Ryan's defense finally showing what it can do
ARLINGTON, Texas — It's just the preseason, but for three straight games the Dallas Cowboys' starting defense has looked as good as coordinator Rob Ryan's trademark boasts.
The first-team defense did not allow a touchdown in Saturday's 20-19 win over the St. Louis Rams. They did give up points – two field goals – for the first time in the preseason, but held the Rams to a mere 114 yards in the first half.
Again, it's just the preseason. And it was against the Rams. But it's become clear that a Cowboys defense that was picked apart at times last season has benefited from having a full offseason under Ryan.
"Oh it's a lot better, especially versus last year when we had the lockout," defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. "We didn't have a whole lot of time to get in there and learn the scheme. But I feel like we're a step ahead of where we were last year."
The Dallas defense was without its best player, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who sat out his second game with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Mike Jenkins is still out with a bad shoulder.
The defense did see the return of Hatcher (hamstring), outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (hamstring) and tackle Jay Ratliff (foot). All three missed the first two preseason games.
Hatcher made his presence known early with a sack on the Rams' first possession. Inside linebacker Sean Lee came up with another sack at the start of the second quarter.
Both sacks came on third downs, a good sign. An even better sign is that someone besides Ware was getting pressure on the quarterback for once.
"It just shows we have different guys trying to get pressure, and it also shows Coach Ryan's pressure is really showing through," Lee said. "The guy can dial up the pressure, and we've learned a lot from him."
Upgrades in the secondary – most notably the signing of high-priced free agent cornerback Brandon Carr – have so far had the intended effect of allowing time for the rush to get to quarterbacks.
"It felt totally different from last year," Hatcher said. "(Last year) you would get to the quarterback and see him getting ready to throw it, versus tonight you could see him setting and panicking," Hatcher said. "It was a very, very unique deal. Those guys back there are doing a great job and I hope they keep it up."
The Rams scored twice in the first half against the Cowboys' first-teamers, but both times the defense responded after being put in a tough spot.
In the first quarter, a 47-yard kickoff return set the Rams up at their 40. After a 26-yard completion on first down, the Rams went nowhere.
Greg Zuerlien boomed a 55-yard field goal to break the first-team defense's shutout streak with 4:06 left in the quarter.
In the second quarter, backup quarterback Kyle Orton was sacked and fumbled, giving the Rams the ball at the Cowboys' 38. The Rams managed just four yards and settled for another long field goal from Zuerlein, this time from 52 yards.
"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," Carr said. "Hopefully that carries over to Sept. 5 (at the Giants) when it's time to play for regular-season wins and losses."
First-round draft pick Morris Claiborne made his first impact play of the preseason near the end of the half. With the Rams facing a fourth-and-goal, Claiborne tipped away a Sam Bradford pass.
Another positive sign: the defense had just one penalty in the first half, an offsides call on reserve linebacker Baraka Atkins. The only bad news: safeties Danny McCray (neck sprain), nose tackle Jay Ratliff (ankle) and Matt Johnson (hamstring) left the game with injuries.
But there were no other obvious miscues or blown assignments.
"I am impressed that the mistakes have been minimized," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I like what we're doing and certainly it was good to see guys like Spencer and Ratliff and Hatcher in there."
Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire