Brandon Carr shows what he can do
With two INTs, cornerback looks like ballhawk Cowboys have been missing
SAN DIEGO -- As the names were rattled off, Brandon Carr's eyes got bigger and bigger. So did his smile.
DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher did not play Saturday against the San Diego Chargers and only Ware among them has seen some preseason work so far, but Carr has a sense about the Dallas Cowboys' defense once those guys get back to work.
"Hopefully it's lights out," Carr said.
Ware, Spencer, Ratliff and Hatcher might want to come back to work quickly just because of Carr.
The Cowboys shelled out $50.1 million for Carr as a free agent in March in hopes the cornerback could change the fortunes of a secondary that was picked apart last December and January, leading to the Cowboys missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.
On Saturday, Carr had two first-half interceptions of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as the No. 1 defense ran its shutout streak to 29 plays in two preseason games. Overall in the preseason, the Cowboys have intercepted four passes in two games and recovered one fumble.
That just didn't happen enough in 2011.
"I'm sitting with Jason Witten and he says, 'You know, if we get a couple like that during the regular season, that's a difference maker and haves us sitting there in the playoffs,'" owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "I was really pleased there."
Carr's night was special regardless of the preseason setting. Nothing about the gargantuan contract he received -- surprising to some who felt it was odd to pay Kansas City's No. 2 cornerback so much -- has brought undue pressure.
Carr has been a physical presence at the line of scrimmage against Dez Bryant in camp, but his work Saturday came with him playing off the line at the snap.
Rivers tried Carr deep early in the second quarter, looking for Robert Meachem down the middle of the field. Some of you might remember Meachem's 55-yard catch on third-and-10 for New Orleans on Thanksgiving in 2010, beating the Cowboys' Terence Newman. The next play, the Saints had their game-winning touchdown.
Rivers was not as fortunate, with Carr leaping to take the ball away from Meachem.
"I figured it would come," Carr said of Rivers' deep throw. "Not necessarily on me, but I knew he'd take a shot at some point in the game. He wants to get it in there and get some plays. He has tremendous confidence in his receivers. I've been playing these guys for four years now. At the end of the day, you've got to be a ballhawk and go get it."
The second turnover came as Carr undercut a route on Vincent Brown, tipping the ball three times before finally coming away with the turnover.
"That's the carryover from practicing all of our drills, even when we go scrimmage each other," Carr said. "Once the ball is in the air, either you make the catch or nobody does. That's the mentality you've got to have, especially as the league has changed. Now it's a pass-happy league with quarterbacks throwing for 3,000, 4,000 yards. You've got to have the mentality that once it's up, I'm making the play or nobody is."
It's a refreshing attitude and one that coordinator Rob Ryan coveted last year without much success. Ryan talked the talk but he didn't have the players to walk the walk.
The way Carr plays can change the overall attitude of a defense. As Carr walked off the field following his first interception, he was mobbed by teammates, including Ware, Ratliff and even Ryan.
"We've been good, but like anything you've got to take the good and the bad and react the same," inside linebacker Sean Lee said of the top defense's limited work. "You've got to work to continue to get better. That's the only way you can do it, compete week to week. That's what we're really talking about right now."
Less than 30 snaps of preseason football should not be viewed as any sort of barometer. This isn't the time to get carried away and start talk of Doomsday III or to think the 2012 Cowboys defense will look better than any of the defenses in the 1990s. Or even as good as Ryan talked up last year's defense early in the season.
But it's a start.
And like Carr, the owner can't wait for those other guys to get back.
"You add it all that up," Jones said, "and I can see our defense as being special."