ARLINGTON, Texas – Ignore the final score and the box score, and you can find some pretty big positives for this Cowboys team.
That sounds silly on the surface, but it's true. Yes, the Cowboys fell, 27-3, and lost the turnover battle by an absurd margin of 8-0.
Watching the first two quarters, though, it'd be hard not to be encouraged by the performance of the Cowboys' starting defense.
"I feel about as good about our defense as I have in a long time," said team owner/general manager Jerry Jones.
It's hard to argue with him, having seen the early returns. It didn't show on the scoreboard, as the Cardinals scored off a muffed punt and a pick-six, but the Cowboys stifled Arizona's offense in the first quarter, forcing three field goals and a missed field goal from 55 yards.
"We defended the run well, we rushed the passer well," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "There were plays on the back end where guys knocked the ball out and were competitive."
Again, the numbers were encouraging. The Cardinals finished the first quarter with 31 yards of offense and two first downs working against the Dallas starters. Randy Gregory posted a sack of Sam Bradford on the second possession of the night.
The pass rush's activity paid dividends on the back end, too, as Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones and Kavon Frazier all managed pass deflections off of hurried throws.
"It all works together," said Sean Lee. "The back seven have to cover to let them get home sometimes. The front guys have to hurry up and get to the quarterback and help us. And this is what makes this defense great: working together."
Lee was in full uniform, including his helmet, for the entire evening, but he did not partake in the action. From his vantage point, he got a good look at a unit that allowed just 105 yards of offense in the first half – including just 36 passing yards – and a 1-of-7 performance on third down.
"That's our calling card. Just play fast and get to the ball," said Joe Thomas, who finished with two tackles on defense and one on special teams.
Of course, that's not to say it was a pretty night all the way through. Arizona running back T.J. Logan ripped off a 59-yard touchdown on the third play of the third quarter – much to the visible dismay of secondary coach Kris Richard. The Cardinals ran for 146 yards on the night for an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
"There were some plays out there uncharacteristic of our football team," Richard said. "We just have to make sure we adjust immediately."
It sounds strange to say about a 24-point loss, but the adjustments look noticeable from last year to this one. Exciting as it has been to see, though, Lee was quick to point out: it doesn't mean anything yet.
"I don't like to get ahead of ourselves. We have to put the stats down and the wins and the turnovers, and until we do that we can't say anything," Lee said. "When it comes to the right group of guys – guys who love to work and are talented, it's as good a group as I've worked with."