3 things we learned from the Dallas Cowboys' preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars

2RH1DRH Dallas Cowboys running back Deuce Vaughn (42) controls the ball during the second half of an NFL preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

  • Deuce Vaughn thrives: The diminutive Dallas Cowboys RB proved that he deserves to compete to be Tony Pollard‘s backup. 
  • Mazi Smith is a work in progress: The first-round pick had an up-and-down performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Cowboys show off speed at the second level: Dallas' second-level defenders were flying around and making a lot of play Saturday night.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Even though the Dallas Cowboys came up short against the Jacksonville Jaguars Saturday, the individual performances are much more important than the final score in the preseason, as they will have a tangible impact on who does and doesn't make the team's 53-man roster prior to the regular season opener. 

Therefore, instead of focusing on the result of a meaningless game, we are going to discuss the biggest takeaways from the Cowboys' individual performances in their first game action of the 2023 season. 


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Deuce Vaughn deserves to compete for RB2 

In a game where Malik Davis didn't impress and Rico Dowdle fumbled, it didn't take the “Smol RB” long to showcase that he belongs in the competition to be Tony Pollard‘s primary backup this season. Finishing with eight carries for 50 rushing yards in addition to three receptions for six yards, Vaughn's vision, explosivness and elusiveness were on full display, as he also forced three missed tackles and averaged 5.4 yards after contact per attempt.

His small stature combined with his ability to string elusive maneuvers together makes him extremely tough to wrangle in one-on-one situations for opposing defenses.

Additionally, his upfield explosiveness enables him to quickly get to and attack the second level of opposing defenses, which is why he was so close to breaking multiple runs against Jacksonville.

Nonetheless, while Vaughn's overall athleticism and elusiveness were notable, it was his vision and patience that showed me that he's ready to seriously vie for RB2. His first carry of the night was a great example:

Here, the Cowboys are running a lead pin-and-pull sweep to the near-side of the field with Vaughn in an I-formation. While Vaughn's running lane is muddied when he receives the ball, he displays the patience to let his blocks develop and a running lane open up, using a side hop and choppy feet to tempo his run before exploding through the late-developing crease to pick up a six-yard gain.

While Vaughn did his damage against Jacksonville's second- and third-stringers, he was also running behind Dallas' second- and third-string offensive lines; nonetheless, with Pollard unlikely to take any preseason snaps, Vaughn proved that instead of competing for a spot on the 53-man roster, he should actually be vying for the RB2 gig.


Mazi Smith still going through growing pains

You're not going to find someone who was a bigger fan of the Cowboys selecting Smith in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft than me, but even I will say that he still has a ways to go before he's the dominant force the Cowboys need on the interior against the run.

Smith put together an up-and-down performance in his first NFL action, as he showcased his impressive power and rotational strength on occasion but also displayed a bad habit of being late off the snap, effectively nullifying the physical gifts that made him such a coveted prospect before the draft. While he had plays where he got off the ball, held his ground and occupied multiple blockers, he also had snaps where he was slow off the ball, conceded ground and displaced out of his gap.

One interesting snap came when Smith aligned as the 4i-technique defensive end:

By playing Smith on the edge of the guard, his tardiness off the snap isn't as big of a hindrance. And on this play, he caved in the front side of the run and essentially made the stop without wrapping the ball carrier. This could be a spot Smith sees more time at as the season goes along, especially in run-heavy situations where Dan Quinn wants Smith and Johnathan Hankins on the field at the same time.

While many are ready to already set off the alarms regarding Smith's disappointing debut, it should be noted that the learning curve at nose tackle is steep for nose tackles entering the NFL, which is why you rarely see rookie nose tackles play at a high level with even moderate usage. Not only is Smith transitioning to the NFL, but he's doing so in a different scheme with an altered stance. It's going to take time for him to get comfortable reading blocks and firing off the snap; luckily for the Cowboys, those traits are fixable with time and experience.

The most important thing is that Smith displays constant improvement throughout his rookie season.


Cowboys have one of the fastest LB corps in the NFL

After watching Damone Clark, DeMarvion Overshown, Jabril Cox and Malik Jefferson fly around the field Saturday, it became evident that the Cowboys possess rare athleticism at the second level of their defense. In fact, Clark and Cox are the only true off-ball linebackers on the roster who haven't officially registered a sub-4.66-second 40-yard dash, and that's only because each was injured during their draft class' combine and pro days. If they would have been healthy enough, both probably would have ran sub-4.6 given how their speed translates on the field

It's obvious that the Cowboys wanted speed at the second level of their defense, and the likely reasoning is wise. Given Dallas' outstanding pass rush, opposing offenses are going to look to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly to limit its impact. Therefore, having linebackers that have the speed to quickly close down on those dinks and dunks is incredibly valuable, as it will necessitate that opposing quarterbacks hold onto the ball longer if they want to effectively matriculate down the field.

And we saw this against Jacksonville, as Dallas' linebackers were able to consistently chase down passes underneath and to the flats before any damaging chunks of yardage could be gained, which is why Overshown and Clark led the way with three and two coverage stops, respectively.

That second-level speed is going to pay huge dividends in the regular season, as it will not only make it hard for offenses to dink and dunk their way downfield, but it will also make it difficult for them to attack the edges in the run game.

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