Cowboys’ preseason game is more than a mere dress rehearsal

The next-to-last preseason game is traditionally the “dress rehearsal” for an NFL team’s starting lineup, but there’s more on the line for the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday than merely getting their lines memorized.

The Cowboys have some serious work to do if they want to be ready for the season opener. Sept. 8 against the Giants.

Last week’s preseason loss against the Cardinals had all the earmarks of what’s plagued this team for several seasons: Six turnovers, an ineffective running game and a defense that gives up yards in bunches.

And this is a team that had the benefit of an extra preseason game with the Hall of Fame contest. The Cowboys looked like the more talented, more organized team in that one, but have regressed since.

This Saturday’s game against the Bengals will see the starters get their most extensive work of the preseason, as much as three quarters of action in some cases. It’s time for the first units to prove they are better than the last two seasons when the team finished 8-8 both times.

That may be hard to do, since the Cowboys’ offensive line is clearly not ready for prime time. With two weeks until the season opener, the Cowboys are still moving pieces around on the line trying to find a combination that works.

In practices this week, right tackle Doug Free was moved inside to right guard, a rather drastic move at this late stage. That bumped starting right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to left guard, and longtime understudy Jermey Parnell took over at first string right tackle.

This may be only a temporary move as the Cowboys wait for guards Nate Livings and Ron Leary to return from injuries, but neither of those guys is much of a game-changer. The Cowboys will also employ a rookie, first round pick Travis Frederick, at center.

The number one key to watch for against the Bengals is whether the Cowboys have success running the ball, especially when they have to get yards. Under new play-caller Bill Callahan, the Cowboys are presumably going to have a bigger commitment to the run, but they won’t if they’re constantly looking at second-and-long.

Also watch for goal line and short-yardage situations to see if the O-line is capable of getting any push. If they Cowboys are having to run three straight plays just to get a yard, that’s a bad sign for the offensive line’s future.

Of course, just getting into the end zone would be an accomplishment for the first team offense this preseason, which has bogged down in the red zone just like in previous regular seasons.

Holding onto the football is another key, since the Cowboys cannot afford to repeat last week’s sloppiness with six turnovers and expect to be above .500.

It will also be critical for the offense to be able to handle the pressure that former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will bring. Zimmer loves to blitz, and if there’s no run game to worry about, other defenses will take notice.

As for the Cowboys’ defense, the secondary is the focus – specifically the overhauled safety position and the backups.

Neither starting corner Morris Claiborne nor defensive end Anthony Spencer will play because of injury, but injuries happen in the regular season, too. Do the Cowboys have enough quality depth to survive a 16-game season?

Not all of the Cowboys’ questions will be answered in one “dress rehearsal” preseason game, but they need to see more positive responses than in last week’s debacle in Arizona.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire