ARLINGTON, Texas –It's still the preseason, dude, but that doesn't mean there's any less reason for optimism over the play of the Cowboys' starters on Saturday night.
The first-half performance signified progress for an offense that started the preseason slowly, and was further evidence that the defense may be much improved. The Cowboys' reserves eventually held off the Rams, 20-19, but most important of all was the 20-6 lead they held when the majority of the first-teamers were removed at halftime. The two-touchdown edge represented an even wider margin than at the midway point of last October's blowout of St. Louis.
It would be hard to ask for more of the Cowboys in what is annually billed as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season, but excellent as the play of the first-teamers was, it may have to be even better in the first game of confidence, now just a week and a half away.
"This is not the same situation that we're going to face in about 10 days when we go play the Giants," head coach Jason Garrett said. "The Giants are the world champs. We're playing at their place. It's a different environment. This is preseason game No. 3, but again, this was the opportunity we had as a football team, and I thought those guys handled themselves well tonight."
The outing was especially positive for the starting offense, since they had scored only three points in five drives with Tony Romo under center against Oakland and San Diego. Romo was as sharp as ever from the start of the game, leading a field goal drive on the Cowboys' first possession. Following a St. Louis three-and-out, he hit Dwayne Harris in stride for a beautiful 61-yard bomb to go up 10-0.
A nice kickoff return helped the Rams put up three points on their ensuing possession, but Romo finished off another quick-strike drive with a 38-yard touchdown throw to the second-year wideout Harris, who broke through a pair of tacklers on the way to the end zone and, most likely, secured himself a roster spot.
Having already turned in 20 quality snaps, Romo came out at the end of the first quarter with a passing line of 9-for-13 for 198 yards, the two scores pushing his rating to an off-the-charts 151.4. He had been without his top three targets in Jason Witten (spleen), Miles Austin (hamstring) and Dez Bryant (knee), but it didn't slow him down at all as he mixed passes to Harris, Kevin Ogletree, John Phillips, DeMarco Murray and Cole Beasley.
"Sometimes it can help your football team depth-wise for some young guys to get in the first group to play and get a chance," Romo said. "It can be a bonus."
The first-string defense entered the night having not allowed points in its action through the first two games, and wrapped up its exhibition work without surrendering a touchdown.
"We are very confident in ourselves," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "It means a lot to us, even though it's preseason, to go out there and not give up a touchdown in three games, for the amount of plays we're out there for.
"Hopefully that carries over to Sept. 5, when it's time to play for regular season wins and losses."
Including the 30 yards picked up on a fake punt, St. Louis produced only 114 yards in the first half, with kicker Greg Zuerlein nailing two field goals from outside of 50 yards, the second coming as a result of the short field set up by a Kyle Orton fumble.
The news wasn't all good on defense, as four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff exited early with a high ankle sprain, an injury which often sidelines players for four to six weeks.
It had been Ratliff's first game action of the preseason, as he was returning from plantar fasciitis that had affected him throughout the summer. Front-seven starters Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher also returned, but the Cowboys were without their star defender DeMarcus Ware for a second week in a row while he rests a hamstring injury.
The Cowboys will most likely hold out all expected starters and many key contributors in their final preseason game, on Wednesday in Arlington against the Miami Dolphins. The team must first trim a dozen players from the roster to get to 75 by Monday afternoon.
For those fighting and clawing for a job, this is the most important time of the year. But for those who have proven themselves superior to exhibition competition, the next few days provide a chance to rest up and get ahead on Giants preparation.
"We're right on the verge," linebacker Sean Lee said. "I think we've gotten better each week, but if we're going to play the Giants and be successful against a really good team, then we're going to have to have all the details cleaned up."