In Jerry Jones’ mind, part of the reason this season’s Dallas Cowboys’ defense will be better than last season’s is that it simply can’t get worse.
In other words, forget the losses of Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, and do a simple numbers game. It’s hard to fathom a defense being more inept than last season’s unit that allowed the third-most yards in NFL history.
But it appears that the team owner’stheory is going to be put to the test after Thursday’s preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers had little trouble moving the ball, whether on the ground or in the air, and exposed several of the same issues that plagued last season’s defense in a 27-7 victory.
There were plenty of running holes and plenty of time for quarterbacks and receivers to find openings. San Diego gained 395 yards of total offense, including picking up 24 first downs, not seeing an incomplete pass until the 14:24 mark of the fourth quarter and punting only twice.
“I thought, in general, San Diego was able to move the ball too easily on us,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They ran the ball on us. They threw the ball very effectively. For the most part, we didn’t make enough stops on defense. We’ll go back and look at that and hopefully improve.”
Granted, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions after an exhibition game, and there is a built-in excuse for the defense with five projected starters sitting out and several more sidelined with injuries. However, it’s not as though the next Lawrence Taylor was among the players on the sideline.
It should be troubling for the Cowboys that an undrafted rookie running back — Branden Oliver — gashed their defense for 64 yards on seven carries in the first half, an average gain of 9.1 yards.
Oliver’s highlight was a 16-yard TD scamper that saw him drag Cowboys rookie defensive back Terrance Mitchell at least 5 yards on the way to the end zone.
Another worrisome stat from the game is having rookie safety Ahmad Dixon leading the team in tackles with 11. It’s a positive that Dixon made those stops, but most of them came on big gains by the Chargers.
“We’ve got to tackle better, I know that,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “We have to tackle better.”
Defensive end Jeremy Mincey agreed, saying: “We can make strides. There were a lot of mistakes made. A lot of things we have to clean up, a lot of guys missing assignments and missing tackles. That’s one of the things you have to clean up during the preseason.”
For everything that went wrong, there were a couple of positives the Cowboys can take away from the game.
The defense forced a goal-line fumble in the first quarter when linebacker Justin Durant knocked the ball loose from Chargers running back Ryan Mathews and Mitchell recovered.
They had another red-zone stand in the second quarter. The Chargers had a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, but had to settle for a field goal.
“You’re a strong defense when you can bend and don’t break,” safety J.J. Wilcox said. “I definitely think we did a great job of doing our assignments and not giving up. It shows a lot about a defense, not only not giving up but staying strong and understanding that we still have a chance.”
Wilcox went on to say that he remained confident in the defense improving before the season opener against San Francisco on Sept. 7.
Wilcox was the only expected starter in the secondary. Safety Barry Church sat out, as well as cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr. Morris Claiborne also didn’t play. The defensive line was short-handed without Henry Melton and George Selvie.
The Cowboys are banking on those players being healthy and productive to make Thursday’s performance nothing more than an anomaly going into the season.
“I can’t wait to see this defense as a whole,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “We’ve got guys who are going to make plays that weren’t out there tonight. They’re going to be a major part of this defense, so I’m definitely excited to see them play.”