Progress is definitely being made.
If the first preseason, a thrilling 3-0 affair in Oakland, was a study in frustration and worry for the Cowboys faithful, then the team's performance in San Diego on Saturday at least showed signs of excitement and hope, especially concerning the first-teamers.
With nine starters out of the lineup, tender hamstrings seemingly the largest culprit, Dallas lost to the Chargers 28-20, their preseason record falling to 1-1. But the Cowboys' defense, and in particular cornerback Brandon Carr, gave notice that they might be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
Even with DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher not in the lineup, the first-unit group held the Chargers to only 69 total yards, never allowing San Diego to cross the 50-yard line. Taking center stage in the effort was Carr, who grabbed not one, but two interceptions in his quarter-and-a-half of play.
On the first grab, Carr was admittedly beaten on the route, wide receiver Robert Meachem getting behind the defense. But an underthrown ball by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers allowed Carr to gain ground and time his jump perfectly to bring down the pick.
The second interception was nothing short of a circus catch. Literally. Carr tipped a pass, then tipped it again, and again, and again, finally completing his juggling act with another prized turnover.
Being able to go and get the ball is why Dallas opened the checkbook for the free agent Carr back in March. He and rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, who was making his NFL debut, have all the makings of a dramatically upgraded secondary for the Cowboys this season.
"The first unit did pretty good," said Carr. "We shut them out once again. It was good to go against Philip Rivers one more time and get the two picks off him this time. But the guys were just flying around trying to make plays on the ball."
Meanwhile on the other side of the line, the first-team offense showed improvement from its near dysfunctional effort against the Raiders in the preseason opener. Quarterback Tony Romo, who finished the game with 75 yards on 9-of-13 passing, had a clean pocket for most of the two series in which he was in the game, although his own deft moves helped his own cause.
Romo was able to get his side into field goal range midway through the first quarter, Dan Bailey seemingly in midseason form with a 40-yard field goal to give Dallas a 3-0 lead.
"Yeah, I thought some of the young guys stepped up and played pretty good tonight," said Romo. "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."
DeMarco Murray, back from an ankle injury that cut short his 2011 campaign, also looked solid in his one possession of work, catching two passes for 18 yards. He also had two runs that went for just seven yards, but made something out of nothing in both instances.
The point being, Romo and Murray can make even an average line look good.
But the preseason is also about earning roster spots, and one in particular stepped up and made solid a solid case for himself – Kevin Ogletree.
One of the biggest question marks still to be determined is who will be the Cowboys' third receiver. And although Ogltree is the veteran of the contending bunch, he has been perhaps the most overlooked. Not any more. He had a solid night, finishing with 60 yards on four receptions, including a tough 35-yard catch down the middle that saw him get hit by two defenders but still hang onto the ball.
There is, of course, still much to be determined in the wideout ranks. After all, rookie Cole Beasley led all receivers with 104 yards on seven catches and Dwayne Harris picked up 42 yards on four receptions of his own. But Ogletree made it known tonight that he's the lead horse in the race for the third position … for now.
Beasley and Harris did most of their damage in the second half, when little else went particularly well for the team. Rob Ryan saw his defense's shutout streak come to an end soon after the third quarter got underway. They hadn't given up a point and had surrendered only 376 yards of total offense through six quarters of play, but with the regulars calling it a night, the second unit allowed the Chargers to come out of the break and march 80 yards on 10 plays for a score, the lead narrowed to 10-7.
Dallas got on the board late in that same frame thanks to a fumble recovery from linebacker Orie Lemon, who gave the Cowboys field position at the San Diego 35. The offense was unable to pick up a first down, but Bailey came out again, this time for a 49-yarder, and put three more points on the board.
And then the wheels fell off for the Cowboys, as San Diego put up 21 points in the fourth quarter to run away with the game. Two of those touchdowns came after Stephen McGee turnovers, one a tipped interception and the other a fumble after the quarterback took a big hit from behind.
With Rudy Carpenter taking the helm, Dallas did manage to get in the end zone with 53 seconds left on the clock, Harris catching a pass from 15 yards out to wrap up the scoring, 28-20.
Watch Video: Dwayne Harris 15-yard touchdown in traffic >> Dallas will now stay in San Diego for two days of workouts with the Chargers before returning home for the annual Silver & Blue Debut, a practice open to the public that will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.