Communication will be key for fill-ins

IRVING, Texas -- The two biggest injuries to the Dallas Cowboys' lineup could affect communication.

Whoever the replacements are for Ken Hamlin at free safety and Marc Colombo at right tackle, they need to be on the same page with their teammates, especially now with the Cowboys expected to see more blitzes and teams threatening to go downfield deep with the inexperienced players at those positions.

Starting free safety Hamlin, who will miss two to four weeks with a high ankle sprain, is the quarterback of the secondary, and gets the defensive play call from linebacker Bradie James. Hamlin then signals the cornerbacks on his side of the field as to what coverage they should be in.

Strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh does the same. Sometimes after an offense lines up, the secondary will make changes in coverages. Hamlin makes those calls.

"Communication is always critical," secondary/safeties coach Brett Maxie said. "Guys on the back end have to be on the same page. You have to be able to communicate with the guys in the front like the linebackers. I don't think there's going to be much fall-off because we're not doing anything different, we're not putting in any new plays. Guys like Pat [Watkins] and Alan Ball take reps during the course of the week, they just have to pick up the slack, and that's what being a true pro is."

Hamlin's replacement hasn't been determined. Ball and Watkins can play the position, and coach Wade Phillips didn't rule out using Michael Hamlin (no relation to Ken) as a possible starter.

When Hamlin was hurt with 2:18 to play in the third quarter, Watkins came in and played free safety. During the course of the game, Ball also played some at free safety.

Ball, who has three years of playing experience, participated in 14 snaps, splitting between safety and cornerback. Watkins, in his fourth year, participated in 11. Before his injury, Ken Hamlin was on the field for 54 plays.

"It's bad, he's a great communicator back there and he's been playing well," Sensabaugh said of Hamlin. "I know he's banged up a little bit. We'll do a good job with the game plan."

The loss of starting right tackle Colombo is also big. Colombo suffered a high ankle sprain and a fractured fibula on a run play by running back Marion Barber in the first quarter.

Colombo underwent surgery Monday to repair ligament damage to his left ankle. He also has a fibula fracture near his left knee. The recovery time for the fibula is about six weeks, but the ankle injury could take longer to heal.

The Cowboys are being cautious about whether Colombo can return in 2009.

Doug Free took Colombo's place, and Phillips wasn't quick to heap him with praise. After the game, Phillips said he needed to view film before passing judgment. When asked again Monday about Free, Phillips said he played OK and noted that he committed a holding penalty on the last drive of the game.

"We've worked him on both sides," Phillips said. "Mainly left tackle during the game. I mean, we put him in a couple of weeks ago at left tackle. It's not a big difference for him and for us."

Free hasn't started a game since the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round out of Northern Illinois in 2007. If he gets the starting job, he will need to make sure he communicates with right guard Leonard Davis. It's important for linemen to speak to one other, especially when teams are trying to blitz the quarterback. Linemen must know who is going to pick up which defenders on passing downs.

Davis said he was going to speak with Free this week to work on communication. In Sunday's loss at Green Bay, quarterback Tony Romo was sacked a career-high five times. Phillips said several of the missed blitz pickups were on the protection and not the quarterback.

The Cowboys don't necessarily have to lean on Free to replace Colombo. Davis, who played one snap at left tackle Sunday when Flozell Adams was hurt, is another possibility at right tackle. Davis last played the position extensively in 2002 with Arizona in his second year in the league. Davis would prefer staying at guard or moving to left tackle.

Pat McQuistan is another lineman who can fill in at tackle.

"We've got until Wednesday to start working on it," Phillips said. "And we may even work during the week and see how they do. But we have guys that have worked there all along."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.