The Dallas Cowboys weren’t expected to have much of a star presence when they made a pit stop in the desert as part of their weekend travels. Training camp in Oxnard, CA wrapped up on Wednesday, but on the way back to Frisco the club stopped by to visit old NFC East rivals, the Arizona Cardinals. Even though they got some work in pre-game, it was well known quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and WR Amari Cooper weren’t going to play, and neither were several defensive players.
A surprise though was that DE Randy Gregory, who as recently as Wednesday spoke to his desire to play on Friday night, wasn’t in the lineup. Nor was he in the building, returning to Dallas early for an undisclosed reason.
Folks found out after the game that Gregory has a foot issue. He and Dalton Schultz (ankle) were surprise scratches who were sent back ahead of the rest of the team.
Perhaps the Cowboys should’ve sent everyone they consider relevant to the upcoming season home as well. The carnage was real as Dallas suffered multiple injuries on the way to a 19-16 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. The score and result are wholly unimportant, but here’s what could be taken away that may matter.
Connor Williams gets the start at center
There’s nothing wrong with Tyler Biadasz, he was part of the introduced starting lineup on the Cowboys’ broadcast. Yet for the first two series, he was on the sideline as the Cowboys lined up Connor McGovern at left guard and normal-starting left guard Connor Williams at center. Dallas used Williams as the second-team center last week, but this week they gave him the start. It lends even more credence to the idea that Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin are going to take the “Best 5” approach to the line composition this season. If Williams happens to be that at center, or if McGovern proves to be that at left guard, then so be it. The problem is, Williams certainly does not appear to be that. Williams had a beautiful pancake block that sprung RB Tony Pollard on the Cowboys’ second drive. Two plays later, he blew up a play in shotgun by almost snapping the ball above Garrett Gilbert’s head. Later, he caused a fumble when his snap surfed the Arizona turf on the way to Gilbert. He had three or four bad snaps on the drive.
Linebackers creating turnovers again
Last week, rookie Micah Parsons recovered a fumbled handoff to give Dallas their first possession against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Friday, they got a full-fledged forced fumble out of free agent signing Keanu Neal. Neal came in as soon as tight end Maxx Williams caught the pass and simply strong armed him, stripping the ball from him before taking him to the ground.
Sloppy first-quarter effort
Bad snaps, dropped wide-open passes, whiffs on blocking attempts, defensive holding penalties on third-and-16, deep bombs. The first quarter was not a solid impression given by the Dallas Cowboys. Though they picked up their play at times during the game, it felt exactly what it was. A pit stop on the way back to Dallas after spending three-plus weeks away from home. The club’s focus didn’t appear to be there in many stretches of the game. In fact, head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game the team had a bad week of practice that carried over from the joint practice with the Rams and seeped into the contest, confirming these observations.
Cowboys’ pass rush came to play
Despite not having DeMarcus Lawrence or Gregory, the Cowboys’ pass rush was in regular season form against the Cardinals’ protection. Dorance Armstrong had two sacks of his own, including one on third down deep inside Dallas territory to force a field goal. He retuned on the next drive to get his second. He also deflected a pass he almost caught that would’ve been a pick-six. Big game. In addition, Bradlee Anae —making his first appearance of the preseason — got in on a beautiful spin move and then ruined it by helmet-to-helmet on Colt McCoy after the QB got rid of the ball. Not to worry, Ron’Dell Carter came through on 2nd-and-9 and got the club’s third sack of the first 20 minutes. Anae had three QB hurries in limited action. Dallas ended up with four sacks on the game and a handful of would-be sacks which were negated by penalties that didn’t create the sacks. Doing so without their key edge rushers is a promising development for Quinn’s troops.
Garrett Gilbert still doesn’t have a touchdown pass this offseason, but that’s not too big of a deal. He was betrayed on Friday night by Williams’ snaps and receiver drops. He’s clearly going to be Prescott’s backup come the regular season and he’ll be better than he is right now when the line is settled and his Pro Bowlers are in front of him, if he ever has to play. While Ben DiNucci did throw a touchdown pass, there’s still nothing that shows he nor Cooper Rush – who doesn’t seem to have the requisite arm strength to play in the league – is ready for the roster.
Second-round rookie Kelvin Joseph had a rough stretch, getting called for defensive holding on 3rd and 16 while trying to guard Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk. On the next play, Arizona threw a deep 34-yard bomb over Joseph to Kirk. It all felt like a “welcome to the NFL, rook” series of plays for the Kentucky product. Joseph did have a PBU on the game. Meanwhile third-round pick Nahshon Wright continues to shine. He played sticky coverage throughout, giving up just one completion for six yards and had his own PBU. He’s slotted behind Trevon Diggs who made his preseason debut and wasn’t challenged, but Wright is showing that the club has depth in the making.
Aside from Gregory and Schultz news, the carnage continued in game. DT Neville Gallimore looks to be lost for a long stretch after apparently injuring his arm around the elbow area. The club also lost the services of backup left tackle Ty Nsekhe, WR Malik Turner, TE Sean McKeon and LB Anthony Hines III. The team will evaluate the players when they return to Dallas on Saturday, but it sounds like fans should expect a lengthy absence for Gallimore. This is tough because he had come a long way, getting kudos from the coaching staff for making a significant second-year jump. With Trysten Hill still not practicing after suffering a 2020 ACL injury, the team is perilously thin at the 3-tech spot.
Young players who shined
Fans shouldn’t let the box score fool them. Rookie defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa played a very disruptive game. He ended up with three tackles, including one for a loss, but it looks like the UCLA product has a lot going for him. Also of note, sixth-round rookie Quinton Bohanna continues to show some pass-rush ability, which isn’t expected from a 330-plus pound nose tackle. Carter, mentioned earlier, had two additional QB hits and a QB hurry, along with a run stop. He was a highly regarded 2020 UDFA who the club was fortunate to get back in the fold after the Colts poached him from the practice squad last year. He played some inside and may be part of a solution should Gallimore miss significant action. Safety Israel Mukuamu was converted from cornerback and Dallas is asking him to do a whole lot of swiss-army knife duty. He’s showing well in his play.
Rico Dowdle fumbled twice in the first half, though only one was credited. He lost the first, and the second – on 4th and 1 – stayed within his body but definitely came loose. He’s shown plenty of reasons to be the team’s third RB, but that is going to make it an uphill climb for him if ball security has been an issue in camp.