a base personnel package on the other snaps.
With Jason Witten out indefinitely, check out how Garrett morphs the offensive calls. Specifically, watch the utilization of backup tight ends John Phillips and James Hanna. The former is a well-rounded tight end who often lines up in-line, while the latter is a rookie “move” tight end who can line up all over the field. If Hanna can build off of his strong performance as a receiver against Oakland, Garrett may very well utilize a “hybrid” offensive attack with two tight ends—one lined up in a traditional tight end position, and the other split out as a receiver.
Of course, Hanna will need to progress as a blocker before he receives significant snaps.
1. Morris Claiborne
This one’s a no-brainer; we all want to see the rookie in his first game action as a pro. The Chargers’ versatile repertoire of receivers should provide an excellent test for Claiborne. They have a big, physical possession receiver in Malcom Floyd, a tall burner in Robert Meachem, and two quick-twitch slot-type receivers in Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown.
Considering Claiborne’s skill set, I think he’ll excel against the larger receivers that he’s capable of jamming. Before Claiborne was even drafted, I wrote this in a scouting report on him at the New York Times:
Claiborne is versatile; he’s sharp in both press and off coverage. He seems most comfortable at the line, however, where he can use his long arms to disrupt receivers as they try to get into their routes. . .Claiborne is at his best in zone coverage. He has a really solid understanding of zone concepts and spacing. He is constantly coming off his receiver in zone to make plays, all while maintaining his responsibility.
I really think Claiborne will be just fine when covering the majority of the NFL’s prototypical receivers. If he finds trouble, it could very well be with DeSean Jackson-esque players. If either Royal (if he plays) or Brown motion outside to Claiborne, let’s see how the rookie deals with the challenge.
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