ARLINGTON, Texas – Good luck finding the end zone on the Cowboys' starting defense.
It may just be the preseason, but the Dallas coaches' insistence on creating turnovers and the bend but don't break mentality appear to be in full effect, as the Cowboys' first-team defense went its fourth straight preseason game keeping its opponent out of the end zone in Saturday's 24-18 dress rehearsal win against the Bengals.
"We saw it enough, and now it's finally coming to fruition as far as us going out there and making plays," said cornerback Brandon Carr. "Today, it felt pretty good. Four turnovers, and it all came from the secondary. I guess the bar is kind of set now. We kind of know what the expectations are, and we know we can do it now. That's all it is, is that confidence."
The Cowboys' defense created four turnovers Saturday in the first preseason game this year at AT&T Stadium, including one in every quarter, while the connection between Tony Romo and Dez Bryant looked as crisp as it did to end last season.
Romo finished 13-of-18 with two touchdown passes and no interceptions behind an offensive line that featured Doug Free at right guard and Jermey Parnell at right tackle against one of the stouter defensive lines in the league.
"Not everybody can make an adjustment like that, especially not in really one week," Romo said of Free's move from tackle to guard. "I think it's a testament to Doug's ability to play both those positions."
The offense quickly established its running game and kept going back to it throughout the day, totaling 154 yards on the ground and giving Romo more time to operate as the Bengals had to account for the run and the pass.
The Cowboys were solid offensively and defensively, but still need to figure out that third phase of the game.
After the defense forced its third fumble on the opponents' first drive in four preseason games to start the year, the offense sputtered and were forced to punt in a scoreless game with 4:02 remaining in the first quarter. Punter Chris Jones boomed one away, but the ball hit the giant video board, and the Cowboys were forced to punt again.
"As soon as I punted it, I thought it had a chance of hitting it," Jones said. "It got up there, got up in the shadows, and I saw it flutter down. I knew it had hit."
That turned out to be disastrous, as the Bengals' Brandon Tate returned the re-punt for a touchdown, as the special teams continued to struggle through the preseason.
When the offense returned for their next possession, running back DeMarco Murray did not, after he coughed the ball up and Jermey Parnell recovered it the previous offensive possession. Phillip Tanner and the rest of the starting offense took the field, and Dez Bryant caught five passes on the drive, including the touchdown grab to tie the game.
Bryant finished with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown, while Miles Austin finished the day with four catches for 59 yards and a score. All four of Austin's catches came on third down and ended either in a first down or touchdown.
"(Austin) looks fresher," said head coach Jason Garrett. "He looks quicker to me. He's a hard matchup player for people because he's big and he can play outside, but he also has quickness to play inside."
The offense was efficient throughout the day, but the defense kept the game close throughout. The Bengals' only points in the first half came on the special teams touchdown, as the Cowboys' defensive starters made life tough for Cincinnati's first-team group.
The Bengals didn't score any points on the Cowboys' first-team group. The next time Cincinnati scored after the kick return occurred on a field goal after the Bengals' first-team group went against the Dallas second-teamers in the third quarter.
It helped the Cowboys' offense that they continued getting the ball in favorable spots.
After Bryant's touchdown in the second quarter, rookie B.W. Webb secured his first interception of the preseason, as he joined the first-team group as an extra cornerback and blanketed Mohamed Sanu the whole way. The Cowboys' rookie draft picks have four interceptions combined so far in the preseason.
"B-Dub made a really big play in the ball game, the interception down the middle," Garrett said. "I thought he's responded well to really the game in Oakland, to be honest with you. That was the game where he didn't play his best. He fumbled a punt and some other things happened, but he responded well at practice and has played well the last couple weeks."
The Cowboys forced a three-and-out on their next defensive possession, and the Bengals' last possession of the half went just 18 yards before the clock hit zero and the Cowboys' first-team defense left the field.
The defensive starters were done for the day at the half, but the ability to create turnovers transferred down to the backups as well.
Safety Jeff Heath laid a massive hit on receiver Cobi Hamilton on an end around to jar the ball loose in the third quarter, allowing cornerback Micah Pellerin to secure the fumble.
"We look for those opportunities to attack the ball and get it out," said secondary coach Jerome Henderson. "With Jeff's play, that's more of just a big hit causing a turnover. That wasn't him trying to reach in and get it out. That was him just laying the wood on a guy and the ball popping out."
That forced fumble occurred with an 11-point lead for the Cowboys, after Murray returned to the field in the second half and responded after his early fumble with a touchdown reception, in which he broke multiple tackles and used some fancy footwork to find the end zone.
"We talked to DeMarco at halftime and gave him a chance to play in the second half, and I thought he did a good job bouncing back," Garrett said. "We always put a big emphasis on turnovers. The story of this game was the turnover ratio."
The Cowboys' 21 points at that point were enough.
After Cincinnati cut the Dallas lead to 21-18 in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys added three more points on a Dan Bailey field goal and secured the victory with a pick by cornerback Xavier Brewer with less than a minute remaining in the game. The secondary was responsible for the two picks, as well as both forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. [embedded_ad]
"The competition is so intense, so competitive in our secondary room that guys may miss a couple of games, and the next man up is ready," Carr said. "He's ready to go out there and make plays and make a name for himself. That's what makes teams great."