Dallas Cowboys defense exposed in 27-7 loss to Chargers

New season, same problems.

It was first game of the preseason and the Dallas Cowboys’ injured reserve list currently reads longer than War and Peace, but it has to be somewhat disconcerting for Jason Garrett and Rod Marinelli to see the same problems that plagued the Dallas defense last season already cropping up.

A trio of San Diego Chargers quarterbacks — Philip Rivers, Kellen Clemens and Brad Sorensen — carried a perfect game into the fourth quarter, making a legitimate play to embarrass not only the Cowboys, but their city’s own baseball team, the San Diego Padres, the lone MLB franchise yet to throw a no-hitter or perfect game.

Sorensen’s first pass of the fourth quarter became the first to land in the grass, ending over 45 minutes of San Diego infallibility. Or, 45 minutes of utter Dallas incompetence, depending on what side of the fence you find yourself on. Sorensen would release just one more ill-fated pass, leaving San Diego quarterbacks 14-of-16 on the day for a total of 243 yards and one touchdown on a ludicrous 15.2 yards per attempt.

The Dallas secondary is notably banged up; Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore and Tyler Patmon have an assortment of injuries and Brandon Carr is on a leave of absence following the death of his mother. That left a slew of NFL neophytes and borderline professional caliber players to step into the largely unremarkable shoes of those unable to play.

Rookie cornerback Terrance Mitchell’s pro debut was decidedly uninspiring, despite a “right place at the right time” fumble recovery in the end zone caused by Justin Durant jarring the ball loose from Ryan Mathew’s consistently slippery hands on the Dallas goal line. Mitchell finished the game with five tackles, a fumble recovery and two holding penalties, with one coming in the Dallas end zone (Note: A third holding penalty on Mitchell was offset by offensive pass interference.). Mitchell also hitched a free ride on the broad shoulders of Branden Oliver, being carried like a diminutive child on his father’s back, as the Charger running back plowed across the Dallas goal line in the second quarter.

Rookie strong safety Ahmad Dixon had uneven game. He finished the game with a game-high 12 tackles, most of which left a lasting impression on the victim. Dixon took an excellent line on a safety blitz early in the second half, converging upon running back Marion Grice like a falcon swooping in on its suddenly startled prey, wrapping him up for a loss of four. However, Dixon found himself the culprit of another Dallas holding penalty in the end zone, while another hold on the newcomer was declined after an 18-yard completion in his zone.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom at Qualcomm Stadium, though.

Fourth round pick Anthony Hitchens finished the game with eight tackles, making several key stops showcasing the physicality Big Ten football embodies. The former Hawkeye hit the open gap and engaged Grice head on at the Dallas one-yard line, driving his target back for a loss of two and preventing a Charger touchdown right before the half. Hitchens was active in the passing game, but it’s obvious there’s still a steep learning curve for the 22-year-old concerning the finer points of NFL coverage.

After tonight, it’s clear why undrafted free agent Davon Coleman has been among the biggest risers at camp over the past several weeks. Despite a night consisting of an inability to get to the quarterback and several cavernous holes that most of those in the stands could have broken through, Coleman played the game with an energetic, carnal intensity.

The former Arizona State Sun Devil came into camp with something to prove, and he left tonight’s game having done just that. One play that serves as a capsule for all that the defensive tackle can do occurred late in the game: Coleman made a quick move outside, executed an abrupt spin inside and promptly introduced himself to Sorensen. Unfortunately, the play was offset by another defensive holding penalty, but it was enough to rile up Cowboy legend Nate Newton on the sideline.

Offensively, Weeden carried himself well enough. He actually displayed a nice bit of mobility in the pocket, scrambling for a gain of ten on one play and escaping from an onslaught of Chargers on another, rolling near the right sideline and, with a bit of English on it, zipped a touchdown pass to James Hanna in the back of the end zone through a jigsaw of defenders. Weeden went the entire first half, completing 13-of-17 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.

The offense wasn’t in full force, but several skill players provided fleeting flashes of brilliance throughout the night. Joseph Randle‘s was propelled by an abundant flow of new season testosterone to six carries for 29 yards on the opening drive, gaining two first downs on an effective opening possession that stalled late.

Ryan Williams proved his worth as a versatile change-of-pace back, gaining 31 yards on five receptions, including a 17-yard backfield scamper on a Weeden play-action. However, Williams was also exposed as a poor blocker, getting bull rushed by Thomas Keiser en route to a blind side strip sack of the unsuspecting Caleb Hanie.

Devin Street made the most of his looks, hauling in all four of the passes thrown his way en route to a 43-yard day. Street’s speed was apparent all night, as he routinely gained separation from his man without abandoning his route trees.

Chris Boyd provided glimpses of the athletic prowess coaches have raved about in camp, but finished his day without a reception to his name (on three targets), notably dropping a jump ball that, despite the challenging nature of the catch, should have been hauled in.

It was a sloppy, troubling Thursday night game in San Diego for the Cowboys, who yet again laid down for the Chargers. The defensive injuries are concerning, but perhaps not as much as what the current backup situation looks like. The line was brutally beaten all night, left exposed by several long gains that were made to look far too easy.

After one preseason game, it’s far too early to hit the panic button just yet, even in the era of “hot sports takes.” With Romo, Carr and many of the other starters likely to be in action for Week Two of the preseason, Garrett and Marinelli, and all of Cowboys nation, will be looking for a more confident showing against the Ravens.