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Who Treats The Third Preseason Game Like It's … Important?  

Teams increasingly prioritizing health of stars over playing time

RB David Johnson would be happy to see as few carries as possible on Sunday.
RB David Johnson would be happy to see as few carries as possible on Sunday.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The third exhibition game used to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Coaching strategy ramped up and the biggest stars in the NFL would see significant action.

The preparation might be similar these days, but the A-list actors are ceding more and more time to their understudies.

The Cardinals' "Sunday Night Football" game against the Cowboys will lack some star power as Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott are expected to be held out as a precaution. The decision may have been different if Dallas' first-team offensive line wasn't banged up, but the Cowboys have joined a number of teams prioritizing health over the benefit of extra snaps.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. didn't play on Friday, while Rams running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff are not expected to suit up on Saturday against the Saints. Additionally, many teams have shown a propensity to use a quicker hook on their big names than in the past.

Cardinals guard Justin Pugh understands the changing philosophy.

"You've got to protect your stars in preseason," Pugh said. "O-linemen, we're not stars. You protect guys like David Johnson, like Sam (Bradford), like Larry (Fitzgerald), guys that are selling tickets and putting people in the seats. You saw last year, when stars get hurt, the league hurts. I understand where they are coming from. Some of those guys, they've played enough football. They can knock the rust off, but training camp and practices, you get a lot of that done too. I see why they do it."

Steve Wilks is not holding out his stars, but he is also in a different situation. As a first-year coach, Wilks needs preseason action to build chemistry. While Johnson, Bradford and Fitzgerald will likely be pulled earlier than the other starters, they are all expected to play.

"When you look at myself and a first-year head coach, first year staff, players still trying to get to know the coaches, that sort of thing, I think you have to stick to what I consider the normal routine," Wilks said. "You get some teams, like the Cowboys … those guys have been together for a while now, and that's different. We still have to get our timing down. We still have to be able to communicate. That's important to me."

Josh Rosen's status for Sunday won't be decided by philosophy but availability. The rookie quarterback hit his hand on a helmet during Monday's practice and is a game-time decision. Wilks hopes to see him on the field, as the preseason snaps are valuable for the first-round pick.

The Cardinals will be inexperienced at defensive tackle, as Robert Nkemdiche (foot), Corey Peters (knee) and Olsen Pierre will all sit out. Cornerback Jonathan Moxey (hamstring) also will not play.

The Cowboys will be without star linemen Zack Martin (knee) and Travis Frederick (Guillain-Barré syndrome) along with Prescott and Elliott.

In addition to the chemistry aspect, coaches who subscribe to the dress rehearsal philosophy like that it improves the players' conditioning. Johnson does not think an abbreviated showing by the starters would negatively affect them.

"The up-tempo practices, and obviously in the offseason, we all stayed in shape," said Johnson, a noted workout fiend. "We had a conditioning test and no one failed it. Going into camp everyone was doing good, and I think we've had more outside practices than we've ever had. It's been working really well."

There was a time when NFL teams would regularly play their starters into the third quarter of the third preseason game. Now, some believe this contest is nearly as meaningless as its effect on the standings.

"Preseason? No," said Johnson, when asked if he's champing at the bit to see extended action against the Cowboys. "I'm ready for the regular season."

Images of the junior cheerleaders during the Chargers' game