THE NEXT MAN UP: Jason Garrett’s 2013-2014 Dallas Cowboys find a way to win, even without centerpiece Sean Lee on the field
The Dallas Cowboys are 2-0 without Sean Lee in the middle of the defense, but it’s not like his influence has not been felt.
DeMarcus Ware said Lee remains a big presence everywhere except the field, continuing to work with his replacement, Ernie Sims, like a coach.
“When you have guys like Lee still in there, in the meeting rooms, still teaching Ernie what to do – everybody in this league is athletic – but if you can instill what you do mentally first, especially like Sean Lee, he’s showing them so many things and what to key on, and they’ve gotten better,” Ware said after the Thanksgiving Day victory against Oakland. “He’s still there, but just in another person’s body, of Ernie’s or whatever.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Lee has been missed, but there have been benefits.
“It caused us to do some moving around a little bit,” he said. “It’s probably caused us to see Wilber, who was steady against the Giants and again tonight. That may be a blessing for us.”
Lee said the defense has played “fantastic” without him.
“I think it shows you have a lot of guys who have worked hard, who have stepped up – guys like Kyle Wilber and Ernie Sims, who put in a ton of work,” he said. “And you have to give them a ton of credit, because they’ve been a huge reason why we’ve been able to win these two football games.”
Sean Lee said he is on track to play in the next game, Dec. 9 at Chicago.
BOYS BYE-WEEK BUZZ: Sean Lee’s absence leads to Texas-2 linebacker shuffle | Sims Carter Holloman
IRVING, Texas – The defensive injuries have become crippling enough that a rookie who still hasn’t taken contact in four weeks since his neck injury is now lining up in drills as a starting linebacker.
DeVonte Holloman, who’s never started a regular season game at linebacker, ran with the first-team unit during Wednesday’s no-pads practice, while Ernie Sims manned the middle linebacker spot and Bruce Carter stuck at weak side linebacker.
“We don’t know that for sure, but that’s what we’re looking at right now,” said defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. “That’s what I say about the bye week, we don’t have to be ready Sunday. We’ve got some time.”
The Cowboys will need all that time to see how Sims, who says he hasn’t played middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense since his third year in Detroit in 2008, and Holloman can adjust. Holloman still isn’t sure if he’ll be ready to play against the New York Giants after what he described as a C3 and C4 spinal contusion, which occurred a month ago in practice.
He said the trainers and coaches are taking it slow with him and waiting until the team gets back in pads to take a couple hits and see how he holds up.
“I still haven’t hit anything, so can’t really say that yet,” Holloman said. “But it felt good to be out there running around with the team again.”
Holloman’s been a special teams contributor this season, totaling four tackles and a fumble recovery, but moving to starting linebacker would be a colossal jump for the rookie. Head coach Jason Garrett said he liked what Holloman was able to do before the injury and that Holloman made “a very favorable impression” early in camp.
One of the main goals for Holloman now is to get back in shape and work out as hard as possible during the bye week so he can physically be ready to go if he’s medically cleared. He’s working in primarily at the strong side linebacker spot, but he’s also played middle linebacker before.
“I’m just waiting on my chance,” Holloman said. “Seeing how things played out last week, it looks like it’s coming up. I’m just trying to be as prepared as possible.”
Of course, all these possibilities have arisen because of injuries to Sean Lee and Justin Durant, who are both expected out at least for the Giants game with hamstring injuries. Garrett said the Dallas Cowboys have to explore every possibility with their current roster to see how to adjust, including looking at defensive end Kyle Wilber at linebacker.
The Cowboys had moved Wilber from outside linebacker to the defensive line to start the year, but this is the time to experiment with the bye week.
“That’s not really a permanent move right now,” Kiffin said. “We don’t know. We’re banged up right now at linebacker and we’re short some guys. Some of the guys are going to be out for a while.”
Regardless of what happens around him, it does seem like Sims will be given the first opportunity to take hold of the middle linebacker spot. He said he’s excited for the opportunity ahead of him, but it’s disappointing for him to see Lee, the leader of the defense, go down the way he did.
“Guys just got to step up to the plate,” Sims said. “It’s not going to come easy.”
It took a while last week against New Orleans for Sims to even realize Durant had joined Lee on the injured hamstring list and off on the sideline.
“Last game it kind of happened on the run,” Sims said. “Durant was in there at Mike. Literally, we were in the middle of a drive, and me and Bruce didn’t see Durant in the game. It was just kind of second nature to me to just kind of take the initiative to put myself at Mike.”
Though Carter had played the middle linebacker spot last year after Lee went down, Kiffin said right now they’d like to keep Carter at his current spot.
That means Sims will lean on Lee to teach him the intricacies of the middle linebacker position in this particular 4-3 defense. It’s not all that different from the situation Sims found himself in last year, when the Cowboys signed him and he had to learn the 3-4 defense for the first time when Lee went out.
“This type of stuff happens all the time,” Sims said. “Me and the other guys are going to have to step up to the plate. I’m going to have to really get some extra time with the coaches.
“I haven’t played Mike linebacker in this scheme in a long time. Schemes have changed drastically. At the end of the day, I’m a football player, I’m a competitor, and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to study the details of Sean’s position and try to help this team out to win ballgames.”
RELATED – WEDNESDAY PRACTICE UPDATE: DeVonte Holloman returns
IRVING, Texas – With Sean Lee sitting out for a few weeks, the Dallas Cowboys showed a new look for their depleted linebacker corps at todays bye week practice.
Ernie Sims took Lee’s place in the middle of the unit, while Bruce Carter remained outside (weak side linebacker). In a surprise move, rookie DeVonte Holloman, who has been injured since the Cowboys’ Oct. 13 win against Washington, returned as a starter at outside linebacker (strong side).
The trio of Carter, Sims and Holloman got all of the first-team reps during the portion of practice that was open to the media.
Holloman wasn’t the only injured player to return to practice during the Dallas Cowboys’ bye week. Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher both participated in the practice, which was not padded, after missing last week.
Dez Bryant, who missed last Wednesday’s practice with back problems, was also participating with the Cowboys’ offense.
Several remaining injuries still lingered, however, as the team is still struggling to get healthy. Lee’s absence was a given, but DeMarcus Ware, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox also did not participate.
COWBOYS CHIP CHALLENGE: Bruce Carter responds to Dallas’ linebacker rotation
IRVING, Texas – If the coaches’ decision to bench Bruce Carter for part of last week’s game was to motivate the linebacker, then consider the job accomplished.
Carter said he’s not sure if that was the coaches’ intentions one week after a poor performance against the Chargers, but the temporary benching makes him more excited to get back on the field and prove his worth.
“It definitely puts a chip on your shoulder,” Carter said. “You’ve just got to go out there and prove to everybody that you can play at a high level and you’re capable of what you’re able to do. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Carter was one of the standouts on defense last season and even early this year, as he accumulated 24 total tackles and three sacks through the first three weeks of the season. But a rough performance against the Chargers in Week 3 led to the coaches going more with Ernie Sims last week in the nickel package against the Broncos.
Never before in his life had Carter been in a situation like that.
“I’ve never been benched or a backup or none of that,” Carter said. “It’s a learning lesson. I definitely will say that. I can’t take my position for granted or playing for the Cowboys, period.”
Carter said he’s not positive what will happen with the rotation in the nickel this week, although it’s likely he gets more snaps going forward. He had trouble in coverage against the Chargers, as Danny Woodhead got behind him for two scores.
All the linebackers seem to be struggling more in coverage this year in their first season in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense. He said at times the linebackers might be thinking too much instead of playing quickly. At times, stopping to diagnose plays can appear like a lack of effort.
“It’s a lot of stuff you have to cover, and it might not even be right in your face, it might be on the other side of the field,” Carter said. “That’s where, for me, things get complicated, just getting back in your drops, having to look across the field. That’s something we’ve just been working at all week and I think we’re getting better at.”
RAGS TO ROSTER RICHES: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ernie Sims becoming a student of the game
IRVING, Texas – Ernie Sims’ study habits may lead to him earning a starting job at linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.
Sims made an impression while competing for the starting strong side linebacker job in training camp before a groin injury derailed that opportunity. After Bruce Carter’s struggles last week and Justin Durant also suffering a groin injury, it’s likely Sims starts at linebacker this week at one of the outside linebacker spots.
“One thing I do know is that I’m going to be prepared like I don’t know what,” Sims said. “Through all my years of playing back in Detroit and my early years in the NFL, I didn’t prepare. I just relied on my God given ability, but now I’m putting two and two together and it’s really starting to show up.”
Sims was a first-round pick of Rod Marinelli’s in Detroit in 2006. It never panned out the way he would have liked through the first few years of his NFL career. Maybe that’s because he didn’t prepare himself the way he has recently.
The former top-10 pick was somewhat of an afterthought entering training camp, but he put together one of the better defensive performances throughout his time in Oxnard, Calif., earning a spot on the 53-man roster. He may have even earned a starting spot if not for the groin injury, which recurred again at the start of the regular season.
Now healthy, Sims said he’s ready to play. He’s taking the majority of reps at linebacker in the nickel package, and the way Sims sees it, he’s a starter. Sims said right now they have him starting at weak side linebacker, but it’s possible he could take the strong side spot if Durant can’t go.
“I’m staying in for base and for nickel,” Sims said. “On the board, they’ve got me starting, so like I said, you never know what happens, but I know one thing – I’m preparing as if I’m starting and playing the whole game. When my number is called, I’m prepared and ready to go and make plays.”
Sims and Carter have rotated some this week in the nickel package, and it appeared Sims was taking all the reps at nickel early in Friday’s practice. But head coach Jason Garrett didn’t suggest Carter will be completely off the field this week.
“We haven’t really talked about the exact situation with how those guys are going to play, because of the availability of all the guys,” Garrett said. “We’ve been practicing a certain way. Bruce is going to play a lot in the ballgame. Ernie’s going to play a lot in the ballgame. They’re both important parts of our defense.”
Regardless of where he starts, Sims is slotted to play a lot more than the 27 defensive reps he got last week against the Chargers, compiling six tackles in limited time. It’s an opportunity he relishes, considering he was at home driving his tractor to begin the 2012 season.
But he doesn’t feel like he’s made up for lost time yet after sitting out with his groin injury.
“Not one inch,” Sims said. “I’ve still got a lot to prove. I’m just eager to compete. Peyton Manning is great player. I was there in Indianapolis with him for one year. I didn’t get a chance to play with him, but he was on the team or whatnot, and I just got to see small fraction of what type of guy he is and what type of player he is. I’m just excited. It’s a big challenge for me and for this team and as a competitor this type of game you live for.”
He’s fired up about this chance, because he knows the alternative if it doesn’t work out. He’s experienced what it’s like not to have a job or a team to play for when an NFL season begins.
“You dang right, that’s in the back of my mind,” Sims said. “I’ve got a lot to prove, and when I was younger I did it for different reasons. Now it’s all about my family, my wife and my son. That’s all I think about, proving myself and providing for my family. That’s all I think about when I’m on the field.”
2013-2014 ROSTER BATTLE: Many Dallas Cowboy backups struggle in preseason finale
ARLINGTON, Texas – The preseason ended in underwhelming fashion for the Dallas Cowboys’ backups trying to make their final impressions Thursday at AT&T Stadium.
The backups got the work all day against a Texans team that rushed for 190 yards in a 24-6 loss in the fifth and final preseason game for the Dallas Cowboys.
“They did a good job running the football on us,” said head coach Jason Garrett. “It didn’t seem like we were getting lined up very quickly on defense and some of that goes to a lot of young players playing and those guys responsible for making those calls and adjustments. That goes into the evaluation as well.”
The thrashing doesn’t mean a whole lot going forward outside of deciding final roster spots. Tackle Jermey Parnell and linebacker Ernie Sims were the only potential starters to find the field Thursday.
Just three years ago, the Cowboys played the Texans in the fourth preseason game of the year and lost by 16 points in the dress rehearsal. Dallas faced Houston again when it actually mattered in Week 3 of the regular season and won by 14, so the score of Thursday’s lopsided defeated shouldn’t be dwelled upon.
But many of the backups didn’t exactly leave a lasting impression in the game.
The offense managed just 219 total yards to the Texans’ 427. Houston had eight more first downs than Dallas and finished with a 42 percent third-down efficiency to the Cowboys’ meager 21 percent. The special teams didn’t make any drastic mistakes this week and Chris Jones dropped five punts inside the 20-yard line, but the Cowboys also allowed a 29-yard punt return to the Texans.
“You want to play better than we played tonight in all three phases of our football team, but again, a lot of young guys were playing, a lot of different combinations of guys for us and for them,” Garrett said. “You try to evaluate individuals as much as you evaluate the whole group.”
While the game didn’t mean much to the starters who were held out, it did hold significant value for the players on the bubble attempting to make the 53-man roster.
Alex Tanney threw 31 of the Cowboys’ 32 passes, as he got the majority of the work throughout the day but was pressured and battered around constantly, getting sacked seven times. The Cowboys failed to score a touchdown throughout the day, despite getting into Houston territory multiple times.
Tanney finished 17-of-31 with 177 yards and one interception. Garrett and the coaching staff will take into account the barrage of defenders in his face as they assess the quarterback.
“But then you have to assess how he responds to that,” Garrett said. “That’s part of playing this position. It looked like he kept his composure, moved around, kept his eyes up the field, but just couldn’t get into much of a rhythm throughout the football game.”
Some of the players entering Thursday’s game knew beforehand they had a decent chance at cracking the final roster. But they know that doesn’t mean their spot is completely safe.
Cole Beasley, who could hardly put weight on his injured foot a week ago, managed to heal up enough in time to make a final impression, catching two passes for 30 yards and nearly breaking enough tackles on a catch in Texans’ territory to get past the defense. Beasley said he may have had enough pep in his step to break free if he wasn’t injured recently, but the foot felt good enough to play through.
“Hopefully I did enough to make it, and at least I’ll have another opportunity to get better and keep improving and come back and try to get a role somehow,” Beasley said.
The Cowboys now have one day to make decisions on their 53-man roster. As the backups wait to hear their fate, the starters will continue to prepare for the opener against the Giants, which they’ve had their sights set on since training camp.
“It’s what everybody wants to see,” Bryant said. “Both teams are going to come in, and we want to put on a show.”
RELATED: 2013 preseason finale confirms no need for 3 QBs on roster
ARLINGTON, Texas – Honestly, this article was planned out long before the final outcome of the matchup with the Texas Thursday – a night that mercifully ended a five-game preseason schedule.
So it’s not actually news-breaking at this point, considering the Dallas Cowboys barely did anything on offense in this 24-6 loss to Houston.
The Cowboys don’t need three quarterbacks on the roster.
Alex Tanney got all but one series Thursday night – a golden opportunity to showcase his skills. He had the chance to prove he could orchestrate drives, throw the ball on the run and make plays in and out of the pocket.
Plain and simple, Tanney had nearly four quarters to prove he needed to be on this 53-man roster.
At some point, he might be on this team. Right now, the Dallas Cowboys simply can’t afford to keep him. With the offensive line injuries, they need to go longer with guards and centers. They likely need to keep more safeties than normal and keeping a sixth receiver or a fifth tight end is actually more of a debate than keeping a third quarterback.
You know, we’ve seen this before.
Just three years ago, the Cowboys were in this same situation going into this very game – the fifth and final preseason contest against Miami. Heading into the game, it seemed like Stephen McGee was on the outside looking in, in terms of making the 53-man roster. He needed a great game to basically save his roster spot – and he delivered. Not only did he lead the Cowboys to a win, but he threw for 304 yards and a touchdown.
Tanney needed that performance Thursday night. Needless to say it didn’t happen. Was it all his fault? Not at all, considering the second-team offensive line might have been the worst-looking group the Cowboys have thrown out there in several years. But then again, if you’re worried about the first-team line, certainly the second group is going to struggle.
But back to Tanney, who was 17 of 31 for 177 yards and one interception (58.1 QB rating). He was on his back most of the night, getting sacked seven times, although it felt like 22 times with that dreadful final drive in the fourth quarter.
It was 10 years ago when Tony Romo was pretty much in the same situation. Only that year, Romo and Clint Stoerner were battling for the No. 3 spot. Romo fired a 60-yard touchdown to Randal Williams and that was just enough to prove he had potential and was worth keeping. We all know what happened next.
And yes, I might have been the first one to say this early in training camp, but Tanney does remind me of a YOUNG Romo. Not the Romo that has started for this team since 2006. But the young, athletic, live-arm thrower who really doesn’t know everything there is to know but is just out there slinging it. That’s the Romo I remembered 10 years ago and I’ve seen Tanney flash the same type of skills.
Obviously, keeping Romo was the right call. But right now, it’s not something the Cowboys should do.
For every Romo, there’s a Matt Baker, Matt Moore, Jeff Mroz, Nick Stephens, or Dalton Williams. Earlier this week, a reporter asked Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones if the club had learned its lesson by cutting Moore back in 2007. Jones was quick to reply with some honesty, pointing out that Moore not only has been a so-so quarterback on a so-so team, but he wouldn’t have ever played over Tony Romo.
I think Tanney should be one of the 22 cuts the Cowboys make Saturday afternoon to get down to 53 players. Certainly, he’s good enough to bring back to the practice squad. And he’d be a good scout team quarterback because not only does he give you a strong arm in the pocket, but he’s also athletic enough to at least run the zone-read stuff that they’ll see a few times this year. No, I’m not saying he’s quick like Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick, but he’s a lot closer to that than Kyle Orton.
The point is, there will be other Alex Tanney’s out there.
If, and it’s a pretty big if after this performance, Tanney gets claimed by another team that wants to put him on the 53-man roster, the Cowboys will be fine. I really don’t see any NFL team deciding Tanney is good enough for their squad.
Maybe that’s the silver lining in Thursday’s night game. Tanney likely will get cut but his performance here probably doesn’t have any team foaming at the mouth to sign him.
I hope this doesn’t come across as a rip-job toward Tanney. I actually like his potential. I think he’s got a nice arm, good awareness in the pocket, quick feet and he’s got that moxie that all good quarterbacks must have.
And obviously he’s got good accuracy or he wouldn’t have a YouTube video on his trick-shot passes. But he certainly wasn’t filming that video with a pass rush in his face. It makes a difference.
I think Alex Tanney should and will be with the Cowboys next week. But it’ll likely be on the practice squad. And if he doesn’t make it, the Cowboys can’t worry about it.
2013-2014 DALLAS COWBOYS ROSTER: NFL-mandated cut-down to 75 due by 3 p.m. tomorrow
IRVING, Texas – Several big names returned to practice Monday morning, while the Dallas Cowboys also began the process of cutting their roster down.
The team released defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton on Monday morning. It’s the only cut the team is expected to make Monday, which gives the Dallas Cowboys 12 more cuts to make in order to reach the NFL-mandated number of 75 by 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Pendleton made seven tackles during his preseason action. He played Saturday against Cincinnati, but he did not record any statistics.
While Pendleton left the roster, key defenders Morris Claiborne and Ernie Sims rejoined the team at Monday morning’s practice. Sims has been missing for several weeks with a groin injury, while Claiborne appears to be recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him in Oxnard, Calif.
Wide receiver Cole Beasley also returned to practice after injuring his foot during the Cowboys’ loss to Oakland on Aug. 9.
As if the Cowboys didn’t have enough problems at the guard position, starter Mackenzy Bernadeau missed practice with an ankle injury. Safety Danny McCray was also held out of practice with a hamstring injury, while defensive tackle Jason Hatcher missed with a minor groin injury.
BACK IN THE SADDLE: Cowboys DT Sean Lissemore is practicing and eager to play
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Sean Lissemore was quick with an answer when asked if he would play Saturday against the Bengals: “I’ll be playing this Saturday,” Lissemore said.
It was a long eight days for Lissemore after he injured his groin in practice Aug. 11. Lissemore had been getting plenty of reps with starter Jay Ratliff rehabbing hernia and hamstring injuries since the start of camp on July 20.
“It’s always frustrating to be injured, but you’ve got to kind of look at it and say, ‘Well, what can I do to get better?’” Lissemore said Tuesday. “So you just watch film; you watch the guys ahead of you; you watch practice. You just try to watch your position and get better every day.”
Lissemore returned to practice Tuesday. He did individual work, followed by metabolics “just to get my wind back.” He expects to work into team drills this week.
By design, Lissemore has lost some 12-14 pounds since camp started, down to 298. He hopes that helps him better fit into the Tampa 2 defense the Cowboys are using this season under Monte Kiffin.
“I think I can definitely play in this defense,” Lissemore said. “It’s just taken a little bit to transition. It’s a little bit different from last year, playing a 3-4 defense, kind of two-gapping. So it’s kind of forgetting everything I’ve learned for the past three years and kind of training myself to do something different.”
Two other defensive players injured the same day as Lissemore have yet to return.
Linebacker Ernie Sims, who was competing with Justin Durant for the starting strong side spot, said he was encouraged by his rehab work Tuesday on his pulled groin. He cut and changed directions without a problem.
Sims hopes to return to practice this week.
“I want to be back this week,” Sims said. “But we’re taking it day by day right now, just trying to keep strengthening it. I’m definitely making a big improvement, though, because I’m feeling a whole lot better. I’m moving a whole lot better. Running a whole lot better. Right now, I’m just in the strengthening, trying to build my strength back up.”
Defensive back Eric Frampton, one of the team’s core special teams players, has a calf injury and is expected to be the last of the three to return to the field. He is not yet running, though he is using the AlterG, a anti-gravity treadmill.
Frampton said there is no timetable for his return.
“The way I see it, I want to be able to just contribute on the field once the season starts and whatever it takes to get to that point is what’s important,” Frampton said.
2013 PRESEASON INJURY UPDATE: Dallas Cowboys Lance Dunbar out; Kowalski and Dominguez return
IRVING, Texas – None of the defensive players who were inactive for Saturday’s preseason game returned to practice Monday at Valley Ranch, while the offense received a mixed bag of news.
Guards Kevin Kowalski and Ray Dominguez returned from knee and shoulder injuries, respectively, but running back Lance Dunbar missed practice for the first time with a foot sprain.
Five offensive players were out Monday, including Dunbar, wide receiver Cole Beasley (foot) and offensive linemen Ryan Cook (back), Ron Leary (knee) and Nate Livings (knee). Leary and Livings are both on the mend from knee scopes.
Safety Matt Johnson (foot) thought he’d be able to return in some capacity Monday, but he wasn’t on the field during the early portion of practice available to the media. Morris Claiborne, whose day-to-day knee injury has now become week-to-week, was also out.
Some good news for the defense was the return of safety Will Allen, who left Saturday’s game after injuring his ribs. Head coach Jason Garrett said after the game the injury wasn’t serious and he could have returned.
The usual suspects were still out on defense, including Anthony Spencer (knee) and Jay Ratliff(hamstring), while Ernie Sims, Sean Lissemore and Eric Frampton are all still recovering from injuries suffered toward the end of camp.
J.J. Wilcox hasn’t returned yet for personal reasons, but has been given as much time as he needs following the death of his mother and is expected back around the middle of this week.
Travis Chappelear and Toby Jackson weren’t at practice for the beginning portion, either. Chappelear wore a boot as he left the field Saturday.
RE-SIGNED FREE AGENT: Ernie Sims rejoins team with 1-year deal
Far from a splash, but the club did re-sign linebacker Ernie Sims to a one-year deal for the league minimum, according to Dallas Cowboys VP Stephen Jones.
Sims, a former first-round pick of the Lions back in 2006, joined the Cowboys in midseason on Oct. 24 and played in 10 games, starting six.
He finished the year with 42 tackles and one sack. He had two straight games of seven tackles each against Washington and Philadelphia. But concussion issues plagued him for two straight games down the stretch.
Sims is likely to compete for the starting post at strong-side outside linebacker with Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber and anyone else the team acquires in the draft or possibly free agency, but it sounds like Jones is comfortable with the group he has.
“At that spot it’d be Wilber, also we’ve got Albright that’ll try that spot out, and then we’ve got Ernie now,” Jones said. “We think we’re pretty good.”
Sims was the ninth overall player taken in the 2006 draft out of the Lions, who were then coached by Rod Marinelli, who is now the Cowboys’ defensive line coach. Sims played in all 16 games during his first pro season, registering 124 tackles with the Lions.
He played three years in Detroit but his career never turned the corner as the Lions traded him to Philadelphia for the 2010 season. He spent one year with the Colts in 2011 before being out of football until he joined the Cowboys last season.
ROSTER REVIEW: Final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys
No more whistles, no more playbooks, no more coach’s dirty looks. Sure, not quite as catchy as the iconic “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” but we’re talking football grades here, not math, science and social studies.
The biggest difference in grading pupils and players is expectations. All students are created equal; not so much for a professional football team. Just doesn’t make sense to hold Miles Austin, one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the game and a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Cole Beasley, an undrafted free agent rookie, to the same standard. Ditto for DeMarcus Ware, headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and some dude signed off his couch midseason. Not even Batman.
Without further ado, here are our final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys:
Tony Romo – B
This one is difficult, because for 80-plus percent of the season, 13-of-16 games, Romo played as well as any quarterback in franchise history. Yes, including Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. His numbers for those contests include 303.1 yards per game, 24 touchdown passes, seven picks and a 100.2 rating. Even with the other three games – vs. the Bears and Giants and at the Redskins – Romo had the league’s sixth-highest rating by Football Outsiders, behind only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.
He threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and on many occasions was his own best pass protector in terms of finding an extra second or two. There were times when he was brilliant, and never before has he shown the leadership he did this season. Still, in the end, Romo flunked his final. Again. That’s not easy to write. Romo has been sort of the teacher’s pet these last five years, but there is no excuse for those final two picks at Washington.
Kyle Orton – I
He broke Clint Longley’s 38-year-old mark for highest passer rating (minimum 10 attempts) with a ridiculous 137.1. Played just the one game, though, giving him an incomplete.
DeMarco Murray – C
A disappointing season for the second-year back who was expected to anchor the offensive load. Didn’t rush for 100 yards after Week 1 at the Giants and rarely showed the explosiveness from his rookie season with just five 20-plus carries. Finished tied for 21st in the league with 2.5 yards per attempt after contact. He also picked the worst of times for his first two NFL fumbles. His durability has also become a concern as he has missed nine of the team’s last 19 games with injuries.
Felix Jones – C
Finished with more offensive touches than expected, was much improved in picking up the blitz, caught the ball well, and for the most part, maximized his rushing yards with the gaps provided. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry after entering the year at 5.1 for his career.
Lance Dunbar – B
Was impressed with the free agent rookie from North Texas from the first preseason game through Week 17. Finished with eight special teams tackles, was solid if unspectacular on kick returns and showed a little burst on offense. Should play a bigger role in 2013.
Phillip Tanner – C
Solid on special teams with 10 tackles, although he didn’t show much in limited action carrying the ball.
Lawrence Vickers – C
Showed promise catching passes, that little dump-off was seemingly always available. But his blocking was average and his four penalties in 305 snaps was the highest percentage of any fullback playing 25 percent of his team’s snaps.
PLAYER PUZZLE PIECES: How the Dallas Cowboys current personnel fit Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense
A lot has been made about the Cowboys’ switch from the 3-4 defense to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3, and rightfully so. Although a great defense ultimately comes down to talented players executing a well-crafted scheme, it’s not as if elite players can simply line up at any position and succeed. If the chances of success at a particular position are optimized at a certain height, weight and speed, it follows that getting farther from those ideal traits will lower the probability of succeeding.
Kiffin’s defenses have typically emphasized speed over size at most positions, and that’s certainly a plus for a Cowboys defense that seems as if it hasn’t kept up with the NFL’s pass-happy evolution. Still, the truth is that the best defensive coordinators tailor their scheme around their personnel.
Kiffin’s version of the 4-3 in particular, known as a 4-3 Under, could potentially accommodate the Cowboys’ personnel better than most other 4-3 schemes. One reason is the presence of the 1-technique defensive tackle. A 1-technique tackle shades the offensive center, nearly playing heads-up over the top of him like a 3-4 nose tackle. The other defensive tackle, the 3-technique, is typically a smaller player that almost acts as a large defensive end in the interior.
There are certainly areas where the Cowboys might have holes to fill, of course. To figure out just how far away Dallas might be from Kiffin’s “dream” defense, we’ve researched the height and weight of each defensive player for Tampa Bay from 2003 to 2008. Kiffin was the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers during that stretch, emphasizing specific traits at each position. Below are the averages of each player on the roster at every position.
1-DT: 6’3’’ 304 pounds
As mentioned, the 1-technique tackle is a strong presence in the inside, but he also has to be nimble enough to shoot up field.
Cowboys’ fit: Jay Ratliff (6’4’’ 303 pounds) matches Kiffin’s prototypical player at this position to a tee. The issue is whether or not the Cowboys can afford to continue to pay Ratliff the big bucks. Sean Lissemore (6’3’’ 303 pounds) also fits the bill.
3-DT: 6’2’’ 285 pounds
The 3-technique defensive tackle is much smaller than the 1-technique. Also note that, at an average of just 6’2’’, the 3-technique is shorter than the defensive ends.
Cowboys’ fit: This position in particular is difficult to project for the Cowboys. Jason Hatcher could potentially play any position along the defensive line, although at 6’6’’ 305 pounds, he’s much taller and heavier than the typically short, light tackles Kiffin has used in the past. Tyrone Crawford (6’4’’ 285 pounds) will probably play defensive end, but he also could have some versatility.
DE (Strong): 6’3’’ 279 pounds
Kiffin has typically used a very large, bulky player to man his strong-side defensive end position.
Cowboys’ fit: If there’s evidence that the Cowboys could let Anthony Spencer walk, this might be it. At 250 pounds, Spencer doesn’t come anywhere near matching the profile of Kiffin’s past ends. As mentioned above, Crawford checks in around this size, but his pass-rushing ability is a question.
DE (Weak): 6’3’’ 267 pounds
On the weak side, Kiffin’s defensive ends have been relatively close to the same size as the typical 3-4 outside linebacker.
Cowboys’ fit: DeMarcus Ware will play this position, although even he is listed at only 254 pounds. Ware shouldn’t have much of a problem adjusting, however. Alex Albright might need to transition to this position as well at 6’5’’ 260 pounds.
MLB: 6’1’’ 232 pounds
The “Mike” linebacker in Kiffin’s 4-3 defense has to have the ability to turn and run, so it’s no surprise that they’ve averaged only 232 pounds.
Cowboys’ fit: At 6’2’’, 245 pounds, Sean Lee is a bit oversized compared to the average 4-3 middle linebacker. He’ll often be asked to run downfield when tight ends run vertically, but Lee should be up for the challenge.
WLB: 6’1’’ 224 pounds
At only 224 pounds, the average “Will” linebacker in Kiffin’s defense must have the speed to run sideline-to-sideline.
Cowboys’ fit: Like Lee, Carter is “oversized” for the 4-3 at 240 pounds, but it really shouldn’t matter. As one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, Carter won’t have a problem transitioning to the 4-3. He could potentially play any of the three linebacker spots, giving the Cowboys plenty of flexibility heading into the draft.
SLB: 6’1’’ 235 pounds
As the biggest of Kiffin’s linebackers, the “Sam” is still smaller than all but one linebacker the Cowboys had on the roster in 2012, Ernie Sims.
Cowboys’ fit: Assuming Carter plays the “Will,” the Cowboys may have a hole to fill here (and vice versa if Kiffin uses Carter as the “Sam.” If Dan Connor (6’2’’ 242 pounds) ends up starting for Kiffin, he’ll almost assuredly play this position and Carter will play the weak side.
CB: 6’0’’ 193 pounds
Due to Kiffin’s emphasis on Cover 2, his cornerbacks don’t turn and run in man coverage as much as in other defenses. Playing near the line, they need to be able to press and play the run, meaning they’re typically tall, although perhaps not as heavy as many believe.
Cowboys’ fit: Although there are questions about how Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can transition to Kiffin’s scheme, I think they’ll be just fine. Carr has great size at 6’0’’ 210 pounds, and it isn’t as if they’ll be in Cover 2 every play. Even at 5’11’’ 185 pounds, Claiborne isn’t that far off from Kiffin’s prototypical cornerbacks over the years.
S: 6’0’’ 207 pounds
Since Kiffin generally plays with two-deep alignments and dares offenses to run, his safeties don’t need to be excessively big, but rangy.
Cowboys’ fit: The Cowboys could have an issue here since starters Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church are both at least 212 pounds and don’t necessarily excel in deep coverage. Kiffin has made it work with big safeties like John Lynch in the past, however, but the ’Boys still might need to look for a faster safety of the future in this upcoming draft.
We so often hear that teams need to find “their guys” that fit into their particular schemes, and that’s true; certain players are tailored to play in specific ways. However, the job of any coordinator is to mold their scheme to fit the skill sets of the current personnel. It’s certainly preferable to have a roster full of players built for a particular scheme, but creating that is a whole lot more challenging than slightly altering the scheme to fit the most talented players on the team.
When all is said and done, the success of Kiffin’s tenure in Dallas will be determined by how well he can manage this delicate balancing act, acquiring “his” guys while still being flexible with his scheme to accommodate what he already has.
PLAYER EVALUATIONS: Millionaire Miles, Felix Jones, stopping the run, and the Jenkins factor
The season is over and it’s time to think about a few things. For example, is Miles Austin earning his money? Is it time for Felix Jones, who’s now a free agent, to find a new team? What do the Cowboys need to stop the run in 2013? And finally, should Dallas keep cornerback Mike Jenkins?
1. In 2010, Miles Austin signed a seven-year $57.1 million contract. Austin’s deal meant a few things: He moved into an elite level in regards with his contract and was to become the No. 1 receiver on the Cowboys. After signing that deal, Dez Bryant surpassed him as a bigger threat, Austin has had just one 1,000 yard season, 2010, he fell 57 yards short of it in 2012 and his health continues to be a question. He failed to finish the game against Washington on Sunday night because of a high-ankle sprain. He’s endured hamstring issues the last two seasons. Austin is scheduled to earn $6.7 million in 2013 and it raises a question: Is Austin earning his money? I doubt if the Cowboys are going to release Austin because no matter how good Bryant is, there is still an unpredictability about him away from the field. Austin is a good player but the team needs more from him considering the money he’s making.
2. Felix Jones won’t return in 2013 but he did finish the final game of the season with 24 yards on five carries. Jones hit holes with a burst and seemed to run with little limitations. He’s battled injuries to both knees and he probably should have stayed on the bench. But he displayed a toughness that was necessary from the running back position. Jones was put in a bad situation by the Cowboys. He was drafted as a backup to then-starter Marion Barber. When Barber’s health started to betray him, the Cowboys asked Jones to become a starter but his own health failed him too. It’s time for Jones, who becomes a free agent, to find a new team and for the Cowboys to stop drafting players to become backups. If the Cowboys draft a running back this spring, it should be designed to give competition to DeMarco Murray. If Murray is better than the new back, fine, keep the job. Life for a NFL running back is dangerous. One week he’s healthy, the next he’s not and you need to have quality ones on the depth chart. Jones is an average running back, but not starters material and when it was time for him to take over for an injured Murray and Barber, he couldn’t do the job on a consistent basis.
3. Want to know why the Cowboys failed to stop the run in 2012? They lost of four players that clogged the middle of the field. Jay Ratliff (injury), Josh Brent (suspension), Sean Lee (injury) and Bruce Carter (injury) were the force up the gut for the Cowboys. When the Cowboys didn’t have Ratliff at the start of the season, the club still had Brent a solid run stopper. But when Brent was lost, Sean Lissemore was moved from defensive end to nose tackle. The Cowboys also moved Robert Callaway and signed Brian Schaefering to help inside. Lee and Carter replacements at inside linebacker were Dan Connor, Ernie Sims and at times Alex Albright. The backups failed to produce for the Cowboys as evident by the run defense allowing at least 100 yards in six of the last seven weeks of the season. Moving forward the Cowboys need to draft or sign another inside linebacker in free agency who can provide depth. The Cowboys allowed 274 rushing yards in the regular season finale and gave up at least 150 rushing yards twice and 125 or more yards five times. It’s hard to win games when that happens regularly.
4. The Cowboys have 16 unrestricted free agents and one of them is a former first-round pick, cornerback Mike Jenkins. It seems the Cowboys were never quite happy with Jenkins the entire offseason. He didn’t rehab his surgically repaired shoulder in Dallas, instead doing it in Florida. Jenkins didn’t attend the voluntary workouts, although he was there for the mandatory sessions. But as is always the case in the NFL, injuries dictate a lot of things. Jenkins saw playing time, especially when slot corner Orlando Scandrick went down with a hand injury. Jenkins even played some at safety and on special teams. It appears Jenkins may not return in 2013, leaving the Cowboys looking for a fourth corner in free agency or the draft. "Do I want to come back?" Jenkins asked. "I’ve grown attached, I’ve been here for five years, I’ve grown attached to everybody here. It’s hard to just get up and leave and not want to come back. At the same time ,you want to go somewhere and have a fair opportunity and I guess go on from there."
INJURY–PRACTICE UPDATE: Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware missed practice Wednesday with shoulder and elbow injuries. He played in only 59 of 95 plays in Sunday’s game after leaving with a shoulder strain. He left with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter and returned for one play of overtime. He said Wednesday that he would play Sunday.
Five other players missed practice, which was moved indoors to Cowboys Stadium. Linebacker Brady Poppinga and nose tackle Robert Callaway had travel problems getting back to DFW after the two-day Christmas break. Defensive end Jason Hatcher (thigh) said he would play Sunday. Linebacker Victor Butler (groin) also was out. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who had sports hernia surgery two weeks ago, will be out again this week.
Linebacker Alex Albright (knee) was limited.
Receiver Dez Bryant (finger), running back DeMarco Murray (foot), running back Felix Jones (knee) and linebacker Ernie Sims (concussion) were full participants.
RELATED: Jason Hatcher’s thigh will be fine come Sunday, he says
Defensive end Jason Hatcher said he missed practice only as a precaution. His thigh will be "100 percent by the time Sunday comes," Hatcher promises.
"It’s doing good," Hatcher said Wednesday. "I’m a veteran. I understand. I listen to my body. It was one of those days I felt like I should have just rested a little bit more. Tomorrow, I’ll do a little bit more.
"Am I worried about me playing Sunday? No."
Hatcher has had 68 tackles, 4 sacks and 21 quarterback pressures this season.
RELATED: DeMarcus Ware promises to play through pain
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware said he will not wear any type of harness on his strained shoulder nor will be take a pain-killing injection. But he will be in the lineup come Sunday.
"I feel a lot better right now," Ware said Wednesday. "I’m going regardless."
Ware, who already was playing with a hyperextended elbow, had to leave last week’s game with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter after "tweaking" the shoulder. He returned for a third-down play in overtime. Ware played 59 of 95 plays. He did not practice Wednesday.
"I’m going to tell you something, 75 percent of DeMarcus Ware is probably better than 90 percent of the guys who play the position at the end of the day," Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "I’ll take 75 percent vs. no DWare any day. Wherever he is right now, I’ll take it."
Ware has never missed a game in his NFL career and has failed to start only one of 127 games. He didn’t start a 2009 game against New Orleans because of a neck injury.
Ware has 11.5 sacks this season, but only 2.5 have come in the past seven games. He has been without a sack in three of his past five games.
ROB RYAN RADIO NETWORK: Anthony Spencer will relay defensive plays, Gerald Sensabaugh the backup signal caller
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan opted to have linebacker Ernie Sims call the signals last week, but Sims was sidelined after only five plays with a concussion. Teams can designate only two defensive players to wear a radio helmet, and that left Anthony Spencer to go back to having Ryan in his ear.
"I think last week he started hearing other voices in his head, so we took him out of the game," Ryan joked Friday. "That was the problem. And he started to listening to them, too. That was really bad when he started listening to the other guy."
Spencer will return to play-calling duties this week, with Gerald Sensabaugh serving as the backup signal-caller. Sean Lee had the radio helmet until he was lost for the season with a toe injury in the Carolina game. Spencer had it after that except for the five plays last week.
"These guys [the Saints] are famous for getting you caught with too many men on the field and all that," Ryan said. "We’ve seen that a few times. We’ve got to work on that, but they do punk teams. Try to substitute a lot, you’ve got to be careful; you’ve got to pick our spots on that, and it’s important to make sure we have a guy out there that is on everything so you can call your game. It’s really difficult signaling nowadays, and it’d be tough to go back to how we used to do it. We’d do it, but it is tough."
DUCT TAPE & WD-40: The Replacements – Seven Dallas Cowboys defensive players holding team together
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is working with seven players who weren’t on the team to start the season, including five who signed after Thanksgiving. All seven played against the Steelers:
Cornerback Sterling Moore : 37 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, signed Dec. 1
Safety Eric Frampton : 29 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, signed Sept. 25 for special teams role
Cornerback Michael Coe : 10 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, signed Dec. 11
Defensive end Brian Schaefering : 10 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, signed Dec. 12
Nose tackle Robert Callaway : 6 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, signed to the roster Dec. 8 after Josh Brent charged with intoxication manslaughter
Linebacker Ernie Sims : 5 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, started but left early because of concussion, signed Oct. 24
Linebacker Brady Poppinga : 5 of 60 snaps against Pittsburgh, started in sub package, signed Nov. 26
ROLLER COASTER ROSTER: Josh Brent placed on RNFI list; Veteran DT Brian Schaefering signs
IRVING, Texas – Josh Brent is no longer on the Cowboys’ 53-man roster. After several discussions with the NFL this week, the Cowboys have now officially removed him from the roster, placing him on reserved/non-football illness list (RNFI).
That keeps him with the team and able to be at the complex. It’s unclear how restricted he will be in terms of meetings or other team functions. Not only is his legal status uncertain, but Brent also has physical injuries as well. He attended the memorial service for Jerry Brown on Tuesday with a small cast on his right wrist.
Garrett reiterated Wednesday how much support the Cowboys have and will continue to have for Brent.
“Josh is part of our family. We have unconditional love for him,” Garrett said. “And we’re going to make sure that we support him in every way we can. Players, coaches, our organization, and make him feel that support every way … having him be here, and knowing that people are around him to help him and he can call us, he can just be around us, he can cry, he can laugh – he can do whatever he needs to do – and we’ll be there to help him.”
The Cowboys have used Brent’s spot on the roster to sign defensive tackle Brian Schaefering, who has played in Rob Ryan’s scheme in Cleveland. In fact, Schaefering (6-4, 292) played all 16 games, including nine starts for the Browns in 2010, Ryan’s last season there as defensive coordinator.
Schaefering, as mentioned in a previous The Boys Are Back post, played all 16 games for the Browns last season, has been out of the league this year, but after a workout with the Dallas Cowboys this morning (Wednesday), was officially signed to the roster.
He becomes the fifth defensive player signed this season who was currently not on a roster or practice squad, along with Charlie Peprah, Eric Frampton, Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga.
WEEKLY ROSTER UPDATE: Cowboys claim CB Michael Coe
DALLAS COWBOYS INJURY UPDATE: Absence of Bruce Carter further exacerbates linebacker depth
Not long after inside linebacker Bruce Carter suffered a dislocated left elbow in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 38-31 loss to Washington on Thursday, his teammates were left to assess the potential impact the injury could have on the defense. And judging by their reaction, it’s won’t be good.
“That’s tough,” said linebacker Dan Connor. “Bruce is a big-time playmaker and he’s got the helmet radio in it, and he’s in on all packages. That’s hard, throws a wrench in there…Hopefully he has a quick recovery and can come back.”
But there is fear that Carter could be lost for the rest of the season and that would be a damaging blow to the Cowboys, a team that is still being affected by the fallout from the season-ending toe injury inside linebacker Sean Lee had suffered Oct. 21. Eighty days after beginning the 2012 campaign with Lee and Carter as the starters, the Cowboys are dealing with the real possibility of closing it with Connor and Ernie Sims as the team’s primary inside linebackers.
Six weeks ago, no one would have imagined that scenario. Back then, Connor was a reserve player who signed last Match to provide depth. Sims, meanwhile, wasn’t even on the team. Now one of them could be responsible for relaying the defensive signals to their teammates if Carter is unavailable for the foreseeable future.
“I have some experience and I know Ernie definitely does,” Connor said. “So we’ll see how Bruce is and we’ll see where we’re at….We’ll get everything squared away next week.”
The Cowboys must.
“We’ve adjusted on the fly all season,” said nose tackle Josh Brent. “It’s something we have dealt with and know how to come back from.”
ROSTER MOVES: Jenkins Hurt; Agnew Signed, LB Guyton Waived
IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys made some last-minute roster moves before heading to Philadelphia on Saturday.
With cornerback Mike Jenkins hurting with a back injury, the Cowboys called up Vincent Agnew from the practice squad. Agnew (5-10, 196) will travel to Philly and likely play Sunday against the Eagles, depending on Jenkins’ status, which was questionable on Friday’s injury report.
To make room on the roster, the Cowboys have waived newly-signed linebacker Gary Guyton, who joined the team Wednesday and practiced all week. The Cowboys were hoping Guyton’s experience – four years with the Patriots – and his background in the 3-4 defense would make him a valuable addition to a linebacker corps that has been decimated by injuries.
While Guyton’s release might suggest the Cowboys are confident Dan Connor (stinger) will be able to pay, he’s actually listed on the injury report as doubtful.
The Cowboys will likely start Bruce Carter and Ernie Sims at inside linebacker with Alex Albright, who is listed as an outside backer and former defensive end in college, will be the main backup inside.
As for Jenkins, he suffered the back injury on Wednesday and underwent an MRI after having spasms earlier in the day. Jenkins was on the practice field Friday but didn’t participate much.
Agnew spent training camp with the Dolphins before being released and signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad on Oct. 16.
FLASHBACK 2011: Dallas Cowboys can’t afford another repeat of McCoy’s historic performance
IRVING, Texas – It has been about 51 weeks, but the Cowboys haven’t forgotten.
Sure, so much has happened to this football since then and most of it hasn’t been memorable. And without a doubt, the Cowboys’ last visit to Lincoln Financial Field wasn’t a fun time, mainly because of one LeSean McCoy.
The Cowboys were trounced that night in Philly, 34-7, and McCoy was the biggest reason. He was also the fastest, the quickest, most elusive and most dominating.
While the Eagles aren’t exactly playing at a high level this season – entering the game with the same 3-5 record as the Cowboys – let’s not forget about 2011. The Eagles weren’t exactly setting the world on fire when these two teams met in Philly last year. In fact, they were a dismal 2-4 when the Cowboys showed up. But, the Eagles made it pretty clear they were going to get McCoy involved.
It turned out to be a good plan, considering McCoy totaled 200 all-purpose yards, including 185 on the ground, the sixth-highest single-game total in Eagles history.
In the rematch at Cowboys Stadium on Christmas Eve – a game that turned out to be one of the more meaningless regular-season matchups ever, McCoy rushed for just 30 yards on 13 carries as the Eagles won 20-7.
This year, McCoy ranks 10th in the NFL in rushing with 623 yards, but has only two touchdowns. He’s also dangerous out of the backfield with 30 catches for 148 yards and three scores.
“I think he’s outstanding,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “He has such great lateral quickness, such great elusiveness, speed, ability to get to the edge, ability to break tackles. He just makes so many great runs over and over again. It will be a challenge for us to corral him, get a lot of people around the ball and tackle him to the ground. That’s what we need to do.”
Seems to be harder than it sounds.
“You have to stop ‘Shady’ McCoy,” defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “He’s one of the top five backs in the league. He’s slippery. He cuts and plays like Barry Sanders. He’ll cut it all the way across the field to get yards.”
Linebacker Bruce Carter, who is coming off a 10-tackle game against the Falcons last week, said his experience on special teams might come in handy when facing a guy like McCoy, who is not afraid to change directions, especially in the open field.
“We just have to be disciplined, especially with our ends and outside linebackers,” Carter said. “You have to set the edge. He’s always got a counter move where he can cut it back. He can go the distance the other way. What (linebackers coach Matt Eberflus) told us, every play is like a kickoff return. You just never know.”
The Cowboys need Carter to be effective inside, especially with the injury situation at the other linebacker spot. Sean Lee is out for the season after undergoing toe surgery two weeks ago. His immediate replacement, Dan Connor, missed last week’s game with a stinger and hasn’t practiced in full this week. Second-year pro Orie Lemon suffered a hamstring injury and was placed on injured reserve.
The Cowboys have signed veterans Ernie Sims and Gary Guyton off the street the last two weeks.
INJURY AND PRACTICE UPDATE: Dallas Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons
IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys were without two of their top three wide receivers, a starting defensive end and their starting running back for Sunday’s game at Atlanta was limited with a knee injury.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant did not practice because of a sore hip but he is expected to be ready for Sunday’s game at Atlanta. Bryant was hurt as he came crashing down on the turf on a near game-winning touchdown catch Sunday against the New York Giants.
Kevin Ogletree, the team’s No. 3 receiver, did not practice because of a hamstring strain. He was at practice in pads during the open portion of the session to the media.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher did not practice because of a bruised shin. While he is expected to be OK for Sunday’s game, Marcus Spears worked with the starters on Wednesday.
Felix Jones was limited with a bruised knee. He was limited in two of three practices last week but was able to play a full game against the Giants.
Linebacker Dan Connor did not practice because of a stinger that is likely to keep him out of the Falcons’ game. The Cowboys would turn to Orie Lemon and Ernie Sims to replace Connor, who was already subbing for an injured Sean Lee.
Running back DeMarco Murray (foot), center Phil Costa (ankle), defensive end Sean Lissemore (ankle) and safety Matt Johnson (hamstring) did not practice, as expected.
NEXT COWBOY UP: Orie Lemon ready to play if Dan Connor can’t
Orie Lemon had not played much on defense before Sunday against the Giants. Two plays is all, in fact.
But the Cowboys didn’t suffer when Lemon had to replace Dan Connor, who went out after 10 plays with a neck strain. Lemon played 23 plays and newly signed Ernie Sims 10.
"Orie did play some in the game," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Ernie Sims did play some in the game. I think those guys handled themselves well going into that situation."
Lemon, who spent all of last season and two games this season on the practice squad, was activated to the 53-player roster the day before the Cowboys’ game against Tampa Bay. He has been a special teams contributor in three games but had played only two plays on defense this season until Sunday.
He made three tackles against the Giants.
"It was good for me to get it against a good team like the Giants, being able to go in and do what I did," Lemons said. "I have a lot to work on, but I know what I’ve got to work on."
With Sean Lee out for the year with a toe injury, and Connor’s status undetermined for Sunday’s game against the undefeated Falcons, Lemon is preparing as if he will start.
"I know at any moment anything can happen, so I’ve got to be mentally ready for anything," Lemon said. "I study like I’m a starter, so I make sure if I do go in there, there won’t be any drop-off."
INTEGRATING TALENT: Jason Garrett likes Cowboys’ success with free agent additions
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ernie Sims, who joined the team last week, made a positive impact in his 10 snaps against the New York Giants, said coach Jason Garrett, and could see more playing time Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Safety Charlie Peprah, also signed last week, could be active against Atlanta and Garrett said he has “done a nice job acclimating himself into the defense” during practices.
Taking players off the street and turning them into productive performers during the regular season has become a recurring theme with the Cowboys in recent seasons. Last year, Dallas watched receiver Laurent Robinson (11 TD catches) and offensive guard Montrae Holland (10 starts) step up as key contributors who were added to the roster after the start of the regular season.
Garrett is hoping Sims and Peprah could join that list.
“When an injury happens, you need to have a go-to guy at that spot,” Garrett said. “Our scouting department does a really good job, having those short lists and understanding not only where the guy was the last time he was playing but where he is now … Some times, it’s a go-to four or five guys to see who fits best for that given circumstance. But we have done a good job with that. It’s an important part of your team because, over the course of the season, you’re going to have injuries. To be able to absorb them with your current roster and then go out on the street to get guys who can be productive, it’s an important part of the course of the 16-game season.”
Garrett indicated Sims, signed in the wake of a season-ending injury to leading tackler Sean Lee, could have a bigger role this week but did not elaborate.
“I don’t want to go into specifics of that, but (Sims) did a nice job in last week’s game,” Garrett said. With more work, Garrett said Sims could “play even better” against the Falcons.
FILLING THE VOID: Dan Connor calls it "bittersweet" to play in Sean Lee’s spot
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dan Connor called his ascension into the team’s starting lineup a “bittersweet” experience because the opportunity came from a season-ending injury to Sean Lee, the team’s leading tackler and Conner’s longtime friend and former college teammate at Penn State.
“To step in and play for him, it’s bittersweet. It’s not a good feeling for me,” Connor said. “I talked to him on the phone last night and he’s putting on a brave face … My heart breaks for him. He’s a great friend of mine. He leads the defense. He knows it inside and out and he works the hardest. And he was having a spectacular season.”
Lee, who is facing season-ending surgery for ligament damage in his big toe, made 77 tackles in Dallas’ first six games. Connor joins Bruce Carter and Ernie Sims, a veteran signed today, as the primary bodies in the mix at inside linebacker for Sunday’s game. But he acknowledged a committee approach will be necessary to replace the versatile Lee.
“It’s going to be hard to replace a guy like that. He’s unreplaceable,” Connor said. “A lot of guys are going to have to step in at different positions and we’ve got to pick up the slack from what we’ve got.
“It’s hard to say one guy’s going to go in there and do what Sean Lee does. I think he’s the top player in the game right now at that position. We’ll get a couple of different guys who are good at certain things and do it that way. And have Bruce in there with the (radio receiver in his) helmet, calling the defense. He did a great job with it last week. He got the helmet and he was making the checks and he really took control and did an unbelievable job.”
2006 NINTH OVERALL PICK: Ernie Sims has never played in a 3-4 defense, ready for a new beginning
Ernie Sims has never played in a 3-4 defense. He hasn’t played much inside either. But that’s why the Dallas Cowboys signed him.
Sims, signed Wednesday after Dallas put starting inside linebacker Sean Lee on injured reserve, is getting a crash course in the team’s sub-packages.
"Do I think I can play? Yes," Sims said. "If you look at me earlier in my career, I’ve been probably smaller than I am right now. I’ve actually gained about 5-6 pounds of lean mass. I’m stronger, faster and obviously bigger than I was my first couple of years in the NFL. I’m pretty confident in my ability. Obviously only time will tell."
Sims was the ninth overall pick of the Lions in 2006 and became an immediate starter, starting 50 consecutive games before injuries forced him out of the lineup in 2009. The Lions traded him to Philadelphia in a three-way deal for tight end Tony Scheffler and a seventh-round pick. He had only 2.5 sacks and an interception in 56 career starts for the Lions.
Sims, who played one season for the Eagles and spent last season in Indianapolis, said he has grown up a lot since then.
"This is a brand-new beginning for me. It really is," Sims said. "I’ve been through a lot in the NFL. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown up as a young man. A lot of people when they see me, they say he looks familiar, but is that the same guy? I’m still the same guy. I just look different. I cut all my hair off. I don’t carry myself like I did. I’m married now. I’ve got a beautiful young son now. My motives and my mindset is totally different now. What I’ve been through in the NFL is really just completely changed my life. That’s why I say this is a totally new beginning for me. When I say I’ve got something to prove, I’ve got something to prove. It’s game time."
Sims said the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 isn’t a big deal.
"it’s really just X’s and O’s," Sims said. "It’s the same principles. It’s the same things going on in every defense that I’ve played in. The good thing about me is I’ve played in several different defenses with several different teams with several different defensive coordinators. …I’ve seen all the different defenses you can play in, all the different schemes and coverages. That kind of gives me an upper hand with me trying to adjust to this new defense."