OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jerry Jones doesn’t want to get too giddy about a handful of preseason plays, but he saw a glimpse of greatness in Dallas' starting defense’s first live work under Monte Kiffin’s watch.
“We’ve got a chance to be a really top-flight defense if we can have those guys that we didn’t have at the end of last year,” Jones said after Friday night’s 19-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders. “If we have those guys right there along with philosophically what we’re doing, we’re going to be better.”
Middle linebacker Sean Lee is the headliner of several key defensive players whose 2012 season ended prematurely due to injuries. His performance in his first preseason action was a reminder of just how much of a dynamic playmaker the Cowboys missed in the final 10 games last season.
Lee made plays to end Oakland’s first two series. He came clean on a blitz to unload on Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn on the fourth snap of the game, with defensive tackle Jason Hatcher recovering the loose ball. After Oakland picked up a few first downs with DeMarcus Ware and Hatcher watching from the sideline, Lee broke up a third-down pass to receiver Rod Streater with the kind of hit that causes opponents to think twice before crossing the middle against the Cowboys.
“It was a great start for us tonight,” said Hatcher, who notes that he should have been credited for the forced fumble after blowing by an offensive guard and hitting the ball just as Lee arrived with bad intentions. “I’m looking forward to next week, getting this preseason out [of] the way and getting ready for the big one.”
Added Lee: “We have room to improve, but for our first time out there, I thought we did pretty well.”
The defense is far from a finished product, and it was missing three guys the Cowboys are counting on to be impact players: defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee), defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (hamstring) and cornerback Morris Claiborne (knee). Spencer and Ratliff probably won’t play a preseason down.
The injury bug has already taken a couple of nibbles but nothing that should impact the games that matter. And the Cowboys’ luck pretty much has to be better than it was last season.
All due respect to Kiffin and his lieutenant Rod Marinelli, but their defensive genius would go to waste if Lee, Ratliff, outside linebacker Bruce Carter, safety Barry Church and slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick end up on injured reserve again, not to mention DeMarcus Ware being limited to using one arm.
With the exception of Ratliff, all of those players are healthy right now and enjoying productive camps. That’s especially an understatement for Ware, who might be an even bigger monster as a 4-3 defensive end than he was as a perennial Pro Bowl 3-4 outside linebacker.
Case in point: On the first snap of the game, Ware looked like he was shot out of a cannon en route to hitting Darren McFadden on an off-tackle run play on the other side of the field.
“Even though it was a short period of time, that Ware is something with his hand down,” Jones said. “Kiffin is right. They start those 100-meter dashes with the hand down, not standing straight up. He’s quick back there.”
As far as starts go, Kiffin’s starting defense came flying out of the blocks Friday night.