EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -Rob Ryan had just six weeks to teach his complex defense, with a target date of Sunday. Though the Cowboys lost to the Jets, there was actually plenty to be encouraged about.
Take away the blocked punt score, and the Cowboys gave up 20 points to New York, three of which came on Nick Folk's game-winning field goal, which was essentially gift-wrapped for the Jets following a Darrelle Revis interception of Tony Romo.
There were plenty of signs of improvement for the defense, though - as compared to both the Wade Phillips/Paul Pasqualoni-coordinated unit of 2010, and this year's preseason, when the Cowboys struggled to stop the run and allowed several long scoring drives.
Most encouraging was the success against New York's ground game, which mustered only 45 yards on 16 rushes, with no carry longer than seven yards. Typically a team committed to pounding the ball, the Jets were forced to abandon the run, putting the game in the hands of Mark Sanchez, just as the Cowboys would've hoped.
Though Sanchez led just two touchdown drives, he still was able to rack up 335 yards, though on 44 attempts. The Cowboys did sack him four times, and Sean Lee intercepted a pass and returned it down to the goal line to set up a Felix Jones touchdown run.
All the defensive silver linings came despite being incredibly shorthanded at cornerback. Terence Newman was out with a groin injury, Orlando Scandrick was lost to a sprained ankle early on and Mike Jenkins was in and out with apparent reaggravations of the stinger he suffered at the beginning of training camp. For important stretches of the game, the position was manned by fourth- and fifth-corners Alan Ball and Bryan McCann, along with safety Barry Church, forced to play out of position.
Another young safety, Danny McCray, made a potentially game-alterning sack and strip of Sanchez in the fourth quarter. On crucial downs, the Cowboys' only starters on the field at defensive back were safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam, each of whom was forced to miss the first week of training camp and Ryan's defensive installation as an unrestricted free agent.
"My hats off to Barry and Danny, they came in and played well," Elam said. "With limited practice reps they stepped in and helped us . . . You just have to communicate, and make sure everybody's on the same page. We're all in the meeting room together, we all communicate, so guys are accountable."
Elam wasn't around in 2010, but he mentioned a couple things that were missing for the defense last year - accountability and communication. Perhaps we're seeing Ryan is imparting those traits onto the unit, though the solid effort Sunday was no consolation for the new defensive coordinator, who lost a face-off with is brother, Jets coach Rex Ryan.
"You're going to have a hard time doing anything when you don't have anybody playing their natural position," Rob Ryan said. "But hey, it happens. That's why you've got to win, so it doesn't matter."