Why the Cowboys are a complete mystery heading into season

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown (85) celebrates as defensive end Damontre Moore, right, lifts safety Robert Blanton (36) after a defensive stop against the Oakland Raiders late in the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

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Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown (85) celebrates as defensive end Damontre Moore, right, lifts safety Robert Blanton (36) after a defensive stop against the Oakland Raiders late in the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

You could say the Cowboys' defense had two jobs to accomplish Saturday night against the Oakland Raiders and failed them both. That's what makes the fast-approaching 2017 season — despite an offseason almost solely dedicated to upgrading the defense — a complete mystery.

While playing a five-game exhibition schedule, one that's too long by at least three games in most sound minds, the Cowboys were given just one opportunity to face a top-flight quarterback or anything close to it. In fact, the only starter they played (or will play) other than in Saturday's game was the Rams' Jared Goff, who has been the antithesis of elite despite being selected 134 picks ahead of Dak Prescott a year ago.

The fact that the Raiders would play the league's highest-salaried quarterback, Derek Carr, for a full half in the "dress rehearsal" game offered an opportunity to gauge how the club has rebuilt the defense after losing Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford in free agency.

But with too many minor injuries to the young secondary replacements, the Cowboys' patchwork defense permitted Carr to compile a 140.3 passer rating while going 13 for 17 for 144 yards and two touchdowns in two quarters. The second touchdown was particularly alarming as a simple fake by Carr allowed Amari Cooper to split the coverage of Anthony Brown and Byron Jones — those aren't replacements, those are opening day starters — for a 48-yard score.

And the defense continued a streak that it will gladly end one way or another Thursday when the preseason reaches its conclusion. Opponents have thrown 133 passes without the Cowboys collecting an interception. If this is a team that's going to improve on takeaways, it's saving them up for September.

Of course, second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie has barely played in the preseason and third-round pick Jourdan Lewis has barely been seen at all, participating in one practice. So any plans to replace Carr and Claiborne through the draft have been stashed on hold.

On top of that, the Cowboys were looking to get their starters through this expanded preseason without a major injury. They have enough hamstring tweaks already. But when the good news is that linebacker Anthony Hitchens will miss just eight weeks rather than the entire season as feared — he suffered a fracture in the knee rather than a torn ACL — that's not exactly news that one celebrates.

While Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith are the beloved figures at linebacker, based on one's play and the other's comeback and potential, Hitchens is an important, solid player for this team. He started every game a year ago, and some thought he was as good as any defender in Oxnard. With the ability to play all three positions, Hitchens did exactly that as a rookie, starting a variety of games in place of Rolando McClain, Justin Durant and Bruce Carter.

Now Hitchens is the one who's out, and the Cowboys need Durant, a late signing, to get up to speed to join Lee, Smith and Damien Wilson in the linebacking mix against the Giants Sept. 10.

Toss into the mix the fact that the season will begin without David Irving and Damontre Moore up front, and this figures to be a limited and somewhat inexperienced defense that takes the field against the team viewed as its chief competition in the NFC East.

Now some would argue that there is nothing new here, that the offense carried the Cowboys to a 13-3 record in 2016 and that all hands are on deck, with the notable exception of running back Ezekiel Elliott. His fate remains undetermined although the appeal certainly won't eliminate his suspension altogether and the chances of an injunction getting him onto the field to face the Giants seem remote.

Regardless, the Cowboys' offense will be explosive with or without Elliott, and will need to step it up a notch or three upon his return. But the idea that the defense played little or no role a year ago is flawed. This was a tough team to score against (fifth in the NFL), and if Carr and Claiborne fell short of Pro Bowl quality, they were certainly competent.

So if you think the status of a slightly hobbled Odell Beckham Jr. is a minor mystery for Sept. 10, consider the defense he will face to be a complete unknown.

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