SAN DIEGO –That was a little more like it. Or, at least more like what the Cowboys would want to see in a game where the starters check out in the second quarter.
Yes, the final scoreboard showed a 28-20 Chargers win, but the Cowboys will come away pleased, for the most part. For a second time in five days, the starting defense did its thing, pitching two more shutout quarters following the goose egg at Oakland on Monday night. Just as importantly, a Cowboys offense that was futile in the preseason opener was actually able to move the ball this time.
Tony Romo's group managed only three points – equaling the 60-minute output against the Raiders – but functioned far better on the whole, controlling the ball and driving for 102 yards on 20 plays, all in the first quarter.
"I thought some of the young guys stepped up and played pretty good tonight," Romo said. "I think our offense is continuing to get better and better each week, and I like the direction we are heading, but we have to eliminate the mistakes."
After a hot start by DeMarco Murray, who gained 30 yards on five quick touches, the opening drive fizzled. But the Cowboys' defense got the ball back following a quick three-and-out, and Romo completed passes to Kevin Ogletree and Cole Beasley for first downs. The unit also got a couple solid gains from Jamize Olawale, the third running back in the game.
Still, three penalties on the offensive line handicapped the possession, and the Cowboys were forced to settle for a Dan Bailey field goal after marching only 39 yards on 12 plays over more than seven minutes.
The remade Cowboys secondary was impressive for the second week in a row, this time with all of the projected starters on the field, as No. 6 overall pick Morris Claiborne made his preseason debut. In the second quarter, free-agent addition Brandon Carr recorded a pair of beautiful interceptions. The Kansas City Chiefs draftee went up high for the first pick of former division Phillip Rivers on San Diego's second possesion, then executed a juggling act on their third, tipping the ball to himself four or five times before hauling it in.
"Go for the ball every time it's in the air," Carr said. "You've got to be at the right place at the right time, and of course you've got to execute the play that's called. Out there on an island it's a one-on-one matchup, and once the ball goes up, either you're catching it or nobody's catching it. That's the mentality you've got to have."
Though the secondary has begun to heal, the front seven is still shorthanded. Four defensive starters missed the game due to injury, serious or otherwise: Defensive linemen Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, and outside linebackers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, who slightly tweaked his hamstring before training camp was wrapped up in Oxnard, Calif.
The success of the defense without those top pressure players is a great sign, since the Cowboys centered their offseason investment in the secondary. If the defense is this good without proven pass rushers, how good can it be with some of the team's best in the lineup?
"You get those guys on the back end who really want to go get the football," head coach Jason Garrett said. "It's awareness, it's understanding the ball flight, it's understanding the ball and the way the receiver has the ability to go and get it. And I think Brandon showed that tonight."
The Cowboys won the first half 10-0, Olawale powering into the end zone from two yards out midway through the second quarter, a touchdown set up by a beautiful 35-yard throw and catch from Kyle Orton to Kevin Ogletree, who hung onto the ball while being sandwiched by a pair of Chargers defenders.
Things did not go as well for the Cowboys' reserves in the second half. They gave up points for the first time this preseason on an 18-yard Charlie Whitehurst to Vincent Brown pass in the third quarter. Then, after a Dan Bailey field goal, the Chargers scored again after returning a Stephen McGee interception to the four yard-line.
Two more fourth quarter touchdowns put San Diego up 28-13, but quarterback Rudy Carpenter made the final score more respectable for the Cowboys by leading a late 10-play, 71-yard drive that culminated in a 15-yard touchdown to Dwayne Harris.
The two teams will rest tomorrow before getting back to work for two days of practice together at Chargers Park early in the week.