SANTA CLARA, Calif. - One thing about the men who run the Dallas Cowboys defense: Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard can coach with the best of 'em ... and they can quote with the best of 'em.
Before Saturday's preseason opener against the Niners here in San Jose, Richard uncorked a doozy, talking about the difference between training camp in Oxnard and a live-action game.
"Once we get out here and things get turned up, truly it’s how gold is refined,'' the top defensive assistant said. "We won’t know what we have until we get out here, until we get out into the preseason games. The fire gets turned up, and we start to burn off all the impurities.”
So ... we got out here. We've got a preseason game to evaluate, Niners 17, Cowboys 9. How hot was the fire? How burned off are the impurities? How refined is the gold?
Let's do this defensive position group-by-position group:
DEFENSIVE LINE: With so many defensive ends missing, Dorance Armstrong and Taco Charlton got the first-team duties. Taco got caught in some traffic vs. bootleg stuff but got a QB pressure. ... and coordinator Marinelli, in my walk with him to the bus, said good things about Taco's work and hustle. Jalen Jelks, Dallas’ seventh round pick out of Oregon, recorded the first sack of the game and fellow late-round rookie Joe Jackson offered pressure and impressive moments late.
Meanwhile, Daniel Ross joined starter Antwuan Woods inside. ... and we'll call the night as a whole a "work in progress.''
LINEBACKERS: I was told before the game that Jaylon Smith and most of his defensive buddies would "play about eight snaps.'' But Smith and Leighton Vander Esch did their thing for maybe a little longer into the night, Jaylon a couple of times in penetration. But they were also joined by Joe Thomas, who has been a hitting machine in camp. And then, to start the second quarter, UDFA rookie Luke Gifford again popped up on the radar with an interception.
Oh, and Gifford did so after dealing with another sort of "pop,'' as a few days ago he sustained a nasty finger dislocation but kept on rollin.' ... until Saturday, when he sustained yet another ding, an ankle injury that kept him from returning.
The top three linebackers in Dallas (including Lee) think their entire room features guys capable of being NFL starters. Against the Niners, the early consensus should be: They're not wrong.
SECONDARY: This is where Dallas lined up most closely to normalcy, with starting corner Byron Jones still on PUP. Chido Awuzie and Anthony Brown were the first-team corners and Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath manned the secondary to open the game. And this group almost came up big on their very first play, when a Niners pass completion to Richie James Jr. was fumbled and scooped-and-returned by Brown.
The refs changed the call, but for a secondary that needs to upgrade its ballhawking, it still "counts'' to them. So does Chido's pass defensed. So does the cornerbacks group's collective will to tackle. ... oh, and the depth. In the end, Jourdan Lewis is this club's fourth corner - and he showed again he can play.
Dallas did give up a pair of second-half TDs, but I guess we can put some of that blame on DBs who aren't quite ready for prime time.
So with so many standouts (Byron, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Smith, Robert Quinn, Sean Lee) missing, how did the defensive leaders summarize their "gold-standard'' night?
“We have spent the past two-plus weeks going against our offense, and it felt good to come out here and hit someone else for once – an opponent,'' Jaylon Smith said. "We did some good things, and some bad things, but we will be fine.”
Fine -- and refined.