Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dallas Cowboys' defense messy, but it can be cleaned up

SAN DIEGO – On the surface, it looked like a mess. In a few ways – some more meaningful than others – it was a mess.

Five minutes into the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday night, the San Diego Chargers had the Cowboys on the wrong end of a 17-7 score. That's never good.

In preseason games, you want to be leading after one period or early in the second quarter, when the starters and even a few of the top backup players have exhausted their night's work.

So by that measure – or by the final count of Chargers 31, Cowboys 17 – this was a failure for a Dallas defense that thinks it has a chance to be elite.

There's nothing to crow about when you give up 17 points in 20 minutes on a night in which the Chargers – every bit the Super Bowl contender the Cowboys are – don't use running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and three other offensive starters.

But while we can't anoint the Cowboys defense this morning, there's no cause to bury it, either.

Hidden inside a not-so-impressive body of work, the defense got big plays from three players who either weren't here a year ago or stand to be significantly more productive in 2008.

Tank Johnson in the line. Zach Thomas as an inside linebacker. Rookie first-rounder Mike Jenkins in the secondary.

These are players head coach Wade Phillips wants to be difference-makers in '08. At the very least, he wants them to be key contributors.

In their limited playing time in the exhibition opener, they were.

Before the game's second play from scrimmage, the Cowboys substituted Johnson in the line for Jenkins at corner. Against a two-tight end set, the Cowboys used four down linemen, four linebackers and just three defensive backs.

Quarterback Philip Rivers dropped back to pass, but he never had a chance. Johnson poured through the left side of the Chargers' line and dumped him for a sack and 6-yard loss.

We didn't see that Johnson in 2007. We didn't see the Johnson who helped build Chicago's defense into a Super Bowl unit, even while nearly destroying his career with off-the-field problems.

The Johnson the Cowboys got last year was someone just trying to clean up his act and stay out of trouble.

The Johnson they hope to have this season and who we saw ever so briefly Saturday night was a dynamic player who just might be the fastest and strongest player in the Dallas line.

Probably is.

The Chargers lost four yards on their first possession before punting. Big passing grade for the Cowboys defense there.

On the next possession, San Diego moved for one first down before being faced with a third-and-5 at its 46. The Cowboys went with a six-man rush.

Rivers saw it and aimed for his go-to receiver, former Dolphin Chris Chambers, who had Jenkins in single coverage.

The rookie from South Florida made a perfect break on the ball, breaking up a pass that would have moved the chains for another first down.

Jenkins is starting because Terence Newman is sidelined, and Adam "Pacman" Jones is a work in progress after missing all of last season. By midseason, Jenkins might be the team's third- or fourth-best corner.

He would have kept the starting unit out of trouble Saturday night had rookie Danny Amendola not fumbled the punt on the next play.

That gave the Chargers new life. But on first down, Darren Sproles was dropped for a 3-yard loss by Thomas.

The guy who had been the heart of the Dolphins defense for a decade has a chance to really stabilize the Cowboys at inside linebacker. In other words, he can be what Dat Nguyen, who tried to copy and now helps coach Thomas, used to be to the Dallas defense.

On the next play, Ken Hamlin took a needless interference penalty, and it went south after that, although most of the mistakes came from second-teamers and beyond.

A lot of points went up on the Chargers side of the scoreboard Saturday night – 24 in the first half alone. That's not a good thing for Dallas, but it wasn't anything close to the end of the world, either.

"We have a while before we will have everything going the way we want it to," linebacker Greg Ellis said. "But it's the preseason."