NFL preseason takeaways: Gabbert shines, Rico looks suave as Cowboys top Cardinals

Football is back! Sort of. 

The
Dallas Cowboys
and
Arizona Cardinals
squared off in this year’s edition of the Hall of Fame Game, but
Dak Prescott
,
Ezekiel Elliott
,
Dez Bryant
,
Jason Witten
,
Carson Palmer
,
David Johnson
,
Larry Fitzgerald
,
John Brown
, pretty much every starting offensive lineman,
Patrick Peterson
,
Tyrann Mathieu
,
Sean Lee
, and every other defensive star sat this one out.

That meant we were left watching
Blaine Gabbert
vs.
Kellen Moore
in the first half and
Trevor Knight
vs.
Cooper Rush
after halftime. So, not exactly the Cardinals and Cowboys we expect to see during the regular season. 

Still, the backups, rookies and street free agents provided us with what was actually a fairly entertaining game — for the preseason, at least. The Cardinals went up 15-0 on their first two drives of the game (they went for two on their second drive after Dallas committed a penalty on the extra point), but the Cowboys came back with 17 unanswered points to go in front by two in the third quarter. Arizona retook the lead with a field goal near the end of the third, and the ‘Boys took it back with one of their own early in the fourth. 

The Cardinals had two shots to take the lead back from the Cowboys, but missed a field goal on one opportunity and had to settle for a punt on the other. They almost caught a break with a muffed punt, but
Lance Lenoir
was actually trying to make a play after a Cardinals player had already touched it, so the Cowboys kept the ball and drove down the field to run out most of the clock. 

In the end, we got exactly what was expected:

Here are some other takeaways from the Cowboys’ 20-18 win. 

First touchdown of the preseason 

Congratulations to Cardinals backup running back
Kerwynn Williams
, who scored the first touchdown of the season. 

That’s a nice little cut from Williams, bouncing outside of rookie cornerback
Chidobe Awuzie
, who took a bad angle to the football. Arizona scored easily on each of its first two drives against the (sort-of) first-team Cowboys defense, marching down the field for 12 plays, 118 yards and two touchdowns. Blaine Gabbert (yes, really) was 5 for 5 for 87 yards on those two drives. 

He acquitted himself fairly well through the rest of the half as well, finishing 11-for-14 for 185 yards. He was particularly effective throwing down the field and over the middle against the Cowboys’ Cover-2 shell defense. 

Rico looks suave in the passing game


Rico Gathers
is a 6-foot-6, 285-pound former
Baylor Bears
basketball player that the Cowboys took in the seventh round of the 2016 draft even though he hadn’t played football since he was 13 years old. Gathers spent the entirety of the 2016 season on the practice squad, but there were often breathless reports of his scout team exploits from Dallas beat writers, as he reportedly tore up the first team defense working with
Tony Romo
in practice. 

Gathers has been struggling throughout the beginning of Cowboys camp — getting beat in blocking drills and throwing tantrums, slamming his helmet on the ground, dropping passes — but he made a big play in his first preseason action of the season. 

On the Cowboys’ second drive, a Kellen Moore to
Brice Butler
pass got Dallas inside the 30, and on third down Moore lofted up a prayer to Gathers streaking across the field. That’s when Gathers got in rebounding position and came down with the football.  

Gathers later added a 17-yard catch-and-run, snagging the ball in the flat and running through a few tacklers on his way to a first down, and another 16-yarder in the third quarter. He also had a false start late in the third, but overall it was a very nice game for a player that really needed one to show that he has a place in the Cowboys’ future. 

Young Cardinals DBs

Arizona is likely going to be giving pretty sizable roles to two young defensive backs this season:
Brandon Williams
and
Budda Baker
. Williams is a former safety that is making the transition to corner, and the team wants him to win the job as the guy opposite star corner Patrick Peterson. He had an up-and-down first preseason game, giving up two deep catches to Dallas No. 4 wideout Brice Butler (totaling 78 yards), but also deflecting two passes and coming up with an interception in the end zone. The Cards left him in solo man coverage for a lot of the night, so all in all he acquitted himself fairly well. 

Baker had a more decisively positive game, making plays all over the field. He lined up deep, close to the box, and even in the slot, making six tackles (two solo) and recording both a pass defense and a hit on quarterback Kellen Moore. He looked like exactly the kind of player the Cardinals drafted him to be.

Baker was even singled out by Collinsworth and Michaels late in the game as “the one defensive player that stood out” for the Cardinals during this game. He had a nice night. 

Injury bug strikes Cowboys

The start of the preseason also brings with it the start of the usual spate of injuries. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, one of the few potential starters that took the field for them during this game was the one player that happened to get hurt.

Cornerback
Anthony Brown
, a sixth-rounder last year out of
Purdue Boilermakers
, suffered a hamstring injury and did not return. 

Hopefully this is just a precautionary thing for Brown, because he’s an important player for a Dallas defense that underwent a huge amount of turnover in the secondary this offseason. Brown started nine games last year and was probably, on balance, the Cowboys’ best corner. He was especially excellent down the stretch of the season, including a five-game stretch where he graded out as one of the best corners in the league by Pro Football Focus’ tracking. He’s expected to be one of the team’s top three corners this year, working mostly on the outside while
Orlando Scandrick
bumps down into the slot in nickel situations. 

Any amount of time he misses would put added pressure on rookies Chidobe Awuzie (who narrowly missed a pick-six at the end of the first half in this game) and
Jourdan Lewis
(who sat out with an injury of his own and was recently acquitted of domestic violence
Los Angeles Chargers
) to contribute early on. The Cowboys have high hopes for those two players, but were counting on Brown to play a lot of snaps to help ease them into their roles. They need him to be healthy. 

Meanwhile, Cardinals rookie running back T.J. Logan — a fifth-rounder out of North Carolina — left the game in the fourth quarter after carrying four times for 24 yards and making some contributions in the return game. His three returns totaled 81 yards, with the longest being a 43-yard kick return that gave the Cardinals good field position. He’s probably not going to be much of an offensive contributor on a Cardinals team that has several options ahead of him this year, but he could be an important special teams player, so seeing him go down early is not a good sign for Arizona. 

You got 99 problems and a kick is one

The Cardinals had a bunch of kicking game issues last season. They finished the year only 21 for 28 on field goal attempts, good for a 75 percent conversion rate that ranked second-to-last in the NFL. They signed
Phil Dawson
this offseason to replace
Chandler Catanzaro
, but they also brought in a couple camp bodies to take a shot at kicking.

Those bodies … did not fare well in this game. 


Richie Leone
and
Matt Wile
each missed a field goal. Leone missed from 51 yards late in the first half on a kick that was way off-line and Wile scuffed a 34-yarder that would have given the Cardinals a lead in the fourth quarter. That will not make Bruce Arians happy. 

Cowboys’ Smith stars, but not that one

One of the biggest offseason storylines for the Cowboys has been the status of linebacker
Jaylon Smith
. Smith was the Cowboys’ second-round pick in 2016 after he suffered a devastating knee injury during his final game at
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
, and he sat out all of last season with nerve damage in his leg. He has been recovering rapidly in recent weeks and is reportedly back at 80 percent generation in the nerve, but he did not play in the preseason opener. 

His brother,
Rod Smith
, did play, and he starred for the Cowboys in the second half. Smith has been showing well in training camp and could eventually work his way into being the Cowboys’ third running back ahead of
Alfred Morris
due to his versatility and contributions on special teams. His performance in this one was a feather in his cap.

Smith carried 16 times for 62 yards and caught three passes for 25 yards as well. He had a long run late in the fourth that should have sealed the game, but it was shortened due to a block in the back. The Cowboys then had to kick the ball back to the Cardinals, but Arizona couldn’t muster a game-winning drive. 

Jerry sounds off

Cowboys owner — and Hall of Fame inductee — Jerry Jones was interview by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth during the game. Here are some of the highlights. 

Jerry also said the biggest regret of his career was never managing to put a good enough team around Tony Romo to win a Super Bowl with him. 

Lastly, Jerry “joked” that his speech on Saturday night will be 60 minutes long. Knowing Jerry, that may not actually be a joke. You might want to prepare to stay up late and listen. 

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