The Dallas Cowboys began the preseason Thursday night with a 24-21 loss the San Francisco 49ers by breaking against recent tradition by starting quarterback Dak Prescott and the first-team offense.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott and linebacker Sean Lee did not suit up as expected.
But Prescott took the field and was expected to play 16 plays.
Prescott did not play in the first two preseason games last season.
His presence on Thursday spoke to the concerns the Cowboys had about the passing game in training camp.
It should be noted that receiver Cole Beasley didn’t make the trip because of a groin injury he suffered last week in training camp, as well as receiver Deonte Thompson, who has been slowed by an Achilles injury.
It sure didn’t take Prescott long to shut up the doubters, who questioned the Cowboys’ ability to make plays in the passing game without tight end Jason Witten (retired) and former No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant (released).
Prescott promptly drove the Cowboys 75 yards on 10 plays, completing 3 of 3 passes, including a 30-yard touchdown strike to rookie third-round pick Michael Gallup.
“That first drive was good for us,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Dak did a great job on the run to keep the drive alive, and we got the one-on-one on the outside and made a good throw and catch.”
After struggling throughout training camp with the deep ball, Prescott again proved to be his best when the lights are on during games.
Gallup ran a good route, freezing cornerback Jimmy Ward, Prescott hit him with a perfect throw down the right sideline, allowing him to walk into the end zone.
Prescott also had a 12-yard scramble for a first down and was supported by a solid effort on the ground from Rod Smith, who started in place of Elliott.
The Cowboys simply ran their offense and Gallup showed he could beat man-to-man coverage on the outside.
As impressive as Prescott and the Cowboys offense was to open the game, it was the defense that shined brightest throughout the game just as it has during training camp.
Even with Lee held out and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence playing just opening series, the Cowboys’ defense proved to be equally stout.
They recorded a robust three turnovers, two inceptions and fumble recovery.
Consider that Dallas had 21 takeaways in 2017, tied for 16th in the NFL. But they also only had 10 interceptions, tied for 24th.
The 49ers got nothing going on the ground, rushing for 28 yards on 15 carries in the first half. Defensive tackles Antwaun Woods and Datone Jones led the charge up front, backed up by linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas.
Thomas had especially strong game with five tackles and an interception in the first half. Cornerback Duke Thomas has the other interception in the fourth quarter.
Remember the Cowboys were 1-5 in games without Lee at linebacker last year.
Defensive end Taco Charlton led the pass rush with a number of quarterback pressures.
The Cowboys allowed just 84 yards on the first four drives of the game. But gave up a touchdown on the final drive of the half, thanks to a pass interference penalty on cornerback Anthony Brown that set up a 1-yard run by Joe Williams.
But this was after the Cowboys jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Cooper Rush replaced Prescott following the opening series and completed 15 of 23 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
He seemingly picked where he left off last year in preseason when he completed 74.5 percent of his passes and threw for 398 passing yards and six touchdowns.
His best drive in the first half Thursday came after under throwing a wide open Gallup down the right sideline. He followed with back-to-back completions to receiver Tavon Austin for a first down.
Rookie running back Bo Scarbrough broke a tackle and rumbled for 28 yards before Rush threw a short pass to tight end Blake Jarwin, who ran for 18 yards.
Scarbrough finished it off with a 1-yard run.
Rush capped his evening with a brilliant 10-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter..
He had passes of 31 yards to receiver Marchie Murdock, 13 to receiver Mekale McKay and 11 to Scarbrough.
It all set up a beautiful 2-yard touchdown pass to receiver Lance Lenoir, who did a diving highlight-reel, toe tap in the right corner of the end zone.
Suddenly, a Cowboys offense that was criticized for not making plays in the passing game in training camp was scoring touchdowns by the bunches.
That the Cowboys receivers were able to make plays without Beasley and Thompson, two important pieces, speaks volumes.
The Cowboys’ backups, however, blew a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter by allowing two touchdowns in the final five minutes.