ARLINGTON -- As first impressions go, the new-look Dallas Cowboys' defense didn't look much different than last year's unit that was simply the worst in team history.
They were gashed for a big play in the passing game.
And the run defense looked like Swiss cheese, again.
But patience is the buzzword for the defense after Thursday's preseason opener against the Denver Broncos at Cowboys Stadium.
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The team's first outing since last season's 6-10 finish ended on a high note.
Backup quarterback Stephen McGee threw three touchdowns, including a 13-yarder to receiver Dwayne Harris with 15 seconds left. He then hit tight end Martin Rucker on the 2-point conversion, giving the Cowboys a 24-23 victory.
While the Cowboys enjoyed an exciting ending, the defense began the night showing it is still trying to grasp new coordinator Rob Ryan's complicated scheme and remains a work progress.
It was also without four injured starters in cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, linebacker Keith Brooking and nose tackle Jay Ratliff.
And it was only a brief look -- the starters played only one series on both sides of the ball.
"I wasn't concerned at all," linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It's part of getting used to playing in this defense. There are some things we should have done better and there are things we need to work on. I think we will be better the next game."
And to add a little perspective, the Cowboys' first-team defense gave up only 24 total yards and no points in the first two preseason games last year, which certainly proved nothing by preseason's end, let alone the debacle it became by season's end.
Still, all the Cowboys can be judged by so far is Thursday's game.
What was seen wasn't pretty, considering that the Broncos rushed for 40 yards on the opening drive, averaging 6.6 yards a carry.
This was the same defense that allowed 4.3 yards a carry last year, including 4.94 yards on first down.
Ryan was brought to Dallas to make a difference. Thursday night, it was the same old results.
Ware knocked down a pass on the opening play of the game, and then the Cowboys went into retreat mode.
A 4-yard run was followed by a 29-yard pass to from Kyle Orton to tight end Eric Decker as the Broncos burned the Ryan blitz. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who was part of last season's secondary that gave up big plays by the bushel, didn't stay with Decker.
Broncos running backs Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee commenced to gash the Cowboys on the ground with runs of 8, 6, 6, 12 and 7 yards, setting up a first-and-goal at the 3.
A flustered Cowboys defense was flagged for having 13 men in the huddle, making it first and goal from the 1.
It was pure comedy at that point.
But the Broncos got in on the act after an incomplete pass when they were flagged for having 12 men in the huddle, making it second-and-goal from the 6.
The Cowboys defense forced a field goal.
"I thought the defense did a good job after they drove the ball down the field, forcing them to bog down and kick a field goal," coach Jason Garrett said. "That was a positive force on the defensive side."
Baby steps indeed.
The real positives came on offense, where quarterback Tony Romo took the field for first time since suffering a fractured clavicle that sidelined him for the final 10 games of 2010.
He completed 3 of 5 passes for 33 yards and missed open tight end Jason Witten on third down, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a field goal on the opening drive. But he was just happy to be back on the field.
"I was excited," Romo said. "It got my juices flowing a little bit. I'm looking forward to my next opportunity."
Also on the bright side were running back Felix Jones and kicker David Buehler.
Jones, who had only one run of 20 yards or more all last season, looked like his former explosive self. He rushed three times for 23 yards, including an 18-yard run. He also picked up 16 yards on a screen pass.
The 42-yard field goal was huge for Buehler's confidence and his bid to keep the kicking job after an inconsistent 2010. He made 12 of 18 on field goals between 30-49 yards last season.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.