DENVER – The Dallas secondary was already facing a steep challenge before Sunday's game kicked off, and it got steeper quite quickly.
The Cowboys knew going in that they'd be without Orlando Scandrick while trying to defend Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the Broncos' passing attack. Scandrick was ruled out with a broken hand, which he suffered last week against New York.
What they didn't expect going in was the rash of injuries that hit their secondary, as Nolan Carroll was ruled out with a concussion and Chidobe Awuzie was lost to a hamstring injury – all by halftime.
The result was a makeshift secondary, with second-year starter Anthony Brown serving as the Cowboys' most experienced cornerback for the rest of the day.
"It just came at us pretty fast with two corners down," Brown said. "Me and Jourdan just had to stand up basically and do the best that we can."
That would be Jourdan Lewis, who made his NFL debut as the Cowboys' No. 3 corner when Awuzie went down. By the time Carroll exited, Lewis was promoted to No. 2 – with rookie safety Xavier Woods having to play nickel back.
It was a far cry from the initial plan for Lewis, who was active for his first NFL game after recovering from a hamstring injury.
"I wasn't supposed to really play defense as much, just get my footing down, but I just had to come in and step up," Lewis said. "I tried, and it obviously wasn't my best performance. It was just a learning experience, definitely."
It's not so much that the Broncos bombed away through the air. Trevor Siemian only threw for 231 yards on the night. But he completed a whopping 70 percent of his passes, and he guided his offense to a fantastic 9-of-15 performance on third down.
More telling than that was Siemian's performance in the red zone, as he took advantage of the Cowboys' mismatched secondary to the tune of four touchdowns.
"It was just self-inflicted wounds, definitely, and having my eyes in the right place – especially on that touchdown," Lewis said. "It's not trying to look at the quarterback as much and make plays – especially in the red zone, when you know you've got to be plastered to your guy."
It's not to say Lewis's day was completely forgettable. He took advantage of an overthrown ball in the third quarter, intercepting Siemian and returning it 25 yards. But in the wake of a 25-point loss, it was cold comfort.
"It was a losing effort, honestly," he said.
Now the Cowboys will need to see how quickly they can nurse their secondary back to health. There's optimism Scandrick can be ready in time for next week's game at Arizona, having successfully undergone surgery on the injured hand.
Awuzie said he hopes to be ready in time for next week, but he acknowledged it's a bit too soon to speculate.
"It's definitely my goal to play," he said. "Even today I wanted to play, but you've always got to be smart. It's up to the trainers, and I know they're going to do their best job to get me on that field."
While that situation sorts itself out, the Cowboys' defensive backs will have to go back to the drawing board – with some valuable experience under their belts.
"I got thrown in the fire, but it's a learning experience – one of the best, in a real situation and a real game," Lewis said. "It's just not how we wanted it to turn out, so we're going to make some adjustments. I definitely will watch the tape and will definitely get better at some of my technique and have a better effort next week."