ARLINGTON, Texas– Ironically enough, a special first half of football by the Cowboys' defense was marred by their special teams in Saturday night's win against Cincinnati.
The Cowboys' first-team defense limited the Bengals' first-team offense to 101 total yards and no touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of the game. But the scoreline doesn't read that way, as a gruesome special teams effort allowed Bengals return man Ben Tate to gash his way to a 75-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter.
"We didn't get in our lanes and didn't make plays when we were there," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "We'll look at it critically tomorrow and watch the tape and get everything cleaned up, but those are big plays in the ball game – they made a couple of big plays in the kicking game."
Tate's own assessment of the play was a telling indication of the Cowboys' slip-ups.
"Everybody blocked it perfectly, and all I had to do was find the hole and shoot through it," he said. "Nobody had a shot at me."
It was one of a handful of miscues for the Dallas special teamers in what is considered the "dress rehearsal" game for the regular season. The reason Tate had a chance to score in the first place came when Cowboys punter Chris Jones smacked the massive scoreboard at AT&T Stadium with his first punt of the night.
In the past, that rare occurrence would have led to a live ball, but an NFL rule change from 2010 mandates a re-kick in such an event.
"As soon as I punted it, I thought it had a good chance," Jones said. "Then it kind of goes up there and gets in the shadows, then I saw it kind of flutter down and I knew it had hit – I had to go back and re-punt it."
It was just the second time a punter has hit the scoreboard. The first occasion came during the Cowboys' first game in the building in 2009, and the culprit was Tennessee punter A.J. Trapasso.
The problems extended across all facets of the game, however.
The laundry list of ugly moments is actually quite lengthy: A holding call on the opening kick of the game forced the Cowboys' offense to start the game on its own 12-yard line. The Cowboys' kick returners didn't get past the 20-yard line once in four attempts. The punting game averaged just YARDS yards per kick. Too few men in the huddle forced the Cowboys to call a timeout before a fourth quarter field goal attempt. The kick coverage unit nearly gave up a late-game lead when it allowed a 53-yard return in the game's dying moments.
The ugliness extended even to kicker Dan Bailey, who has been a model of consistency in training camp.
Following the timeout, Bailey missed wide left on a 50-yard attempt.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said the sloppy night was undeniable. He added that the performance didn't concern him, however, as the Cowboys edge closer and closer to finalizing their roster – which includes their special teams units.
"We've got so many players that we play in and out of there, and we should be doing that. We should be seeing the numbers," he said. "For instance, we decided to run every kick off out of there, don't care how long it hung, how far and deep it was in the end zone, we were going to run it out so we could look at some guys; look and see how we blocked it coming out."
Jones continued that Saturday night's special teams didn't look like the ones that would line up in two weeks against the Giants. He said the chance to grade his fringe players was an even trade for the mistakes.
"I would have rather had the experience and those guys see what it means to you in that area, and that's getting the benefit out of that," he said. "So, no, I'm not concerned about our special teams any more than I am any place else."
Here are some more notes from the Cowboys' second win of the preseason:
- Jones said it would be premature to comment on Doug Free's viability as a Week 1 starter at right guard. Free moved to right guard largely because of the recent knee injury to Ronald Leary. Jones said he thought Free played well, but he wanted the coaching staff to evaluate his game tape. He also said he still hopes Leary will be available in time for the opener.
- Fresh off his third-straight big night of the preseason, wide receiver Dez Bryant said the attitude around the Cowboys' locker room is "a little bit different." Pressed to clarify, Bryant said the team's maturity level has improved. "A lot of people understand their roles and who they are, and what they need to bring to the table," he said. "It's not just one guy – this is a team game. I think everybody understands that."
- Illustrating his own point, Bryant declined to speculate about his own potential this season. Bryant has posted 13 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown in just more than four quarters this preseason. "I'm going to continue to play my game, man. That's all I can do – just go out there, listen to my quarterback, listen to the guys who are doing it right and see where it takes me and us."
- Jones didn't sound quite as confident as he did back in Oakland about the availability of defensive tackle Jay Ratliff for the season opener. Jones said he thought the Cowboys would have both Anthony Spencer and Morris Claiborne back in the starting lineup for the Giants game, but he didn't speak so surely of Ratliff.
- Said Jones on Ratliff: "There's areas that none of us know, other than to see how it's feeling on a day-to-day basis – where his strength is, not necessarily how it's feeling. Ratliff will play on one leg. He will – there's no question about that. He'll do it and do it competitively. But the bottom line is we just don't know how he's going to measure up with the symptoms, and how wise that is to play him or not play him and get more out of him later on down the road. We've got a long way to go here, and Ratliff is a real key element to things."
- Rookie cornerback B.W. Webb notched the Cowboys' second of four turnovers when he intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the second quarter. It was the Cowboys' fourth interception of the preseason – all four of them coming from 2013 draft picks. [embedded_ad]
- Two other rookies jumped onto that stat sheet as well. Safety Jeff Heath forced a fumble with a big hit in the third quarter, and cornerback Xavier Brewer brought in the interception that sealed the win.
- The Bengals brought several familiar faces with them to Dallas. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer held the same position with the Cowboys from 2000-06, and former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis is a volunteer coach with the team. Former Cowboys defensive backs Terance Newman and Adam Jones also play for the Bengals.