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Game Notes: Defense Gets Stiff Test From Jags

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Cowboys' starting defense made quick work of its four preseason opponents, allowing 10 points in eight quarters.

The defense forced Jacksonville to punt on its first four drives of Sunday's season opener, but the Jaguars' offense only got stronger after the first quarter.

The Jaguars gained 297 of their 307 total yards in the final three quarters to reel off 24 unanswered points in an eventual 24-17 win over Dallas here at soggy Alltel Stadium.

"Well, they were tested today," Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells said of his defense, which he feared hadn't gotten enough plays in preseason. "But part of this was our offense gave them a turnover (Drew Bledsoe's first interception) right near the half. That was a big swing there."

The Jaguars' lanky receiving trio of Matt Jones (6-6), Ernest Wilford (6-4) and Reggie Williams (6-4) combined for 17 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown. Bledsoe's interception with 1:33 left in the second quarter led to a 6-yard touchdown grab by Williams, which tied the game at 10-10 heading into halftime.

The Jaguars took their first lead with 11:32 left in the game on a 3-yard touchdown run by quarterback Byron Leftwich. Jones helped put the offense in scoring position with consecutive grabs of 25 and 22 yards.

"The penalties hurt us and we didn't really cover their receivers as well as I thought we might be able to," Parcells said. "And that caused us a little trouble."

The Cowboys defense held Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to 81 yards on 23 carries. But Jacksonville stuck with its running game (32 rushing attempts), which helped open up passing lanes for Leftwich.

"Those guys made plays on the back end. They ran the ball," said inside linebacker Bradie James, who started despite being listed as questionable during the week with a sore groin. "We wanted to definitely stop the run and try to make them one-dimensional, but they showed up and made some plays.

"You've got a 12-hour rule. If we'd have won, it would have been great. But in 12 hours we'll get this out of our mouths and get ready for Washington."

Suisham Starts

As expected, Shaun Suisham filled in for veteran Mike Vanderjagt as the Cowboys' lone active kicker against the Jaguars.

Suisham continued his impressive streak of kickoffs with two touchbacks and made a 32-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter, but he missed a 36-yarder, hitting the right upright, that would've given the Cowboys a 13-10 lead in the third quarter.

"I'm gaining valuable experience, but it's very disappointing," said Suisham, knowing he's on a short leash. "You only have so many opportunities."

Vanderjagt has been bothered by a sore groin muscle since early in training camp. He kicked in practice the last two weeks, but Parcells decided Suisham was better fit to handle place kicks and kickoffs this week. Parcells would prefer not to carry two kickers on his 45-man game-day roster this season.

Vanderjagt could return for next Sunday's home opener against Washington. If not, the Cowboys have a bye week in Week 3, which would give the 36-year-old kicker an extra week of rest before the Oct. 1 game at Tennessee.

Big Debut

Parcells on Friday was considering whether he had "enough guts" to start rookie fifth-round pick Pat Watkins at free safety.

Technically, Watkins didn't start in his NFL debut because the Cowboys opened in a three-cornerback, one-safety alignment. But Watkins was, in fact, the starting free safety against Jacksonville.

Watkins, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., tied for third on the team with five tackles. Keith Davis, a 15-game starter last year, focused mostly on special teams but occasionally relieved Watkins at safety.

Carpenter Inactive

Rookie linebacker and first-round pick Bobby Carpenter traveled with the team to Jacksonville, Fla., but was inactive in his first NFL game.

Carpenter got caught in a numbers crunch at linebacker. The Cowboys dressed eight linebackers, including rookie free agent Oliver Hoyte, who led the team in special teams tackles during preseason.

"I definitely would like to have played," said Carpenter, who made the trip to get a feel for the game atmosphere. "But at the same time, I was trying to help these guys any way I could, whatever I saw out there."

Hoyte, though, was credited with no special teams tackles in the game.

The Cowboys other inactives besides Vanderjagt and Carpenter were wide receivers Sam Hurd and Miles Austin, offensive linemen Cory Procter and rookie Pat McQuistan, nose tackle J'Vonne Parker and defensive back Nate Jones. All but Vanderjagt, Parker and Austin made the trip.

Two Captains

Outside linebacker Greg Ellis finally had some company at midfield before kickoff.

The ninth-year veteran was the lone captain for all four of the Cowboys' preseason games. But on Saturday, the players voted Ellis the defensive captain and Drew Bledsoe offensive captain for the season.

About Face

Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich was about ready to get booed out of Alltel Stadium early in the second quarter. He finished the first quarter completing just three of six passes for 16 yards and was sacked once, all adding up to a 56.2 quarterback rating.

And then, after leading the Jags to a field goal, he was intercepted by Roy Williams, who perfectly covered tight end George Wrightster on a wheel route.

"I think Dallas did a good job of doing something we hadn't seen before," Leftwich said, knowing the Jags spotted the Cowboys a 10-point lead. "Football 101. Did a good job with matchups.

"Did a good job until we adjusted."

Leftwich finished the game completing 23 of 34 passes for 237 yards and one touchdown. He was never sacked or intercepted again, leaving him with an 85 QB rating.

--Mickey Spagnola

Game Points

  • First-year wide receiver Jamaica Rector handled punt returns in his NFL debut, returning four for a 5.5-yard average.
  • Running back Tyson Thompson and first-year safety Abram Elam were back on kickoff returns, combining for 65 yards on three returns.
  • Flozell Adams (calf) started at left tackle but had his hands full with Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer, who had two tackles, three hurries, a sack and forced Adams into one holding penalty.
  • Inside linebacker Akin Ayodele tied for second on the team with six tackles against his old team. Ayodele, an Irving, Texas, native, signed with the Cowboys in the off-season after spending four years with Jacksonville. Former Jacksonville teammate Byron Leftwich said afterward the two made eye contact at one point in the game, and both started laughing.
  • Second-year defensive end Jay Ratliff recorded the Cowboys' lone sack, but rookie defensive end and third-round pick Jason Hatcher made first contact.
  • Backup center Al Johnson was used on several occasions as a blocking tight end on the line of scrimmage.

Short Shots

Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson, who was listed as questionable with a knee injury, tied for the team lead with six tackles. Jaguars defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (ankle) started and had one tackle . . . . Veteran Jason Fabini served as the Cowboys' "swing" tackle, backing up on both sides . . . Third-year veteran Mat McBriar's 62-yard punt was the second-longest of his career (68 yards in 2004). McBriar finished with a single-game career best average of 53.2 on five punts, along with a very respectable 43.2 net average.

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