IRVING (AP) — The more Wade Phillips sees from the Dallas Cowboys, the more he has to like.
The Cowboys’ starters have soundly outplayed their foes’ first-teamers in both preseason games. While that’s not really a big deal this time of year, the way they’ve improved from week to week is worth noting.
In a 31-20 victory over the Denver Broncos on Saturday night, the Cowboys showed progress in two key areas: upping the pressure by the defensive front and completing passes thrown downfield. As a result, Dallas scored touchdowns instead of field goals when breaking the 20-yard line on offense, and gave up field goals instead of touchdowns when opponents got inside the Cowboys’ 20.
Neither of which guarantees success in the regular season. But it sure beats the alternative, especially with all the things that could go wrong with a new coaching staff taking over a playoff team and reshaping things on both sides of the ball.
“Here is the bottom line," quarterback Tony Romo said, "if you can't do it in the preseason, it's probably hard to do it in the regular season. If you can do it in the preseason, you give yourself a better chance."
Romo was 10-of-11 in the opener against Indianapolis, but the majority of completions were short routes, a byproduct of playing without both starting tackles. With the big guys back, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett let plays develop longer and Romo made the most of it, completing passes of 30, 28 and 20 yards.
More encouraging for Dallas is that those catches were by Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd, not Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn or Jason Witten _ the guys who will get plenty of chances to make plays once the games start to count. Owens and Witten played only two series and Glenn has been out all preseason with a knee problem.
Although Romo was 11-of-18 against Denver, he made few bad passes and hardly any bad decisions. Receiver Miles Austin was partly to blame on Romo's only interception and the only sack Romo took came because he tripped over the foot of guard Kyle Kosier. The Cowboys converted six of their first seven third-downs and got points on four of seven first-half drives. Better yet, three of the scores were touchdowns. The exception was a 52-yard field goal by rookie Nick Folk. Martin Gramatica went wide right on a 51-yarder that had plenty of distance.
Marion Barber III was back to the bulldozing style that worked so well last year, scoring on runs of 1 and 5 yards, and Julius Jones had the other, a 4-yarder. Another bonus from the running game was seeing T.O. take an end around for 9 yards. That should keep him happy and should make defenses wary knowing the play is back in Dallas' arsenal.
"I think it's definitely obvious the talent we have on this team," Owens said. "We're moving the ball very well. It lets you know we have guys capable of making plays. The depth and the talent on this team is endless."
The defense was ordinary but effective enough against the Colts. Against the Broncos, they came out snarling, perhaps fired up by having banged against Denver in four practices earlier in the week.
Using some blitzes and packages Denver hadn't seen, the Cowboys had no trouble getting to quarterback Jay Cutler. They also kept Travis Henry from finding room to run.
The Broncos only managed two field goals. Both came on drives that started in Dallas territory following turnovers. The Cowboys' starters also came away with a fumble that set up a touchdown and a sack.
"Once it gets going for real, we're going to crank it up another level," safety Ken Hamlin said. "We're definitely hiding some things, but we'll use them real soon once the season starts."
The Cowboys play next on Saturday against Houston. That game is likely to be their dress rehearsal for the regular season, unless Phillips decides he's already seen enough from his starters and doesn't push them more than he did against Denver, when they went two quarters.
After all, he might not want to mess with a good thing.
"It's early in the preseason," Phillips said, "but as a team we played well overall."