- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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I don't know. Maybe the preseason is finally getting to me. Maybe I was brainwashed by the beautiful California weather at their training camp. Maybe they just looked really good against a lousy St. Louis Rams team in their 20-19 preseason victory Saturday night. Maybe it's all of the above, but as crazy as this looks to me even as I type it, I kind of like this Dallas Cowboys' defense.
The cornerbacks are covering their men. Brandon Carr was a star of last week's game, and rookie Morris Claiborne made plays on second and fourth downs on a goal-line stand Saturday. Safeties Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh are both playing well, patrolling their zones and making their tackles. The linebackers (of which injured DeMarcus Ware was not one on this night) have been active and aggressive, led by Sean Lee on the inside. Jason Hatcher was back on the defensive line and disrupting things in the backfield. Coordinator Rob Ryan was showing off more options, scheme-wise, for the pass rush, and the improved coverage on the back end has been helping with with that. The only points the Rams scored in the first half were on field goals of 52 and 55 yards.
Now, the postgame news of Jay Ratliff's ankle sprain certainly puts a damper on things for the Cowboys going forward, as it sounds like the season opener is in doubt for him. And yeah, I know those guys on the back end were covering Donnie Avery and Danny Amendola and that it's going to be 100 times tougher 10 days from now when it's Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz instead. I get it. I write all the time that we can't draw long-range conclusions from preseason games, and I'm not doing that. But it's completely fair to like the way the Cowboys' defense has performed on the practice field and in these preseason games. And if they're building confidence based on those performances, that's the kind of thing that could conceivably carry into the regular season. So, good for them. Neither matters in the long run, but playing well in preseason is better than playing poorly in the preseason.
Here's what else I saw Saturday night:
Tony Romo was excellent, dodging the rush, extending plays and completing 9 of 13 passes for 198 yards, including touchdowns of 61 and 38 yards to Dwayne Harris. Romo's starting receivers in this game were Harris and Kevin Ogletree, and his starting tight end was John Phillips. Romo is ready to start the season.
So is Harris, by the way. Ogletree went into the game the favorite to be the No. 3 wide receiver, and he might still be, but Harris more than made his case. Yes, the touchdowns were partly the result of poor tackling by the Rams in the secondary, but Harris made the catches and the plays, he looks good in the return game and he made a key block on a DeMarco Murray run one play before his 61-yard touchdown catch. He's certainly made the team, I'd have to think, and he could continue to play himself into more time. Ogletree led the team in targets with six, and he caught five passes for 75 yards, so you can't exactly consider him out of the picture. He had a bad third-down drop, but he caught a ball up the right sideline that you couldn't help but thing looked like the one Miles Austin didn't catch in the first Giants game last year. You know the one I mean. I know you do.
Murray also looked very good against the team that let him rush for 253 yards in his starting debut last year. Murray had 26 yards on five carries and 16 yards on two catches before leaving the game with a hand injury that he said afterward is not serious. Next you'll see him is Sept. 5 in the Meadowlands, I'd imagine. The Cowboys plan to run a lot of their offense through Murray this year.
I'm sorry, but the offensive line still looks awful to me, and I commend Romo and Murray for succeeding in spite of its performance. David Arkin can actually snap the ball to the quarterback now, but he still doesn't look strong enough to hold up at center. The guards looked like they were getting pushed back into the pocket all night. Doug Free is a mess, and even Tyron Smith got beaten on the outside by Robert Quinn on a play early in the game. If the best thing you can say about the offensive line is that it'll be better when Phil Costa gets healthy, you've got a problem. At offensive line, I believe the Cowboys have a significant problem.
The Ratliff injury is a big deal if it lingers deep into the regular season. The Cowboys expect to know more about its severity Sunday. My guess is Josh Brent would fill in at nose tackle, but it could also be Sean Lissemore. Lissemore is also in the mix at defensive end.
I'd take Bruce Carter over Dan Connor as the starting inside linebacker next to Lee. Connor may look better going forward, and maybe they can use him in certain pressure packages. But Carter looks faster and better in coverage, and I think that's going to matter more at that spot.
Felix Jones made a nice blitz-pickup block on Harris' second touchdown, but he whiffed badly on one later that resulted in a Kyle Orton sack. Phillip Tanner also missed in blitz pickup with Orton behind him. Orton has to be wondering what he did to make the backs not like him.
Special-teams ace Danny McCray left with a neck injury, but he told reporters after the game that he should be fine.