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Eatman: Cowboys Play Hide & Zeke in Red Zone


SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Preseason games are still preseason games. The good stuff you see has to be minimized just like the bad stuff … and there was plenty of that.

The goal is to see some individuals play well, stay healthy, and then if it's possible, go win the game.

For the most part, it was a successful night in that regard. Some players shined. A few got hurt and of course, the Cowboys were throwing into the end zone in the final seconds, only to lose to the 49ers, 17-9.

But that's probably not what the fans were talking about when the game was over. Lots of backup QB talk. Even more about the kicker. But please, let's no go to the red zone offense just yet.

Sometimes it's easy for fans to try and carry over either a theme from the previous year and roll it into the preseason as a potential problem.

At halftime of Saturday's game, I got the chance to answer some fan questions on the Cowboys' TV broadcast along with my colleagues Lindsay Draper and Rob Phillips.

One of the first ones on the list was assessing the Cowboys "Red Zone Issues" and I just couldn't help myself.

"So how did Zeke look?"

I'm sorry, I know that's a sarcastic answer and really could be classified as an excuse. But it's just another example of how a preseason game can be misleading in the overall big picture.

Now, if you're on the side of the fence that believes Ezekiel Elliott won't be with the team in Week 1, then maybe you can be a little more concerned about what was seen on the field against the 49ers.

But me personally, I just think he will be out there – with a new contract – because both sides simply need each other.

So that being said, I don't think we're seeing what this offense really will be – at all.

Dak looked pretty sharp early on, getting the ball out quickly and finding his guys all over the field. The offense, with rookie Tony Pollard getting the first-team carries, managed to move it down with relative ease.

And as we saw too often last year, the offense struggled in the red zone and settled for a field goal.

To be honest, that was probably more of a good thing.

Sure, you like touchdowns in this league, but you're not getting a true game plan – on either side of the ball. This is as "vanilla" as it gets in terms of play-calling, so you don't really expect to score touchdowns when you get to that point.

The check-downs, the audibles, the nifty play-calls from new OC Kellen Moore, are just not going to be seen right now. For that matter, the exotic blitzes and coverages by the 49ers are being left out, too.

It's just bland vs. bland. And Pollard running behind the starters probably doesn't give you enough power and surge to make a difference.

Obviously, Zeke is a different story. In the regular season games, he's got enough power to bully his way through the middle, creating a different set of problems with the defense.

You just can't compare what an offense looks like with or without Zeke, especially in the red zone. And definitely in the preseason.

What I did like to see was how the Cowboys used Tony Pollard in this game. Some might disagree, saying they didn't get to see the jet sweeps, the screens, or just anything that gets him in space. But honestly, that's not the plays I'm worried about. I know he can do that stuff.

What teams need to see is that Pollard can get the ball and run inside the tackles. If he can legitimately be even close to a threat running inside, it will make defense respect it enough to get him those mismatches on the outside. Otherwise, teams will always know what to expect when Pollard is in there.

When he was drafted, Pollard drew the comparisons to the Saints' Alvin Kamara, who is arguably one of the more dynamic players in the NFL. While he can catch screens, take reverses to each sideline and even line up at receiver, Kamara runs the ball right up the middle – and does it enough for teams to respect him at all times.

That's the most important thing the Cowboys did Saturday night with Pollard. And the best part was, he held up nicely. Nothing too explosive or big runs, but enough hard-nosed running in between the tackles to get the job done.

"That's something people don't think I can do," Pollard said after the game. "I love proving people wrong."

And he'll get the chance to prove a lot of people wrong here in the preseason. We'll see what his chances look like in the regular season.

Again, my guess is that Zeke will find his way back to the team by then.
And my next guess is that the red zone offense looks a little better than it did Saturday night.

Let's hope so, at least.

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