ARLINGTON, Texas – The second-to-last preseason game is typically referred to as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season.
Actually, it's more like the first half will be the dress rehearsal although it's possible the starters could come for a series or two in the third quarter.
They first-teamers won't play the entire game Saturday night against Cincinnati in the first game played at the newly-named AT&T Stadium, but it'll be the longest action they've received so far this preseason.
While the focus will be on the starters, it's also the final chance for the bottom-roster players to make a difference. The rosters will be trimmed from 90 to 75 players early next week.
Once again, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will focus on two players each to evaluate throughout the game, followed by a review of their performances afterward.
Let's check out the staff writers will be following closely in Saturday's game with the Bengals.
Doug Free – The focus of the entire off season and through this training camp has been on the offensive line and could as a group improve enough to create more balance heading into the 2013 season. One of those pieces that needed to improve his play was Doug Free who by his own standards struggled badly the last two seasons. For Free it has been an uphill climb but one that he has made progress every step of the way. There are still moments where reps do not always go well but there are far fewer issues than what we had seen in the past. In the quest to find the best five linemen, Jason Garrett and the staff have moved Free inside to guard in order to see if that might be a fit that they can live with if needed. This is a move that is never made if Free was struggling badly at tackle. We all need to keep an eye on him as he gets snaps at right guard.
Bruce Carter – There are those that have felt like that Carter has had a very quiet camp but I have not seen that as the case at all. In these preseason games, the numbers might not what we all expect from Carter but having the opportunity to observe him every day in practice, he is performing at a level that is pleasing to the front office and coaches. Where Carter has made his biggest gains has been in pass coverage and his ability to quickly read, then adjust in space to make the tackle or defend the ball in the air. There are plenty of plays where you see Sean Lee in the middle of plays from his Mike linebacker spot but if you were to ask him who the most athletic linebacker there is on the squad, without hesitation, he will say Bruce Carter. This scheme is a perfect fit for him and though he is not always as noticeable as Lee, he is just as important to how it is played. Carter and Lee with extended time this week on the defense has my attention.
James Hanna, TE:Until last week, Hanna had been clearly ahead in the race for the No. 2 spot. Gavin Escobar did some nice things against the Arizona backups. So now the onus is back on Hanna, who again will get first-team reps in the "12 personnel." He needs to continue to help in the running game as a blocker but a catch or two in the passing game certainly wouldn't hurt.
Orlando Scandrick, CB:The Cowboys are probably less concerned who plays on the Bengals' side, but I would think they'd want to see A.J. Green in there at receiver. With Scandrick having such a good camp, this would be a great test for him on the outside. Mo Claiborne is out this game and maybe the rest of the preseason with a knee injury. I'll be interested to see how Scandrick stacks up on the outside in the base defense and then he'll slide inside to the slot on the nickel.
Miles Austin, WR: Austin's quietly put together a nice camp and, more importantly, has managed to stay healthy throughout, as the "veteran off days" seem to be paying off. He's looked quick and has been a reliable target for Tony Romo. With more double teams likely coming for Dez Bryant and the addition of Terrance Williams on the outside, that should create more favorable matchups for Austin. I look for him to be a solid option to move the stick
Barry Church, S: Church drew tremendous praise as one of the best and most electrifying players at camp last year. He's looked good this year, but he hasn't turned heads quite as often. Church is capable of being a hard-hitting safety but has over-pursued a couple times this preseason. I want to see him being a sure tackler and coming up with a couple noticeable plays this week, as he should get more time on the field. He says he feels completely healed from Achilles' surgery last year, and at full health he has big play ability.
DeMarco Murray, RB:Murray's total number of carries through three preseason games is a mere seven. That's to be expected, with the way teams rest their starters this time of year. But this game should give us a more realistic look at what to expect from the top back. With those seven carries, he's managed just 22 yards. Ideally, I'd like to see both of those numbers go way up if I'm going to believe the Cowboys' running game is new and improved. Of course, the patchwork offensive line should be taken into account, but this is still Murray's first chance to show off this year.
Kyle Wilber, DE:DeMarcus Ware is presumably going to play his highest snap total of the preseason against Cincinnati, which makes it a great dress rehearsal for Wilber. With more playing time for the starters, Wilber will be able to operate as part of a rotation, instead of handling the load by himself. Hopefully he'll do something half as entertaining as his rumbling, bumbling, stumbling fumble recovery on the dead ball against Arizona.