With Tony Romo and the majority of starters sitting out Sunday’s preseason opener, the things that mattered most to the Dallas Cowboys was the performance of their young players and the adherence to the points of emphasis the team has focused on since the start of training camp.
Consider the 24-20 win over the Miami Dolphins in the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Field a huge success in terms of the Cowboys’ mission to force more turnovers and run the ball better and more this season.
The Cowboys jumped to a 17-0 lead, thanks to 97 rushing yards on 17 carries in the first half, including 10 rushes for 59 yards and a touchdown by Phillip Tanner and two forced turnovers that led to two touchdowns The second touchdown came on a 75-yard interception return for a score by rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman.
“Turnovers were the name of the game in the first half. We took the ball away from them on their first offensive play and went down and had a real short drive inside the 10,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The interception by Holloman for a touchdown was a big play in the game. I thought we ran it pretty well and the defense played pretty well situationally.”
The success on the ground was huge for a Cowboys offense that was the worst in team history last season in terms of rushing yards and rushing attempts.
Certainly, the absence of quarterback Romo and starting receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin as well as Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten made a huge difference in the play-calling. Still, not only did the Cowboys run it more than they passed in the first half — 17 rushes to 10 attempts — but they had tremendous success doing it without starter DeMarco Murray.
Tanner set the tone with his effort, namely his two tackle-breaking runs of 17 yards. But he wasn’t alone. All the Cowboys backs ran well.
Lance Dunbar opened the game as the starting running back, rushing four times for 22 yards. And rookie Joseph Randle, who was considered the favorite to be the backup to Murray, showed he wasn’t going to be left behind with three carries for 16 yards in the first half.
Randle also added eight carries for 48 yards in the third quarter alone to finish with 13 carries for 70 yards to lead all rushers.
Undrafted rookie free agent Kendial Lawrence added a 7-yard touchdown run.
“Just coming out here and making the best of every opportunity,” Tanner said. “Coach Garrett preaches that to us all the time, whether it is one play or 100 plays, make the best of every snap.”
The highlights of the night were the turnovers on defense.
The Cowboys recorded a paltry 16 in 16 games last season and it was one reason the Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and made the change from the 3-4 to the 4-3 scheme under new defensive chief Monte Kiffin.
Kiffin, along with defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, have a history of forcing turnovers in the famed Tampa Two scheme. They have harped on going after the ball and returning it for touchdowns since the start of the off -season program.
Their messages came across loud and clear against the Dolphins, even without defensive stalwarts such as DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Linebacker Justin Durant was the only defensive starter who played against the Dolphins, and he was just out there for a series.
The Cowboys took advantage of a poor handoff from quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Miami’s first offensive play. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden recovered the ball on the 9-yard line, leading to Tanner’s 1-yard run.
After the Cowboys went up 10-0 on a 49-yard field goal by Dan Bailey, Holloman made it 17-0 with his pick six.
A pass from Matt Moore tipped off the hands of receiver Chad Bumphus and the seventh-round pick from South Carolina showed the playmaking skills of a former safety. He took the ball out of the air facing the Dolphins, reversed direction and romped 75 yards to the end zone, while fending off a hard-charging Moore with a stiff arm.