Commentary

Cowboys' defense a work in progress

Time running out with regulars not expected to play in final preseason game

Updated: August 28, 2011, 8:52 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- To put things in perspective, this was Adrian Peterson, one of the best running backs and best players in the NFL.

So when Peterson rushes for 81 yards on 14 carries against the Dallas Cowboys, it's not reason to pull your hair out.

However, the Cowboys did allow 442 yards of total offense in Saturday night's 23-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.

[+] EnlargeMike Balogun
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson ran over the Cowboys for 81 yards on 14 carries.

The Vikings' first-team offense got into Cowboys territory the first three times it touched the ball. The defense was bailed out by a blocked field goal and interception from safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

There was no pass rush against an aging Donovan McNabb because the Cowboys were focusing on the run.

Yet there was Bernard Berrian getting Sensabugh turned around and catching a pass over Abram Elam's fingertips for a 49-yard touchdown.

Overall, the Cowboys' defense, at least the first team, is still working out some things with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

"I think each and every game we're getting a lot more comfortable in it," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.

The regulars won't participate against the Dolphins in Miami on Thursday night, so all we have to go on is what we saw in the three completed preseason games.

Owner Jerry Jones didn't seem too concerned about what this defense will look like when the Cowboys face the New York Jets in the season opener on Sept. 11.

"At this time, no I'm not," he said. "I'm very calm and I'm just not worried about it. I know ultimately what they're trying to do and we all do. No matter what the defense is, we need turnovers, and we got a couple of them."

Turnovers are something coach Jason Garrett wants on a regular basis. You know all about the stats that say when you force turnovers, you win games. That's why the Cowboys work on forcing turnovers in practice on a daily basis.

Sensabaugh forced one with his pick of McNabb. You can also credit Alan Ball for an athletic play when he scooped up a blocked field goal and took it 20 yards for the Cowboys' first touchdown of the game.

The pass rush is the pass rush. How can you contain Ware -- and for that matter, nose tackle Jay Ratliff -- for an entire game?

But it was interesting to see the Vikings' front push around the Cowboys' front seven. One of the things Bradie James has said about this Ryan defense is that it's big-boy football. The front seven has to stop the run.

Ryan has also talked about his corners playing with courage. No more missed tackles from this unit. He wants people to hit.

"We got a ways to go," linebacker Anthony Spencer said. "Until then, everybody knows where we are right now. Everyone knows we still have work to do. We just got to keep working until we get to that point."

Ryan is under pressure to fix this defense. It's a defense that was terrible last year. You could blame it on the players or the scheme or bad luck.

Regardless of the cause, the defense that finished 31st in the league and allowed a franchise-record 436 points last season needs to be fixed.

There have been a few personnel changes: moving Ball from safety to his more natural position at corner, sitting Igor Olshansky for a better run stopper in Kenyon Coleman and getting Elam in at free safety. The Cowboys have confidence in the future at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick, having given him a $26 million, five-year deal this week.

Other than that, the defense is the same.

"But the point is, what I liked is the team in general didn't get down about it," Jones said of the Saturday night effort. "It stayed in there, kept plugging, and the developing of what we're going to do on our defense is no more of a concern to me than just the developing of the team."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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