In preseason, Dallas Cowboys' starting D deserves an A

Posted Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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SAN DIEGO -- Injuries have been the main topic of Dallas Cowboys conversation through three-plus weeks of training camp and two preseason games.

From the seemingly contagious Miles Austin hamstring disease to broken bones and torn tendons, players have been dropping like flies.

Nineteen players, including eight starters, were sidelined for Saturday's 28-20 preseason loss to the San Diego Chargers.

The good news is that only one starter -- tight end Jason Witten and his lacerated spleen -- appears to be in danger of missing the Sept. 5 season opener against the defending NFL champion New York Giants.

But there is no doubt the absences of Witten, center Phil Costa, guard Nate Livings and Austin have made it difficult for the Cowboys to establish chemistry and rhythm on offense.

Costa (back) and Livings (Miles Austin disease) are expected to return to practice today when the Cowboys square off for two days against the Chargers.

The Cowboys are expected to remain cautious with Austin, possibly even keeping him out of Saturday's preseason home opener against the St. Louis Rams, owner Jerry Jones said.

Considering the starters will play little, if at all, in the final preseason game against the Dolphins, Austin might not make his debut until the season opener.

Certainly not what you want to hear after Austin missed six games last season with hamstring issues that started in the preseason.

So how about some good news?

The lack of cohesiveness on offense is offset by the optimism the Cowboys feel about the defense, which has succeeded in the preseason without several prominent starters.

Linebackers DeMarcus Ware (Miles Austin disease) and Anthony Spencer (Miles Austin disease), nose tackle Jay Ratliff (plantar fasciitis) and defensive end Jason Hatcher (groin) were sidelined Saturday.

That's two Pro Bowlers in Ware and Ratliff and the team's four best pass rushers on the sideline.

Yet the Cowboys produced the second straight impressive performance on defense.

The Cowboys' starters did not give up a point through the first six quarters of the preseason, thanks to a 3-0 shutout against the Raiders and a 10-0 halftime lead against the Chargers.

The defense has totaled four interceptions and one fumble in two games, compared with one interception and zero fumbles in four games last preseason.

The stats are meaningless because it's the preseason.

But the Cowboys' performance on defense is something to feel good about.

It is an indication that the defense will be much improved over last year's unit that had a slow time adjusting to Rob Ryan's schemes, an adjustment that played a huge role in the Cowboys' blowing five games in which they took leads into the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Tony Romo, who has unfairly taken his share of the blame at times for the team's fourth-quarter meltdowns, has certainly taken notice.

"I keep sitting over there having a smile on my face knowing how good that side of the ball is looking," Romo said. "I think a quarterback's best friend and one he can rely on is the defense. If you have a great defense it makes your job and life in general a lot easier and more enjoyable.

"Really it's exciting to see the way they have been practicing, the way they have been competing.... It's a great feeling to have trust in your guys, and I do."

While Romo has trust in the defense, Jones can't help but think of how good the unit can be when all the starters are back.

"You add all that up," Jones said, "and I can see our defense as being special."

The main reason for Jones' optimism is the improvement in the secondary, where $50.1 million free-agent signee Brandon Carr and top draft pick Morris Claiborne have upgraded a unit that gave up more passing yards the past two years than at any other time in Cowboys history.

Claiborne and Carr give the Cowboys the size, strength and speed at cornerback to play the tough man-to-man defense that Ryan prefers.

They also give the Cowboys two ball-hawking playmakers not seen around Valley Ranch since the days of Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

Carr proved as much against the Chargers with two big-time interceptions, including one in which he baited quarterback Philip Rivers into throwing it deep and then caught up with the ball in the air to make the pick, a la Sanders.

"I got that from Deion," Carr said. "I'm not going to tell too much, but I've seen him do that."

So has coach Jason Garrett, a former teammate of Sanders.

"The best corners I have been around have great ball skills," Garrett said. "You said he baited it. I don't know if he did. But it felt like he was in control of the route and could run with that guy, and when the ball went in the air, he put it in that extra gear and went and made a play over his head.

"... When you got guys on the back end that can make plays on a ball like that, it makes a difference in the game."

In a game. In a season. And in a team.

It would have a made a huge difference for the Cowboys last year.

After two preseason games, the Cowboys believe it will be the difference in 2012.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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