Dak Prescott is a gamer plain and simple.
He may not be your best practice quarterback. He may not win accuracy contests when throwing routes on air. But when the lights come on, it’s his time to shine. As a rookie two years ago, Prescott didn’t look that great in practice. But he shocked the world in the preseason opener against the Rams. Now let’s fast forward to this season and the so-called concern about Prescott following two weeks of average play in training camp. Keep in mind, no one on the Cowboys was overly concerned. But still the poor practices were duly noted. So much so that coach Jason Garrett played his starting quarterback in the preseason opener for the first time in six years.
Prescott simply went Prescott in the 24-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, completing three of three passes for 39 yards, including perfect a 30-yard strike to rookie Michael Gallup for a touchdown. He set up the score with a 12-yard scramble on the third down.
And then Prescott answered questions about his ability to throw the deep by hitting Gallup perfectly in stride. Consider that the Cowboys completed only two touchdown passes of 30 yards or more last season.
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Here are five other thoughts from the preseason opener against the 49ers:
1. Prescott’s 30-yard touchdown to Gallup was the highlight of an all-around strong night from the team’s revamped receiver corps following the departure of Dez Bryant (released). And they played on this night without Cole Beasley, who has been the bust of the bunch in training camp and Prescott’s most reliable target. No Bryant. No Beasley. No problem against the 49ers. Gallup proved that early when he beat one-on-one coverage with a great route to haul in the touchdown from Prescott. But it was not just Gallup. Lance Lenoir, who has been a star in training camp, had a toe-tapping 2-yard touchdown reception. Terrance Williams had two catches. Tavon Austin had two catches for 25 yards. Allen Hurns had a big 13-yard catch on a slant against man-to-man coverage on third down to move the chains. Considering how much teams are going to load up to stop the run with Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys are going to get a lot of one-on-one chances on the outside. They proved they could beat them against the 49ers. They will have to continue to do so, but this was a good start and something they can build confidence with.
2. Much was said by the media in training camp about the struggles in the passing game against the Cowboys defense. Well, maybe it wasn’t just that something was wrong with the Cowboys receivers and passing game, maybe the Cowboys defense is pretty good, especially cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chido Awuzie. Both had strong games against the 49ers, who amassed just 84 yards total on their first four drives combined. The Cowboys also recorded a total of 10 pass deflections in the game. Now backup cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, who have been vying for the nickel spot, had some disappointing moments. Safety Kavon Frazier had a tipped pass that led to an interception by Joe Thomas, and cornerback Duke Thomas recorded a fourth-quarter interception. The Cowboys still have questions to answer at safety behind the Top 3 of Frazier, Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath.
3. Quarterback Cooper Rush left no doubts about his place as the primary backup behind Prescott. He simply picked up where he left off last year in the preseason when he ranked among the top quarterbacks in the league and won the backup job over veteran Kellen Moore. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 145 yards and touchdown, showing poise, touch, accuracy and nice feel for the game. Rookie Mike White wasn’t bad, completing six of 11 passes for 63 yards with the third and fourth string. But he needs to focus on doing whatever he can to convince the Cowboys to keep three quarterbacks on the roster rather than worry about beating out Rush for the backup job.
4. Most observers went into Thursday’s game looking to check out linebacker Leighton Vander Esch for the first time. The rookie first-round pick from Boise State wasn’t bad. He recorded four tackles. But he didn’t flash any hints of greatness either. In addition to Jaylon Smith, who is continuing to run free and look good with no limitations from the catastrophic knee injury that once threatened his career, the linebacker who did catch everyone’s attention was Joe Thomas. Thomas was an underrated and undervalued free agent pickup from Green Bay after the team lost Kyle Wilber and Anthony Hitchens in free agency. Thomas has had a strong training camp, though he was overshadowed by media interest in Vander Esch, Smith and Pro Bowler Sean Lee. Thomas started in place of Lee at weakside linebacker and was simply the best linebacker on the field for the Cowboys Thursday night, recording five tackles and an interception. The Cowboys believe they have their best and deepest group of linebackers years. They can go six deep when you add strong side linebacker Damien Wilson and backup Justin March-Lilliard to the mix.
5. Nose tackle Antwuan Woods moved from fourth team to first team in two weeks in training camp because he was proved to be unblockable up front. Woods showed no let-up against the 49ers. He was disruptive and active. Defensive end Taco Charlton didn’t record any tackles but had at least two quarterback pressures and a quarterback hit. Tight end Rico Gathers didn’t make his presence felt. He is the fourth tight end. He needs to flash in preseason games to give the Cowboys a reason to keep him. Rookie running back Bo Scarbrough played as advantage, breaking a tackle at the line before rumbling for 28 yards and scoring on 1-yard run. Starting running back Ezekiel Elliott secured the ball for him to keep as a souvenir. But if Scarbrough is going to make the final roster he is going to have to prove it on special teams. Rod Smith is the primary backup to Elliott. Check his play on the opening drive and you will know why. And Elliott is the team’s short-yardage and goal line back of choice.