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Cowboys vs. Raiders: 3 Things to Watch in Preseason Opener

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The Cowboys head to Oakland tonight to face the Raiders in their first game action in over seven months. While the first preseason game isn’t a great opportunity to watch the starters, there are still plenty of storylines to follow. Here are my top three. . .

    3. Lawrence Vickers’ lead blocking

    The Cowboys got solid play from fullback Tony Fiammetta in 2011, but they decided to let him walk in free agency. Vickers may be an upgrade, and he was really brought into Dallas to do one thing—help the team win on short-yardage runs. This is a team that hasn’t ranked better than 23rd in the NFL in short-yardage efficiency since 2008.

    You’ll get a chance to see Vickers in action quite a bit tonight because Jason Garrett will call a strong side dive from a formation called “Double Tight Strong” on numerous occasions. I’ve done extensive research on Double Tight Strong. Since 2009, the ‘Boys have lined up in the formation 221 times during the regular season, running the same strong side dive running play over 70 percent of the time for an average of just 3.4 yards-per-carry. Over 40 percent of the runs have come on 1st and 10, and the ‘Boys have thrown a playaction pass from the look all of three times in short-yardage situations (1 to 4 yards to go for a first down) in three years.

    Garrett especially doesn’t mind the predictability in the preseason, so watch Vickers’ ability to help clear a path for the backs on short-yardage plays. By the way, the formation is a variation of “I formation” with an extra tight end on the strong side.

    2. Will any wide receivers step up?

    Tonight is actually a really big game for Kevin Ogletree, Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley, and the rest of the wide receiver corps, because the team will likely add a free agent at the position if someone doesn’t step up. Neither Miles Austin nor Dez Bryant figures to play tonight, so the backups will get ample opportunities to display their skills.

    Remember, the Cowboys’ No. 3 receiver doesn’t need to play the slot, because that’s actually Miles Austin’s spot. Austin played in the slot on 44 percent of his 2011 snaps, and a remarkable 62.5 percent of his targets actually came when he was lined up inside.

    Watch Holmes in particular. He’s a favorite of mine and has been showing a lot of improvement of late. If the ‘Boys forgo adding veteran receiver depth, I think Holmes will be their guy.

    1. Other free agent acquisitions

    Other than Vickers, watch the Cowboys’ other free agent additions go to work. Newly-acquired cornerback Brandon Carr has been showing shutdown ability in camp. He won’t get much playing time, but it will still be fun to watch him go to work against the Raiders’ speedsters.

    Inside linebacker Dan Connor is another player to watch tonight, and he’ll play a lot more snaps than Carr. I wrote an article on why the Cowboys needed to sign Connor before they actually did it, noting that Connor posted the second-highest tackle rate in the NFL last season. He made a tackle on 11.7 percent of his snaps; that trumped Sean Lee, who checked in with a 9.3 percent tackle rate. The two players remind me a whole lot of each other, and it will be fun to watch Connor battle second-year linebacker Bruce Carter for snaps inside.

    Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.

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