Sure, it was a preseason football game with the ups and downs that the first outing of the exhibition schedule can bring. But hey, it was a football game nonetheless, something Dallas Cowboys fans have eagerly awaited for nearly eight months.
Opening the NFL's preseason schedule, the Cowboys fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-3, in the annual Hall of Fame Game. This marked the start of an exciting weekend that will conclude with former Dallas greats Cliff Harris, Jimmy Johnson and Drew Pearson being inducted into the Canton shrine.
First and foremost, perhaps the most important goal was accomplished – no one got hurt. But this was also the first chance for Cowboys followers to see new coordinator Dan Quinn's defense and the 2021 crop of rookies.
Of course, the competition for the backup quarterback spot held the spotlight as well, which is somewhat ironic considering most hope whoever does win the heavily contested battle never steps foot on the field once the regular season starts. And within that battle, Garrett Gilbert got the starting nod and worked the first two possessions, making a compelling case by completing 9 of 13 attempts for 104 yards and a 93.1 passer rating.
"We did a good job with some things," Gilbert said, "but there are some things we can work on and improve."
In trying to keep pace, Cooper Rush, despite facing heavy pressure, finished out the first half by going 8 for 13 for 70 passing yards and a 75.8 rating. With the protection up front only getting worse over the final two quarters, Ben DiNucci struggled and was unable to keep the offense in gear. He finished with 89 yards and one interception on 7 of 17 passing, his one highlight coming on a 27-yard scramble.
Among the rookies, Nashon Wright showed that the Cowboys brain trust might have known a little something when they surprised many by picking him in the third round of this year's draft. He finished with a team-high five tackles while using his long frame to display impressive coverage skills.
Now, that's a nice start to a career. With most of the expected defensive starters on the field for the Steelers opening series, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, the team's No. 1 draft pick, fell on a botched handoff for his first fumble recovery.
"It felt good," Parsons said. "It was bittersweet that I didn't get to play a lot. I felt like it was a good experience to get my feet wet and get a feel for the game."
Taking over at the Pittsburgh 48-yard line, Gilbert then led the offense down to the opponent's 11, a pass to Rico Dowdle picking 12. But there the unit stalled, the Cowboys having to settle for a 29-yard field goal from Hunter Niswander to take the early lead.
Gilbert continued to impress on the Cowboys' next possession, marching his team to the Steelers' 10-yard line as the clock ticked over into the second quarter. The quarterback was good on 6 of 7 pass attempts for 70 yards, which included completions for gains of 21, 13 and 17. Once again, however, Dallas couldn't get into the end zone, only this time Niswander's 29-yard try fluttered wide left.
With Rush then taking over for the remainder of the quarter, the Cowboys continued to pick up yards but not points against the Steelers defense. A Malik Turner fumble after a 20-yard completion halted another drive and a desperation 52-yard field from Niswander in the waning seconds of the half came nowhere close to the uprights. At the break, Dallas had totaled 217 yards of offense and 13 first downs to Pittsburgh's 123 and six, respectively.
The rest of the game was left for DiNucci at quarterback and those players fighting to find a place on the Dallas roster. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys play reflected the largely inexperienced crew.
Pittsburgh took the lead in the ensuing 15 minutes, thanks to a 33-yard punt return and a DiNucci interception. The former led to a 4-yard touchdown run, the extra point being missed, while the latter resulted in a 48-yard field goal and a 9-3 Steelers advantage heading into the final frame.
When Pittsburgh then scored with 8:44 left in the fourth on a 5-yard touchdown pass, the game was essentially over for everyone except those players still fighting to make any sort of impression.
Offensively, there wasn't much to write home about, but at least the Cowboys defense made one last stand. A muffed punt return was snatched up by Pittsburgh at the Dallas 25-yard line, but on fourth-and-1 at the Cowboys' 5, the defense held, a Steelers pass attempt falling incomplete. Call it a last hurrah in what could be described as a typical preseason affair.Sure, it was a preseason football game with the ups and downs that the first outing of the exhibition schedule can bring. But hey, it was a football game nonetheless, something Dallas Cowboys fans have eagerly awaited for nearly eight months.