By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys face the San Diego Chargers Thursday night in their 2014 preseason opener. Here are five things to keep an eye on during the game:
Brandon Weeden: With Tony Romo not expected to play the presumed backup takes center stage. Thanks to Romo’s back rehab and managed practice schedule, Weeden has received more than his share of first-team reps, which means he should be sharp against the Chargers. In fact, the Cowboys have been pleased with the former first-round pick’s progress. But there is still his past to contend with – a 5-10 record in Cleveland as he lost his starting job in his second season. The Browns were so done with him they released him with years remaining on his contract. But the Cowboys’ offense is a Porsche next to Cleveland’s Miata. So what you want to see is a Weeden-led offense that functions efficiently, moves the chains and scores some points. If that happens, then Weeden is in good shape. But if Weeden plays like he did during his time in Cleveland, then we may have a problem.
The Defensive Line: Our first viewing of the new-look defensive line comes with a qualification – it’s not nearly at full strength. No Demarcus Lawrence, no Anthony Spencer and no Amobi Okoye, for starters. George Selvie has a groin injury and didn’t practice Tuesday, along with rookie defensive end Ben Gardner and tackle Terrell McClain. So don’t watch how players rotate Thursday night as much as how they play individually, because there’s no way defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli can know what he’ll have in a month. I’m most interested in seeing rookie nose tackle Ken Bishop, rookie defensive tackle Davon Coleman and third-year defensive end Ben Bass, who is coming off an injury last season. With Lawrence out until midseason and Spencer not likely to be on the opening day roster, that’s at least two spots up for grabs that the Cowboys weren’t expecting.
Terrance Mitchell vs. B.W. Webb: This battle intrigues me and it should intrigue you too. Both will play plenty on Thursday because the Cowboys are dangerously thin at cornerback. One thing you can say about Mitchell is that he is not scared, as evidenced by his fight with veteran receiver Dez Bryant. One thing you can also say about Mitchell is that he’s inconsistent. He’ll make a great play and then he’ll take a step back. That’s normal among rookies, but Mitchell’s talent clearly has the Cowboys liking what they see. Webb has improved from late last season but he needs to remind the Cowboys why they drafted him in the first place. Webb was an All-Conference corner four times in the Colonial Athletic Association. There were times teams didn’t throw to his side of the field at all. He needs to show that to the Cowboys starting against the Chargers.
Rolando McClain: If he plays, he’s worth keeping tabs on. McClain is a little banged up right now, but he’s had a solid camp. In fact, he’s done better than many expected, considering he was retired all of last year. He’s proven to be a better fit for the Cover 2 than his 250-pound frame suggests. But all of that has come in practice. McClain has not played in an NFL game – preseason or otherwise – since Nov. 25, 2012. It’s time to see if the promise we’ve seen the past two weeks translates on the field.
Gavin Escobar: The Cowboys are getting Escobar a lot of work in camp so far and he’s responded with showing the type of tight end he can be. The Cowboys are making an effort to get the ball to Escobar downfield, where his size and speed can be a real problem for defensive backs. Escobar has talent, but last year it was unclear if he or the Cowboys knew how to use it. With Jason Witten probably seeing no more than a possession or two on Thursday, Escobar figures to see plenty of playing time. Let’s see if he can take the progress he has shown on the practice field onto the game field.
One thing not to worry about? The play-calling by offensive play-caller Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Preseason games are notoriously vanilla. How either calls the game Thursday night isn’t an indication of how they’ll call games in September. Preseason is the NFL’s version of a beta test. You’ll see both put players in particular places and in particular plays just to see how they react or if they can execute. It’s best to focus on individual battles and not how the entire unit operates together at this point in the preseason.