For defense, a little progress

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense was better Saturday night.

It might sound funny when it allowed 23 of the 37 points in Saturday's 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but considering the performance in the first week of the preseason against the San Diego Chargers, there was progress.

Considering the performance in 2013, there was progress.

The Cowboys gave up 331 yards, which was a 64-yard improvement over the Chargers' loss. They had only five games in which they allowed fewer yards last season.

The Ravens converted only three of 12 third-down opportunities. The Chargers converted 50 percent. The Cowboys had only two games last year with a better percentage in which they got off the field on third down.

"Obviously that's the key to playing good defense -- be good on first and second down and somehow, some way get off the field on third down," Garrett said. "And they did that against a pretty good offense."

Playing with a mixed-and-matched group because of injuries and coaches' decision,s it is hard to determine what was the first group and what was the second, and the score was 14-7 before the Saturday's starting defense played a snap.

The starters forced a punt on the first drive against Joe Flacco & Co., with pass deflections by Nick Hayden and Bruce Carter. Safety J.J. Wilcox broke up a Flacco-to-Steve Smith pass on third down on the next drive to force a Baltimore field goal. The third drive, when the mixing and matching really kicked in, ended when undrafted rookie Tyler Patmon broke up a third-down pass to Smith on the sideline to force a three-and-out.

"We got called soft a couple times and I'm not a very friendly person on being called soft, so I took that personally and I took it to my defense and told them, 'Hey we get called soft, and we don't play that way. We don't practice that way. We don't walk around that way. We don't even study that way," Wilcox said. "We took ... I took it very offensive. We still lost the game, but I think we took strides in the right direction."

It was better, but it also marked the second straight game they allowed more than 150 yards rushing. There was a lull in the second and third quarters in which the Ravens scored on three straight drives of 96, 37 and 67 yards.

It wasn't until the Ravens inexplicably -- well, it is the preseason so maybe there is some ability to explain -- went for a 61-yard field goal attempt by Justin Tucker that the defense, filled entirely with reserves to the reserves, stood up.

"I wondered if we had eaten some of that San Diego fish or something when we came out for the third quarter, if we'd gotten some of that," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "It just didn't look like we wanted anything."

The Cowboys figure to have cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne (shoulder) and Sterling Moore (groin) next week against the Miami Dolphins. Defensive tackle Henry Melton (groin) could also make his preseason debut.

The pieces might not fit entirely just yet, but they were closer Saturday. And that's progress.

"It's definitely hard to see what we have as a whole defense as a starting group," safety Barry Church said, "but it was a great opportunity to see what these young guys can do and see what they do when they get out there and times a crunching ... As a whole, I think we did all right."