DALLAS -- The Thursday night matchup between the Cowboys and Broncos yielded a lot of pretty statistics. It also showcased a confused, tenuous defense and an inconsistent run-blocking effort. Thankfully, that's all easily explainable: Pre-season rust is in full effect.
Most of the Cowboy starters either sat the game out or exited after pacifying the fans with one series. This game wasn't a story of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, DeMarcus Ware or Jay Ratliff. But while the stars spent their time watching from the sidelines, some young Cowboys were doing their part to prove they had enough talent to one day be in that same position.
Disclaimer: It was a preseason game. It's rarely wise to draw wide assumptions from a performance during this time of year, as the quality of play and schemes are very different from where they will be once games begin to count. With that being said, it's always nice to see players perform in a game setting. That's really what this is.
QB Stephen McGee was largely seen as an unknown quality, and many clamored for the Cowboys to scrap him and select a different project QB in the past year's draft. But McGee brought a lot to the table last night, throwing 3 TDs and a single Interception on his way to 208 yards. He keyed a game-winning drive which left the Broncos with only 15 seconds to fire a return shot. And he showed more poise, field awareness and accuracy than we've seen from him in the past. He took what the defense gave him and let his third-string receivers beat the Broncos' third string corners. He eluded pressure and scrambled for yards when plays broke down. It's too early to say McGee was a worthy draft selection, but if he can consistently flash the skills he showed last night, he has a place in this league.
WR Dwayne Harris was drafted for two things: His ability as a returner and his sheer productivity at East Carolina University. While the quality of the Broncos' back-end secondary may not be significantly better than what he saw in Conference USA, Harris showed explosion and a very real ability to create separation. It's clear Harris knows how to play the position; he appears more ready to play than any rookie Cowboys 6th rounder in recent memory and should have a place in the team's plans.
RB Felix Jones showed the explosiveness and agility that made him such a hot commodity during his early years in the league. Jones looks to be in the best shape of his career and actually managed to break a few tackles last night. Jones isn't a full-time back, but he's always been effective in small samples. This year should be no exception.
DEs Jason Hatcher and Clifton Geathers were slotted to serve as depth. But both looked good last night, playing an active, athletic role in the Rob Ryan 3-4. Meanwhile, Igor Olshansky is making over three million dollars this year and hasn't done anything more notable than overcelebrating after meaningless stops. If the Cowboys are as tight on cash as many analysts suggest, the two roster-fillers could take Olshansky's place and clear up room in Jerry Jones' wallet for the Troy Polamalu fund he's likely already started saving for.
Kicker David Buehler made his lone field goal attempt and nailed an extra point. That wouldn't normally warrant placement on this list, but any positive from Buehler is a true triumph. Buehler's locked in a dead heat with Dan Bailey for the Cowboy kicker job, and we'll have to wait for him to miss a preseason kick for the pendulum to quickly swing in Bailey's direction. The life of a kicker is a fickle one, and one hot or cold streak can land or lose him a job.
Rookie Offensive Linemen Tyron Smith, David Arkin and Bill Nagy all held their own against a solid Bronco pass-rush. Smith held off 2009 NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil, showing quickness and strength. He did struggle with technique, letting Texas A&M's Von Miller blow past him a few times. But considering that Smith can't legallly drink until December, it was an encouraging showing. Arkin held his ground in the middle and showed good technique, though the Broncos don't boast a very talented Defensive Line. Nagy filled in admirably for an injured Andre Gurode, battling hard and generally eluding notice. For offensive linemen, that's a very good quality.
The running game faltered. The Cowboys managed to spring their backs for a few big runs, but struggled mightily in short-yardage situations. Training camp superstar Lonyae Miller managed only 11 yards on 9 runs. The Cowboys' other options were more effective, but their numbers were buoyed by a few long runs. The young offensive line is probably to blame for this, so there's no reason to panic; cohesiveness takes a while to set in.
The defensive line showed no ability to stop Bronco runners. During the first drive, Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee combined to gash the Cowboys for 44 yards on six consecutive plays. The Broncos ran for 119 yards overall. Most of these were the fault of the defensive line; thankfully, Cowboy linebackers and safeties did a good job of stopping the bleeding once Denver reached the second level.
The Cowboy secondary faced one of the least capable throwers in the NFL in Tim Tebow. They allowed him to complete 6 of his 7 passes and finish with over 90 yards. Alan Ball registered the only turnover of the night, but it was nullified after Defensive Pass Interference was called. The Cowboys badly need an infusion of depth and talent at cornerback, as cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Brian McCann had trouble keeping up with Bronco receivers. Thankfully, some of the mistakes were due to miscommunication, and not a physical failure. Once players become more acclimated to the new defense, things should improve.
Overall, the game showed more good than bad. Keep in mind that the Broncos had the second-worst record in football last year and just underwent a coaching change themselves. But in general, the matchup didn't raise any significant concerns that weren't there before. And it may have answered a few questions.
Who stood out to you during Thursday night's game?