NFC East: kyle wilber

OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 4 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

1) It was one play, just about as meaningless as can be, considering it was the first day players wore pads, but Morris Claiborne wanted to establish a tone.

Claiborne
First, he locked down Terrance Williams, forcing an incompletion. Then he jumped up and started woofing. Eventually, the players were separated.

It was the first time since he arrived that we’ve seen that type of feistiness from Claiborne.

Hey, whatever it takes. He’s been the epitome of a bust his first two seasons, allowing 70 completions in 117 attempts with only two interceptions and 13 pass deflections.

For a guy who was supposed to be the best defensive player in the 2012 draft that’s not nearly good enough.

Jason Garrett said he’s improved significantly during the offseason. It’s time for him to take it to the field.

Better secondary play is the fastest way for this defense to improve, since their pass rush remains suspect.

Smith
2) The Cowboys are moving closer to a long-term agreement with left tackle Tyron Smith, who’s going to deserve every nickel of whatever he gets.

Smith is man-handling the defensive ends on this roster, the way DeMarcus Ware used to destroy tackles, including Smith, during training camp.

Smith is only 23, so don’t be surprised if he signs a deal that’s nine or 10 years long. When he does, it’ll be interesting to see if Dez Bryant can continue to ignore his contract situation and play well.

After all, the club has already taken care of Sean Lee, who was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. Bryant was the Cowboys’ first-round pick.

3) Kyle Wilber spent his first two seasons bouncing around between outside linebacker in the 3-4 and weakside defensive end.

Injuries last season created some playing time for him at strongside linebacker and the Cowboys suddenly found a player.

Wilber has the strength to hold the edge and consistently force running plays inside, in part because of the time he spent at defensive end, and he made several important plays for the Cowboys last season.

He finished the season with 44 tackles and two sacks, while starting six games.

34

The Cowboys were tied for 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks. Only five teams had fewer.

Their sack total was 10 fewer than the average 2013 playoff team.

Teams that don’t get many sacks often say they’re overrated. Well, they’re not. Pressure is good, but sacks are a momentum-changer and usually result in a punt at the end of the drive.

You must rush the passer and put quarterbacks under duress, or it’s hard to force turnovers and win games.

The Cowboys are counting on defensive Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games with a torn ACL, to provide pressure up the middle. He has been a terrific pass-rusher, and they need him to command double teams to help other players get to the quarterback.

Player to Watch: Gavin Escobar

The Cowboys wasted Escobar’s rookie season. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson.

It’s dumb to ask a tight end who should excel at working from the slot and creating mismatches with his size to be the same type of player as Jason Witten.

Escobar can help this team by making plays downfield and giving Tony Romo one more vertical threat.

He caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He can be a playmaker, if Scott Linehan gives him a chance to do it. If not, he’ll be a wasted pick.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”

Jared Allen option not likely now

March, 19, 2014
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Allen
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' search for defensive line help is not over with the addition of Henry Melton, but their push for Jared Allen will not be quite as intense, according to sources.

Allen wrapped up a visit with the Cowboys on Tuesday before they agreed to a deal with Melton.

Allen would be the Cowboys’ best defensive end, but at what price? He has had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks, but he turns 32 in April and the Cowboys were not willing to pay a hefty price for DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers.

With Ware and Jason Hatcher gone, George Selvie is the leading returning sacker from 2013 with seven. Jeremy Mincey, who signed a two-year deal worth a maximum of $4.5 million last week, had two sacks with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos in 2013. Kyle Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Bruce Carter and Orlando Scandrick had two sacks apiece for the Cowboys.

Allen has also visited with the Seattle Seahawks.
IRVING, Texas -- In this copycat league that is the NFL, all of a sudden everybody needs tall and long conerbacks like Seattle’s Richard Sherman. One problem, there aren’t that many of those kinds of guys around.

Plus from a Dallas Cowboys’ perspective, they have already allocated their cornerback resources in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick. So scratch that possible remodel.

Where the Cowboys can attempt to emulate the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks is with their defensive line.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware has reached double-digit sacks for seven consecutive seasons, but he'll need four sacks in the final three games to keep the streak alive.
AP Photo/James D. SmithFor years, Dallas has relied on DeMarcus Ware to provide a pass rush. Adding depth to the defensive line could be a priority this offseason.
The Seahawks do what Rod Marinelli wants to do with the Cowboys. He just did not have enough quality players, rolling through 20 defensive linemen in 2013 because of injuries and poor play.

Seattle’s defensive line accounted for 33.5 sacks from eight players. The Cowboys defensive line had 28 sacks from six players.

Michael Bennett led the Seahawks with 8.5 sacks. Fellow free-agent pickup, Cliff Avril, was second with eight. Clinton McDonald had 5.5, and Chris Clemons had 4.5

Jason Hatcher led the Cowboys with 11, followed by George Selvie with seven and DeMarcus Ware with six. Kyle Wilber had two sacks from his defensive end spot before he was switched to outside linebacker later in the season. Everette Brown and and Jarius Wynn each had one sack.

The Cowboys want to rotate defensive linemen as much as possible to keep them fresh. That is a great approach when you have players worthy of being in the rotation. In the Super Bowl win against the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks had four linemen take at least 41 of 69 snaps, led by Bennett, who played 47. In the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, they had four linemen take at least 31 of 55 snaps. In the divisional-round win against the New Orleans Saints, they had five linemen take at least 43 snaps.

That rotation kept opposing quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees under pressure. The pressure could come from the inside or the outside. And it would come with mostly just four rushers, which allowed that back seven to be even more aggressive.

For far too long the Cowboys’ pass rush has been Ware and nobody else. This past season it was Hatcher, and sometimes Selvie and Ware. The Cowboys hope Tyrone Crawford can develop after missing last season with an Achilles injury, but the defensive line needs a ton of help.

For the Cowboys to make a jump in the defensive rankings -- forget being a top-five or 10 unit -- they need a better pass rush. For a better pass rush, they need better players. To get better players in free agency they need to hope the defensive line market is as slow as it was in 2013 when Bennett received a one-year, $5 million deal, and Avril received two years and $15 million from the Seahawks. That could allow Dallas to either keep Hatcher (unlikely), or get lucky with some other prove-it type deals. The easier way to get better players is the draft, but will the right players be available at the right time?

If the Cowboys get a better pass rush, their secondary will look a lot better.

Five Wonders: Quick decision on staff?

December, 31, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- For the next six or seven months the Dallas Cowboys will be wondering about the plays that could have made the difference in finishing 8-8 for the third straight year or making the playoffs.

We're just wondering about five things in the end-of-season installment of Five Wonders:

Away we go:
  • I wonder if the Cowboys make quick decisions in regards to their coaching staff. The decision to fire Rob Ryan last year came 11 days after the season ended. With six teams looking for head coaches, the Cowboys would be wise to make any moves sooner rather than later. A lot of times the search for assistant coaches becomes a game of musical chairs. They often just switch golf shirts and gym shorts. You don't want to be the last team looking for assistant coaches with the top choices already scooped up. And as a mini-wonder inside a wonder, I wonder if Jason Garrett's future could make it hard for the most sought after assistants to say yes. Would they be willing to come to Dallas with a head coach that will be on the hot seat and possibly in the final year of his deal or go to a more stable job -- and one with less stature -- than the Cowboys?
  • I wonder if Jason Witten will end up with the same cruel fate as Tony Gonzalez. Witten will enter his 12th season with the Cowboys in 2014 and he is already the franchise leader in catches. He is second to Michael Irvin in receiving yards. Gonzalez is the only tight end in NFL history with more catches than Witten. By next season only Gonzalez will have more receiving yards as a tight end than Witten. Shannon Sharpe had 10,060 in his Hall of Fame career. Witten will enter 2014 with 9,799 yards. For all that Gonzalez accomplished he won only one playoff game in his career. That came last year with the Atlanta Falcons. He returned to the Falcons this year thinking he could go out on a Super Bowl run and they finished 4-12. For all that Witten has done, the Cowboys have won one playoff game. It has to be maddening for the eight-time Pro Bowler.
  • I wonder if the Cowboys wanted Tony Romo to have his back surgery sooner rather than later to make sure he is involved in the offseason program. Romo could not take part in the conditioning last year because of a procedure to remove a cyst from his back. If you remember, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Romo was “uniquely running mountains” in California the weeks before training camp to help his conditioning. It was among my favorite quotes of the season. He checked in at 236 pounds, the most he has ever weighed since joining the Cowboys. In 2012, Romo was listed at 230 pounds. In 2011, he was 227. The generally feeling is that Romo will need three months to recover from the back surgery. By having him ready for the conditioning program the Cowboys will be able to monitor Romo much better this spring and make sure he is in better shape when camp starts.
  • I wonder how much of an effect the new contract Robbie Gould signed with the Chicago Bears will impact any discussions the Cowboys have with their kicker, Dan Bailey. Gould signed a four-year deal with the Bears worth up to $15 million and included $9 million guaranteed. Bailey is set to be a restricted free agent. The Cowboys would likely place the second-round tender on him, which will be a little more than $2.1 million. The first-round tender would be close to $3 million. Gould is 31 and has a Pro Bowl to his credit. He has made 86 percent of his kicks in his career. Bailey turns 26 next month and had a Pro Bowl-type season though was not picked. He has made 90.8 percent of his kicks in his first three seasons and has missed two kicks in each of the past two seasons. He has been clutch. He has improved on kickoffs. Jason Garrett said Bailey might be the best at his job than any player the Cowboys have. The Cowboys bought out the free agent year of safety Barry Church last year with an extension and should do that with Bailey.
  • At the midway point of the season the Cowboys really had no idea what to do with Kyle Wilber. Injury forced them to play him at strong-side linebacker and I wonder if they found what could be a long-term answer at the position. In training camp and early in the season he had a number of chances to lay claim to extra playing time with all of the injuries on the defensive line but he was passed by George Selvie, Jarius Wynn and Everette Brown. Once he moved to linebacker, he performed well. He took the job with six games to go and could force Justin Durant out. If the Cowboys make a move on Durant it would save them $1.25 million in salary cap space in 2014. Wilber is set to make $570,000 next season. In a 4-3 scheme, the strong-side backer might be the least important position because of how much nickel defense is used. The nickel corner will play more snaps in a season than a strong-side linebacker with the way the game is played. Wilber performed well, was a good tackler, appeared to fit in well at the spot and was tough. Sometimes in personnel it's better to be lucky than good.

Cowboys on 6th different LB trio

December, 22, 2013
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LANDOVER, Md. -- With Sean Lee (neck) and Ernie Sims (groin) inactive for Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys will be starting their sixth different grouping of the season at linebacker.

Rookie DeVonte Holloman will start at middle linebacker for Lee with Bruce Carter at weakside linebacker and Kyle Wilber at strongside linebacker. Carter is returning from a one-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

The other pairings used this year (from strong to weak): Justin Durant, Lee, Carter; Sims, Lee, Carter; Wilber, Sims, Carter; Wilber, Lee, Carter; Wilber, Durant, Sims.

Wide receiver Dwayne Harris, safety Jakar Hamilton, cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Martez Wilson and tackle Darrion Weems are also inactive.

Monte Kiffin believes in his defense

December, 19, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense is historically bad, and there doesn't appear to be any hope.

Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, said he's never had a defense this bad. He can remember only two occasions in his long career when his defense blew a big lead. The first person to beat him in such fashion was Peyton Manning when he played for Indianapolis and Kiffin was in Tampa Bay. The other time was last weekend, when Matt Flynn and Green Bay rallied from a 26-3 deficit to beat Dallas.

Kiffin is trying to forge ahead with a defense that won't have middle linebacker Sean Lee, nickel corner Morris Claiborne or strongside linebacker Justin Durant. The injuries to the unit, coupled with the ineffective play, have been unnerving to those inside Valley Ranch.

But Kiffin believes his defense can rebound in the final two games of the regular season.

"I walk in that room, whatever time we meet, 8:30 in the morning. It starts with coach Garrett," Kiffin said. "You go into your defensive room and you split up and away you go. You walk in, 'Get your heads up, let’s go.' That’s the way it works. We ain’t going to pout around. We’ll be ready to play."

Kiffin is still settling on his starting linebackers. Ernie Sims, battling groin and hip problems, is the middle linebacker. Bruce Carter is the weakside backer and Kyle Wilber is on the strong side. DeVonte Holloman are the nickel backers. The backups are Orie Lemon and Cameron Lawrence.

If Sims can't play, Holloman moves in as middle linebacker. Lemon said he can work on both outside linebacker spots if need be. Wilber remains the strongside linebacker regardless.

Got it?

The Cowboys are going to need healthy linebackers because the Washington Redskins come in with the third-best rushing offense in the NFL.

"A good offensive line," Kiffin said. "They run and throw it. We know we’ve got a little extra tutorship going on and things like that. We’ve just got to do the best we can. We’re going to show up and we’re going to play hard and whoever is out there is going to do a heck of a job."

One of the main themes of Kiffin's 4-3 scheme is turnovers, and fittingly the Cowboys are tied for third in turnover differential at plus-11. In the first six weeks of the season, the Cowboys forced 12 turnovers. On Sunday, newly signed cornerback Sterling Moore picked off a Flynn pass for the Cowboys' third interception in the last six games.

"You just have to keep doing it," Kiffin said. "Like I say sometimes, turnovers are like sacks. They come in bunches. Hopefully they’ll work the other way the next week."

Cowboys LBs a mixed, matched unit

December, 18, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- At the beginning of the season the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line was hit by injuries and they have been forced to add new players all season. On Sunday Frank Kearse could be the 19th different defensive lineman to play in a game for the Cowboys.

Now the Cowboys' linebacker corps is as thin as a piece of paper as they prepare for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.

“You always have guys who are at certain points with their health over the course of the week and you've got to make your judgments,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The big thing we try to do is make sure we have all of the contingency plans in place. If this guy is not available, who is playing? What happens if he gets hurt, who goes in and all that stuff. We have a lot of discussions about that as coaches at all positions with all injuries. You deal with them the best you can and you go forward.”

Sean Lee is expected to miss his second straight game with a neck injury. Ernie Sims did not practice because of a groin injury and his availability for the Redskins' game is in doubt. Justin Durant's season ended on Tuesday because of a hamstring injury.

Bruce Carter said he will return after not playing last week against the Green Bay Packers. DeVonte Holloman could start his first game at middle linebacker. Kyle Wilber, who was a defensive end last month, will start at strongside linebacker. They have Cameron Lawrence and Orie Lemon as backups. Defensive end Edgar Jones has some linebacker experience from his 3-4 days.

“Right, we understood we don't have really any depth right now at linebacker so if we can get guys back healthy like me, try to get Ernie there, he's been banged up,” Carter said. “We just need to get anybody really.”

Before the loss to the Packers Holloman had never played middle linebacker in a game.

“Just knowing what to look for before it happens,” Holloman said. “Guys that have been in the fire before, they can see things coming a lot faster than guys just thrown out there or their first time out there. So just seeing a couple of things before they come at you.”

When the Cowboys lost Durant and Sims last week, they had to rely on hand signals from the coaches to the players since only two communication devices are allowed in players' helmets. Carter will be the signal-caller Sunday with Holloman serving as the backup.

It does not help that the Redskin feature the NFL's third-ranked rush offense, led by Alfred Morris.

“We know we've got a little extra tutorship going on and things like that,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “We've just got to do the best we can. We're going to show up and we're going to play hard and whoever is out there is going to do a heck of a job. When we walked into that meeting this morning, ‘Man, we're upbeat. Let's go. Let's go, man.' We've got a couple of games to go and hopefully another one after that. But you only play one at a time. You've got to play 60 plays, 65 plays, whatever it is, so don't worry about the second game. Don't worry about Philadelphia. Let's play 60, 65 plays at the very best of our ability and then play hard. That's what we've got to do.”
CHICAGO -- Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dwayne Harris is active, which could be a big boost to the special teams, but linebacker Justin Durant is inactive.

Harris
Harris missed the Thanksgiving Day game against the Oakland Raiders because of a hamstring strain and was only a limited participant in Saturday's practice. Durant will miss his third straight game. He was probable entering the game. He has been working his way back from a hamstring injury.

With Durant out, Kyle Wilber will start for the third straight game at strong-side linebacker.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne, safety Jakar Hamilton, linebacker DeVonte Holloman, defensive end Everette Brown, tackle Darrion Weems and linebacker Orie Lemon are inactive.

Harris is averaging 14 yards per punt return and 31.3 yards per kickoff return. Terrance Williams fumbled the opening kickoff against the Raiders and saw it returned for a touchdown. Cole Beasley served as the punt returner.

Has Kyle Wilber found a spot?

November, 29, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Might the Cowboys have finally found a position for Kyle Wilber?

Wilber
He moved to strongside linebacker during the bye week because of a hamstring injury suffered by Justin Durant on Nov. 10 against the New Orleans Saints. The coaches moved Wilber from defensive end to linebacker out of necessity more than anything.

Against the New York Giants, Wilber had seven tackles after recording just 11 in the first 10 games. He also had his first tackle for loss in his first start. In Thursday's win against the Oakland Raiders, Wilber had four tackles, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery that led to a DeMarco Murray touchdown.

“We felt like Wilber was a good football player and we felt like he showed up on special teams and just was productive and showed up around the ball a lot,” coach Jason Garrett said.

But he is something of a tweener. He was drafted to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and the coaches moved him to defensive end when the Cowboys moved to a 4-3. Wilber was given plenty of chances to earn playing time with all of the injuries on the defensive line but could not grasp a job.

Maybe the Cowboys got a little lucky with a position finding Wilber rather than him finding a position.

“I think he played 25 plays in the game last week against the Giants and had 24 production points,” Garrett said. “That doesn't mean anything to you guys but that was a really positive performance. He was around the ball a lot ... He is certainly still learning the position. He doesn't always pull the trigger as quick as he needs to just because he hasn't seen the looks as much, but he is playing better and better.”

And he at least might force the Cowboys to make a decision when Durant is healthy.

Cowboys survive Sean Lee's absence

November, 28, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are undefeated without star middle linebacker Sean Lee this season.

That's not a trend they intend to test.

All indications are that Lee, who strained his hamstring in the Nov. 10 loss to the New Orleans Saints, will be back for the Cowboys' final four games. He said after the Cowboys' 31-24 win over the Oakland Raiders on Thursday that he'd be “surprised” if he isn't ready to practice next week and play in the Dec. 9 game against the Chicago Bears and beyond.

[+] EnlargeDallas' Kyle Wilber
AP Photo/James D. SmithKyle Wilber recovers a fumble at the Raiders' 2-yard line. The Cowboys scored on the next play.
Those games are even more critical after the Cowboys managed to win a couple of games with Lee on the sideline. The much-maligned Dallas defense, which is ranked last in the league in total yards, did its part during Lee's recovery time to keep the Cowboys in the NFC East race.

“You've got to give a ton of credit to a lot of these guys that stepped up, guys like Kyle Wilber and Ernie Sims,” said Lee, who played a critical role as a quasi-assistant coach the last couple of weeks, helping prepare Wilber and Sims to play new positions in the linebacker corps. “They've put a ton of work in. They've been unbelievable and a huge reason we've been able to win.”

Nobody is pretending that the Cowboys' defense dominated the last two weeks. That's certainly not the case.

The New York Giants ran the ball down Dallas' throat, with running backs Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs combining for 202 yards on 30 carries. But Dallas' defense held the Giants to 21 points and scored a touchdown of its own on Jeff Heath's 50-yard fumble return, doing its share to shut up the loudmouth Giants.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was determined to make sure the Raiders didn't beat Dallas with the running game, putting eight men in the box on a regular basis. That strategy didn't work out so well in the first half, when undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin completed 11 of 15 passes for 146 yards to help Oakland take a 21-14 lead into the break.

It's less than ideal that ex-Cowboys receiver Andre Holmes (seven catches for 136 yards) had a career day -- really, those numbers are better than his previous career total -- but the defense again did enough to win the game with its best player wearing sweats.

Kyle Wilber, who might hang on to the starting strongside linebacker job even when Justin Durant is ready to return from his hamstring strain, recovered a fumble at the Oakland 2 to set up a touchdown when Dallas' offense desperately needed a spark. Cornerback Brandon Carr came up with an interception in the end zone to deny a Raiders threat. And the Cowboys' defense held Oakland to only three points after halftime.

The defense's performances certainly haven't been perfect without Lee, but the Cowboys' record has been.

“I'm not surprised that we've been able to win some games,” owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, “but we just missed him a lot.”

Lee expects to return next week, and the Cowboys hope to keep the momentum rolling.

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

November, 28, 2013
11/28/13
7:59
PM ET
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 31-24 win against the Oakland Raiders on Thursday.

What it means for the Cowboys: Things started poorly when Terrance Williams fumbled the opening kickoff and Greg Jenkins returned it 23 yards for a score just 12 seconds into the game.

It was the quickest touchdown given up by the Cowboys in their history, but they were able to overcome a 14-point second-quarter deficit to take sole possession of first place in the NFC East with the win.

At 7-5, the Cowboys lead the division by a half-game over the Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) and are two games over .500 for the first time this season and the first time since Week 15 last season when they moved to 8-6.

The Cowboys will enter December with control of their fate and on a little bit of a roll. Tony Romo threw a touchdown pass in the 25th straight game and improved to 6-1 on Thanksgiving for his career.

Stock watch: Lance Dunbar, rising. Needing a boost, the Cowboys found it in Dunbar, the second-year running back from North Texas. He had 78 yards rushing in the third quarter that set up touchdowns by Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray. He finished the game with 82 yards and was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter with a left knee injury.

Defense turns it around: Struggling is nothing new for the Cowboys’ defense, but the Raiders had their way with them in the first half. In putting up 21 points, Oakland gained 185 yards and converted on four of seven third-down opportunities.

The saving grace was a fumbled snap by Matt McGloin that Kyle Wilber recovered at the Oakland 3 that the Cowboys turned into a touchdown.

In the second half, things were much improved. The Raiders had one first down and just 25 yards to start the second half as the Cowboys tied the game in the third quarter and took the lead for good on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Cornerback Brandon Carr rebounded from a poor first half to intercept McGloin on an underthrown ball in the end zone to Jacoby Ford. The Cowboys turned that into a clinching Dan Bailey field goal with 1:56 to play.

Finding the end zone: Murray might have been usurped as the star of the ground game by Dunbar, but he contributed the first three-touchdown game of his career.

The last Cowboys running back with three rushing touchdowns in the same game was Julius Jones, who had three in a 43-39 win against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 6, 2004.

The Cowboys have nine rushing touchdowns on the season. A modest total, but the most they have had since 2010 when they had 10.

What’s next: The Cowboys have a mini-bye of sorts until the play again on Dec. 9 at the Chicago Bears. While winning the NFC East is the best and easiest way to make the playoffs, if the Cowboys want to have any wild-card hopes they almost have to win this game.

Dallas Cowboys to alter lineup

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
3:36
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There are no surprises with the Dallas Cowboys' inactives: Jakar Hamilton, Sean Lee, Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman, Darrion Weems, Andre Smith and Everett Dawkins. There is some good news for the Cowboys on the New York Giants' front: Hakeem Nicks is inactive.

Ernie Sims will start for Lee and Kyle Wilber will start for Durant at strongside linebacker.

Wilber moved to linebacker during the bye week from defensive end. He was an outside linebacker when the Cowboys ran a 3-4 last year.

Morris Claiborne will return to the lineup after missing two games. He is listed as the starter on the flip card, but Orlando Scandrick should start with Claiborne coming in on the nickel package.

J.J. Wilcox will return to the lineup but the Cowboys will use a rotation at the spot like they did against the Philadelphia Eagles. Jeff Heath worked with the first team during the week and the Cowboys could break out a three-safety look for their sub package with Barry Church moving closer to the line of scrimmage.

Nicks has an abdominal strain. He has yet to score a touchdown this season but he had five catches for 114 yards against the Cowboys in the season opener.

Five Wonders: Season on line Sunday?

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Refreshed off the bye week, Five Wonders is back and ready for action.

We'll start with this mini-wonder: Does anybody more than wonder whether the Dec. 29 meeting between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium will be to win the NFC East?

I wonder it, but only if the Cowboys beat the New York Giants this week.

On to the wonders:

SportsNation

Who will have a bigger impact in Sunday's game vs. the Giants?

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    27%
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    73%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,336)

• I wonder if the season is on the line Sunday against the New York Giants. The Cowboys would still be alive because of the state of the NFC East, but at 5-6 and reeling it would be hard to see a turnaround. They would have lost three of four and the only win came on a 90-yard drive in the final minute against the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys carry emotional baggage with them no matter how much Jason Garrett attempts to keep them in the present. Injuries have piled up again. Questions about the scheme have rumbled on both sides of the ball. There is a lot on the line this week. The Giants have won four in a row to claw back into the race after a 0-6 start. Their wins have not come against the best quarterbacks but winning breeds confidence and the Giants have confidence. Maybe the feeling comes from the 32-point loss to the New Orleans Saints before the bye, but the Cowboys sure seem fragile mentally right now as well as physically.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesIf the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs this season, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien could be an interesting choice to replace Jason Garrett.
• I don't believe owner and general manager Jerry Jones wants to replace Garrett. I truly believe he wants Garrett to be the Cowboys' head coach for a long time. But if the Cowboys don't make the playoffs this season, it would not surprise me if Jones made a move. That would be four straight seasons without a playoff appearance. Jones can sell anything, but selling a status quo wouldn't be easy. One thing I don't wonder about is if Lovie Smith would get an interview. I believe he would. But here's another guy I wonder about: Penn State coach Bill O'Brien. I don't know all of the particulars of the buyout at Penn State, but O'Brien was tempted by the NFL last season. His background with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady gives him a plus, and how he has handled the mess that has enveloped Penn State gives him a few more pluses. His time running the Patriots' offense, however, means more to me. The Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar to be more of a "12 personnel" team but the Cowboys have not been creative enough in getting people involved. They are running the same plays they did with Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett as the second tight end and they were not able to produce. O'Brien made the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez package work well with Brady. Do I believe O'Brien would get an interview? I don't know any of it, but I would have him on the list. Not that Jones would listen to me.

• The Cowboys drafted Kyle Wilber with the idea that he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4. With the move to the 4-3, he was moved to defensive end. Now he is playing some outside linebacker again because of an injury to Justin Durant. I wonder if Wilber is a man without a position. When Anthony Spencer went down in training camp with a knee injury, Wilber got the first look and then saw Ben Bass take some of his snaps. Then it was George Selvie who took them later on. When DeMarcus Ware got hurt in the season, Wilber took over but then saw Jarius Wynn take over the starting spot. Wilber always was a tweener, but the coaches have yet to feel like he can handle the full-time duty. If they did, they wouldn't be moving him around so much, especially because the defensive end spot is much more valued in this scheme than strong side linebacker.

• I wonder if we'll see a more engaged Bruce Carter now that Sean Lee is out of the lineup. There is no other way to say it then this: Carter has been a disappointment this season. The Cowboys did not need him to be Derrick Brooks in this defense, but they needed him to be productive. He had two sacks in the first two games. He had a pass deflection and a quarterback pressure. He has just two pressures and a pass deflection in the last eight games. He has one tackle for loss. The weak-side linebacker spot is designed to be the playmaker in this defense. When the Cowboys lost Lee last year to a toe injury, Carter stepped up his game before an elbow injury KO'd him for the year. The Cowboys need that Carter and not the Carter that ended the New Orleans game. We can pick on just about everybody on defense from that game, but Carter was ready for that game to end sooner than it did.

Back in June I wondered if people were sleeping on just how effective Lance Dunbar would be when the season started. I pegged him in for 30 catches out of the backfield. I saw his speed and elusiveness as being a big part of a revamped offense. I was wrong. While not as big a disappointment as Carter, Dunbar has not been able to deliver on offense. He has four catches for 21 yards and 15 carries for 48 yards. Some of it is injury. Some of it is ball security. Some of it is scheme. Jerry Jones said he wanted to see Dunbar more involved. Bill Callahan said he would like to get Dunbar more involved. Sometimes there's just not enough of the football to go around. Dunbar has seen his role taken by Cole Beasley to a degree because of the use of the "empty” package. Maybe things change in the final six games, but I would be surprised.

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