OAKLAND – The Cowboys' defensive starters picked up where their backups left off a week prior, as the first-team offense and defense took the field for the first time this season Friday in Oakland.
The defense forced a turnover on the opponent's first possession for the second straight week to start the preseason. The starters on both sides of the ball played two series apiece, and a close contest throughout was decided by the backups, who couldn't hold onto the lead in a 19-17 loss to the Raiders.
Linebacker Sean Lee recorded his first sack of the preseason, forcing a fumble on Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn on the first drive with help from Jason Hatcher, who recovered the fumble. A Cowboys defense that only recovered nine fumbles last season has now recovered one in each of the first two preseason games.
"It is great to get out here and finally play," Lee said. "It has been a long time practicing on our team and it's nice to go against another team in live action. The only way to really get better is get out here and play hard and I think we had a good start, but we have to get better."
The first-team offense, on the field for the first time in 2013, couldn't capitalize inside a red zone area that troubled the Cowboys last year. Jason Witten was called for holding and Tony Romo threw an incomplete pass and took a sack before Dan Bailey kicked a field goal.
The offense looked significantly better their next time with the ball, driving from their own 17-yard line all the way to the Oakland 8-yard line, where a tip toe from DeMarco Murray down the sideline was ruled just short of the sticks. Romo finished the day 6-of-8, featuring a heavy dose of Dez Bryant throughout the team's long drive which pushed the first-team's playing time into the second quarter.
"I thought Tony looked comfortable playing," said head coach Jason Garrett. "I thought he had good command. I thought we protected well. There were a couple instances we saw him really have some time in the pocket. I feel like he saw things well."
The offense and defense had much more upside Friday than the special teams unit. Things quickly went downhill on special teams after Bailey's first made field goal. After Romo's long drive that ended inside the Raiders' 10-yard line, Bailey had a field goal blocked as pressure came from the right side.
Later in the game, the special teams unit allowed a 51-yard kick return and muffed a punt inside the Cowboys' 20-yard line, leading to a field goal.
"Too many turnovers," Garrett said. "We had two of them, the fumbled punt and the interception early on in the second half. Obviously, when you get a field goal blocked, that's not a good thing either. Those are plays that are going to hurt you. They aren't winning football plays."
Quarterback Nick Stephens threw the interception on a tightly contested pass in the third quarter. Stephens, who finished 7-of-12 with 78 yards, threw the interception one quarter after Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox secured his first of his NFL career.
Wilcox recorded a team-high six tackles all on one drive, capping it off with an interception in the end zone on Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
"It was kind of just being in the right spot at the right time making plays for my teammates," Wilcox said. That's the main thing. I don't want to be caught out of position. With that being said, it felt good. It's kind of bad when they're coming to the secondary, but as long as I can be there and make plays for my teammates, I'm proud."
Kyle Orton compiled the best day of the quarterbacks through the air, throwing a perfect 6-for-6 with a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley, who brought in three catches for 49 yards. He left the game with a foot injury, but X-rays came back negative.
The offensive line helped protect Orton and the rest of the quarterbacks throughout the day. Even when drives stalled for Romo early on, the offensive line wasn't at fault and the stalls weren't for a lack of time.
"I thought we protected well," Garrett said. "We didn't run the ball quite as well as we did last week, seemed to throw the ball a little bit better. Kyle Orton did a nice job in the game moving us down the field. The throw to Cole Beasley for the touchdown was a big play for us."
The Cowboys averaged 3.5 yards per carry, while Lance Dunbar averaged a game-high seven yards per carry on three attempts, marking the second straight week Dunbar's averaged at least five yards a carry. Dunbar also contributed with three catches for 15 yards, while Phillip Tanner led the group with 25 rushing yards. Joseph Randle was the only back to find the end zone.
"I thought (Dunbar) ran the ball well," Garrett said. "For a small guy, he's quick, he's explosive, but he's also tough. He's not afraid to run physically in there. He seems to be able to get to the edge a lot. Watch him at the end of runs, he's delivering blows, and he's a very good pass receiver as well." [embedded_ad]
Dunbar credited his offensive line, which through two preseason games seems to be in better shape than the group that suffered to open lanes or protect Romo last season.
"It's probably the biggest the holes have ever been," Dunbar said.