Big D in Big D: Cowboys' defense comes up big against Broncos
IRVING, Texas - Over four practices with the Denver Broncos this week, the Dallas Cowboys either held back on defense or figured something out.
Because they sure had no problem getting into the backfield Saturday night.
The attacking, pressure-seeking front being implemented by new Dallas coach Wade Phillips throttled Denver's starting offense for two quarters, paving the way for the Cowboys to beat the Broncos 31-20 in a preseason game Saturday night.
"To stop these guys, whether it's the preseason or the regular season, feels pretty good," said defensive end Marcus Spears, who recovered a fumble and forced a holding call. "We got a chance to make some plays."
Tony Romo had another strong outing guiding the Cowboys offense, putting his club up 24-6 at halftime before calling it a night. Marion Barber III ran for two touchdowns and Julius Jones had one.
When starters were going head-to-head, Dallas (2-0) flustered Denver quarterback Jay Cutler into going 7-of-13 for only 58 yards. He failed to convert all five third-down chances, leaving the Broncos (1-1) to settle for two short field goals after drives that started in Cowboys' territory following turnovers.
Even Cutler's longest completion, a 21-yarder, was a fluke. Rookie linebacker Anthony Spencer, a defensive end in college, tipped it up and right to tight end Daniel Graham instead of swatting it down.
"We just have to learn from this experience and get back to work," Cutler said. "We're going to look at some of the pressure they brought us and see where we can beat it, and see what we can do protection-wise to stop them."
Running back Travis Henry also had little success, gaining 25 yards on 10 carries and losing a fumble on the Broncos 7. He also lost a yard on second-and-5 from the Dallas 18, getting caught from behind by safety Roy Williams. Then Henry went out with a sprained left knee. Backup Mike Bell strained his left hip.
The Broncos suffered a more serious blow with starting defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban likely tearing his right Achilles' tendon. The injury probably wipes out his season.
"It's a shame to lose Ebenezer for the year," coach Mike Shanahan said. "He's been a real leader for us."
These teams practiced against each other twice Wednesday and twice more Thursday. All that work might've taken a toll on Denver, which was coming off a game Monday night in San Francisco.
"There's no excuse for the way we played," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "If it was the last preseason game I'd be a little more concerned. We have time to make it up. We expect ourselves to get better. It can't get any worse than it did tonight."
Dallas had Cutler dancing from the start. He was sacked to end Denver's first drive in three plays, then had a pass deflected at the start of the second drive. The Broncos were caught holding on the next snap, then Henry fumbled. The Cowboys' second touchdown soon followed.
"Dallas put a lot of pressure on us early. They showed more blitzes then we saw during the week," Shanahan said.
The only points Cowboys starters allowed came on drives that started at the Dallas 37 and 28. Considering the field position, Phillips had to be pleased his guys held Denver to field goals of 33 and 20 yards.
"No matter where the other team gets the ball, you have to stop them," Phillips said. "I thought our defense showed some good signs."
The first of those drives was snuffed by Williams' terrific play on Henry. The second reached the Dallas 3 on the wacky completion to Graham, but fizzled with two stuffed runs and a goofy third-down play in which Cutler tried to run, saw Spencer rapidly approaching and threw to a tackle eligible in the back of the end zone. Chad Mustard made a clumsy attempt at catching it.
Romo was 11-of-18 for 122 yards with an interception. His numbers would've been better had backup Miles Austin not botched several passes and made a poor attempt at preventing the pickoff by Dre Bly.
Still, Dallas converted six of its first seven third-down chances and scored on four of Romo's seven drives, with Martin Gramatica missing a 51-yard field goal on another. The capper was a 52-yard field goal by rookie Nick Folk with 25 seconds left in the second quarter.
"We had a lot of total yardage," Phillips said. "It starts with the quarterback."
The anticipated showdown between Terrell Owens and Bailey produced only one play worth noticing: a 12-yard comebacker on the opening drive. Owens played just two series and didn't have another ball thrown his way -- but he did run 9 yards on an end around, something Bill Parcells never let him try last season.
Barber ran 11 times for 57 yards, often needing three defenders to bring him down. Jones gained 31 yards on eight carries. Third-stringer Tyson Thompson had 75 yards on 16 carries.
Phillips likely was most pleased that his starters didn't have a penalty. Dallas' first flag was a bit unusual: delay of game on the opening kickoff of the third quarter.
In the second half, Denver's Patrick Ramsey threw a 90-yard touchdown pass to Brian Clark and a 5-yarder to Quincy Morgan, and Dallas' Brad Johnson threw a 15-yarder to rookie Isaiah Stanback, a college quarterback being converted to receiver.
Dallas cornerback Terence Newman didn't play because of a bruised heel. The Cowboys lost tight end Anthony Fasano to a sprained right shoulder.