NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Linebacker Bruce Carter doesn’t believe that the Dallas Cowboys want to demote him from the starting lineup.

There is certainly evidence that Cowboys are trying to push Carter, a major disappointment last season, to the bench. Justin Durant worked with the starters at Carter’s weakside linebacker spot during Tuesday’s practice with Rolando McClain at middle linebacker.

Carter
Carter
But Carter believes the Cowboys are just trying to give themselves insurance options in their linebacker corps by giving different combinations practice time together, particularly with versatile second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman potentially out for the season with a neck injury, pending a second medical opinion.

“No, I don’t think so,” Carter said when asked whether the team was trying to demote him. “I just think we need depth. Especially Ro, he needs to get his reps at Mike. … So they’re just trying, I guess, to see what the rotations are going to be. I don’t know.”

The rotation featuring McClain in the middle and Durant on the weak side certainly came as no surprise.

Head coach Jason Garrett strongly hinted about it during training camp, when he said that Durant’s most natural position was playing the weak side. The Cowboys clearly traded for the twice-retired McClain with the hope that the 25-year-old former eighth-overall pick would win the starting job at middle linebacker.

It’s also telling that owner and general manager Jerry Jones didn’t mention Carter’s name when discussing the linebacker corps during his Tuesday morning radio appearance.

“I do think that we’ve got a chance to pull one out of our hat with McClain,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “Are we looking for it? Yes. Do we wonder about him? Yes. By the same token, an old adage in this league is when somebody has once been a blue player, a blue, not just Cowboys blue, but blue in general, then look for him to be a good player again. Doesn’t mean he’s going to be, but he can be. … I’m pretty pleased with his progress.

“The way Durant’s playing, the way [strongside linebacker Kyle] Wilber is playing – Wilber could be one of the more pleasant surprises because of the level he’s playing at – our linebackers have a chance to I think be better than we expect.”

The coaches have said they will find the best combination of three linebackers for a starting unit. Carter said linebackers coach Matt Eberflus told him that all three spots are open, but the former second-round pick doesn’t seem concerned about losing a starting job despite being benched twice last season.

“For anybody, you’ve just got to go out there and work hard at it, prove to your coaches and especially your teammates that you’re going to be the best guy for that position,” Carter said. “Just keep going out there and battling.”
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys believe linebacker Rolando McClain, the twice-retired 25-year-old former eighth overall pick, is ready to get some reps with the starters.

Justin Durant performed well while working with the starters at middle linebacker throughout training camp, but head coach Jason Garrett has said that his most natural position is weakside linebacker. The Cowboys plan to look at the combination of McClain in the middle and Durant on the weak side.

“We started to do that a couple of weeks ago and then Rolando was out of practice a couple of days, so we will do that in practice this week,” Garrett said. “At the end of the day, we need to find our three best linebackers and our best combination of those guys to start for us in base, and then there are some roles in nickel as well. If guys demonstrate that they’re a better cover guy than base linebacker, maybe they’ll get their opportunities there. So we’ll continue to work the different looks and the different combinations and see what looks best.”

If the Cowboys like what they see with the McClain-Durant combination, Bruce Carter would likely be on the bench in the base defense, although he could have a role in the nickel and dime packages.

Carter could move to the strongside spot, but the Cowboys have been pleased with Kyle Wilber’s performance at the position. Garrett has been tepid with his praise of Carter this summer.

“I thought Bruce did fine,” Garrett said, evaluating Carter’s performance against the Ravens. “Didn’t like the holding call that he had. Thought that was a legit call. But he showed up a little bit in the game both in the run game and defending the pass. Good cover guy.”
IRVING, Texas -- Since 2007, the Dallas Cowboys could take some things for granted with their backup quarterbacks.

Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and Kyle Orton were established starters before coming to the Cowboys to play behind Tony Romo.

Weeden
Brandon Weeden has only 20 career starts and 23 games overall in two seasons.

Some of that inexperience showed up in Saturday’s preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens, according to coach Jason Garrett. Weeden completed 10 of 19 passes for 129 yards and an interception. He also could have had a second pass intercepted. He was sacked once and hit countless times.

It was a little different than Weeden’s start in the preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers.

“As much as anything else, it’s the mechanics of the game: handle himself at the line of scrimmage, making sure we’re in the right play,” Garrett said. “His decision-making at different times was only OK in this game, but he did some good things. Obviously we’ll highlight those and try to correct the other things. Like we talked about with him all along, he needs to play. He needs to play a lot of snaps, and I think he’ll get better and better the more chances we give him in game situations.”
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dez Bryant does not complain about play-calling, so you'll never hear this gripe from him, but the Dallas Cowboys did a poor job utilizing his big-play ability last season.

Bryant
Bryant
That should change with Scott Linehan calling the plays this season.

“We're more in attack mode,” Bryant said. “That's our mindset. We want to go out here and try to be the best. That's our mindset. We're going to keep living like that and try to be the best.”

Attack mode means making plays downfield or giving Bryant room to run when he gets the ball in his hands. He had only 14 receptions of 20-plus yards last season, far too few for a player with his physical gifts. That ranked tied for 22nd in the league and was only one more than tight end Jason Witten.

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By comparison, Bryant had one such play on each of the two series he played in Saturday's preseason opener. He broke a tackle on a 22-yard gain across the middle on the first series. He finished the next drive with a 31-yard touchdown on a jump ball in the end zone. There was also one more shot downfield to Bryant, but the officials ruled he didn't have complete control of the ball when he went out of bounds while making a leaping, juggling catch over a Ravens cornerback.

With Linehan calling plays, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had 22 20-plus-yard gains last season, an NFL-leading 40 in 2012 and a league-high 32 in 2011.

Clearly, Johnson's remarkable size and athleticism were the primary factors in his big-play production. But Linehan has proven he can utilize a physical-freak receiver, and Bryant looks forward to benefiting from it.
IRVING, Texas -- Few things excite fans in training camp more than the play of an unsung quarterback fighting to make a team.

In 2003 and ‘04, Tony Romo was that guy for the Dallas Cowboys. He was the unknown guy from Eastern Illinois who blossomed into a Pro Bowler and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after three years as a backup and even a backup to the backup.

Matt Moore did it in 2007 for the Cowboys. Rudy Carpenter was that guy in 2009. Last year it was Alex Tanney.

[+] EnlargeDallas' Dustin Vaughan
AP Photo/Matt StrasenDustin Vaughan has completed 10 of 21 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown in two preseason games.
This year it is Dustin Vaughan, who is more like Romo and Tanney, coming from West Texas A&M with a YouTube hit. Tanney’s video was that of a trick shot artist. Vaughan chose a Christmas sweater and less-than-stellar form in a spoof of his résumé.

In two preseason games, Vaughan has completed 10 of 21 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. He has looked the part, but is he Romo or Moore, who went on to start games for the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins, or is he Carpenter or Tanney?

“We’re going to see a lot of him these next two ballgames I’m sure, and we’ll see how that plays out,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said after Saturday’s game. “But he could very well [make the final roster as the No. 3 quarterback].”

Vaughan has a big arm, as his 24-yard completion down the sideline to Jamar Newsome attested. He also has an understanding of the game with his 5-yard TD to Newsome after the Ravens stacked the line for the run. In his first preseason work against the San Diego Chargers, he impressed with his ability to move around and buy time.

“I think the main thing, the way to kind of stay sane through this entire process is you’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Vaughan said.

He likely won’t see much or any action Saturday against the Miami Dolphins with the starters expected to play into the second half. He could see a ton of action in the preseason finale vs. the Denver Broncos on Aug. 28. The conundrum the Cowboys could face is if Vaughan plays too well and a team claims him should they try to sneak him through waivers.

The Cowboys have not kept three quarterbacks on the active roster since Stephen McGee in 2011 joined Romo and Jon Kitna. For as well as Vaughan has played, the Cowboys could have too many needs elsewhere on the roster, especially on defense, to keep a third quarterback this year behind Romo and Brandon Weeden.

In order for Vaughan to make it to the practice squad, he would have to clear waivers after the final cuts. Moore didn’t in 2007. Tanney did last year.

“I appreciate absolutely any opportunity that I can get,” Vaughan said. “Whether that’s coming in being the third quarterback or on the practice squad, it’s my dream to be in the NFL and right now I’m trying to make this team and however I can do it I just need to take every opportunity.”
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Sloppy is one way to describe the Dallas Cowboys' kickoff coverage during Saturday’s preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

It’s the polite way, actually. Awful would be more accurate.

Special teams are often an adventure during the preseason because teams mix and match so many players and spend significantly less time practicing that facet of the game than offense and defense. However, the Cowboys had primarily core special-teams players on the field when Baltimore’s Deonte Thompson raced 108 yards untouched for a touchdown on a kickoff return in the first quarter.

Safety Jeff Heath, linebacker DeVonte Holloman and safety Barry Church got blocked to create Thompson’s path to pay dirt.

“It opened up like the Red Sea,” Thompson said.

“It was [a lack of lane integrity] as much as anything else,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “Sometimes guys get aggressive and want to go make a play on the ball, but you have to have lane integrity.”

That wasn’t the Cowboys’ only poor moment on kickoff coverage. Thompson took his next return 44 yards to midfield. He gained 30 yards returning the opening kickoff of the second half.

The wrath of Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia should be felt in the meeting room and on the practice field this week. He has a lot of work to do.
IRVING, Texas – With expectations low, success for the Dallas Cowboys' defense in 2014 will be measured in stops, not necessarily yards and points allowed.

It will be critically important they play well in situational football, especially on third down.

With their regulars -- or what can be considered their regulars anyway -- the highlight of Saturday’s 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was a third-down stop anchored by J.J. Wilcox.

On third-and-2 from the Dallas 22, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a slant to Steve Smith with cornerback B.W. Webb in his hip pocket. As Smith was about to come down with the catch, Wilcox came in to break it up with a big hit.

Wilcox
Wilcox gave Webb the credit.

“He stood on the top of the route, pushed him into me, squeezed him to me as being the low robber,” Wilcox said. “When a chance comes out like that you’ve got to take your opportunity.”

That it came against Smith, one of the toughest receivers in the NFL and owner of hundreds of contested catches in his career, made it even more noticeable.

“I realized it when I was coming and I really knew I had to bring it because he’s a great player,” Wilcox said. “He’s got a lot of punch behind him.”

The Cowboys defense forced Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

Wilcox will be counted on for those kinds of plays this season. He will be mostly manning the center of the field with Barry Church playing in the box.

“A thumper? Oh yeah he’s a guy who can definitely bring the wood,” Church said. “He’s definitely showed that each day in practice thumping around. I’m looking for big things to come from him this season.”

Wilcox has all but cemented his starting spot, going unchallenged in Oxnard, California. He has been among the most vocal defenders when things have not gone well for the defense. At one practice when Webb and Terrance Mitchell were out of position, Wilcox called them out.

He has played safety for only three years, but the Cowboys believed he had all of the ability to be a long-term starter. He would have been that guy last year as a rookie but missed time in camp following the death of his mother. When he eventually was named the starter he suffered a knee injury and the coaches chose to remain with Jeff Heath.

There is no doubt he is the guy this year.

“He’s a guy who’s got a nose for the football,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a very physical player and I thought that was an important little sequence for us. That’s a good receiver that B.W. Webb was covering now. Steve Smith has been an awfully good player in this league for a long time, so I thought B.W. contested it well and then for J.J. to have that range to knock that thing out, that was a good play and a really big play for our defense to get off the field there.”

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

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

QUARTERBACKS (2)
Dustin Vaughan is making things interesting, but with so many needs at other spots, the No. 3 QB is just too much of a luxury. People were excited about Alex Tanney at this time last year, too. Right now, he's on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

I believe Ryan Williams and Randle serve the same roles, so it's hard to justify giving them both roster spots. Williams showed some explosion and burst late in Saturday's game. Perhaps he or Randle can drum up some trade interest when it's time for cuts. If you keep both tailbacks, then I can't see Clutts making it. With the desire to run more, Clutts makes more sense.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)

These five have remained the same all camp and will continue to remain the same. It's too difficult for Jamar Newsome, LaRon Byrd or Chris Boyd to crack the 53 right now, and the needs on defense will trump the need for a sixth receiver.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

This group remains unchanged as well. Escobar hurt his shoulder against Baltimore, but the Cowboys don't believe it's too serious. Hanna had a drop but also caught a touchdown pass in his second straight game.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

I'm sticking with the same group, but Stephen Goodin could make his way into the mix over Nwaneri considering Nwaneri's base salary would be guaranteed for the season if he's on the roster in Week 1. I also kept Wetzel as the third tackle, but look for the Cowboys to have an eye on the waiver wire for that spot if Darrion Weems can't return soon. Like last week, I wonder if going with eight linemen for Week 1 might be appropriate.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I took DeMarcus Lawrence off the roster because I'm going to place him on short-term injured reserve, which would cost him the first six games. That allows Boatright to get a spot. I chose Boatright over Martez Wilson. Where's Zach Minter? He was good against Baltimore, but I want to see more of him before he gets a spot. Remember, Josh Brent could be in this mix, too.

LINEBACKERS (7)

I'm sticking with the same seven, but Lawrence's spot is "fungible" as Jerry Jones likes to say. Maybe Will Smith gets in the mix. Maybe it allows for an 11th defensive lineman, like Minter, Wilson or a waiver pickup or trade. Holloman's neck injury could open up a spot if it's serious.

CORNERBACKS (5)

No Orlando Scandrick? Well, he's suspended the first four games, so he's out of the mix for Sept. 7 against San Francisco. Webb gets the edge because he can play the slot and the Cowboys really don't have another slot corner after Moore and Webb. The coaches continue to rave about Mitchell, but he gets beat too much for my liking. I think he's done enough to make the 53, but Tyler Patmon or Justin Green could work their way into the mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Dixon might have put himself back on the bubble by showing up late to the final walk-through in Oxnard, California, which landed him a spot on the bench for the Baltimore game. He gets the spot for now, but he is out of wiggle room. I don't see another safety making the roster, but that could open a spot for a corner if needed.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Same as it ever was.

Injuries shelve Escobar, Holloman

August, 17, 2014
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar's best highlight Saturday turned into a play he might like to forget.

Escobar suffered a right shoulder injury in the third quarter of Saturday's 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens after laying out for a 37-yard completion.

He will be examined further Sunday.

"We don't think it's going to be too, too serious," coach Jason Garrett said.

Linebacker DeVonte Holloman left in the fourth quarter with a neck injury. There is concern because Holloman missed seven games as a rookie last season with a neck injury. He was able to return and start the final two games.

He has been playing mostly at backup middle linebacker in training camp.

"We don't know if it's the exact same thing, but it's the same body part so we're checking on him [Saturday] night and we'll check him out in the morning," Garrett said.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- No matter the outcome of Saturday night’s preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was going to be the story.

Romo
In two series of work, Romo completed four of five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.

"I thought he looked comfortable," coach Jason Garrett said at halftime. "I thought he looked like himself and moved around in the pocket. He made some good throws that looked like he saw the field well. He felt the pocket really well and looked comfortable moving the team."

Romo saw his first action since Dec. 22, 2013 in Week 16 against the Washington Redskins because of back surgery. He missed five of 16 practices in Oxnard, California, for training camp as he and the Cowboys worked through a schedule in which Romo got enough work but not enough to overdo it.

"It felt good," Romo said. "I thought it was great to get out there and help the football team and go through the checks and balances you have to do to get your team in a position to compete."

Romo had a 31-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant to cap his night.

"His mind was right, he was poised and went out there, knew what he wanted to do, and did it," Bryant said. "He wanted to show the world he is 9 and he's a baller."
OXNARD, Calif. -- Rookie cornerback Terrance Mitchell, as cocky as a seventh-round pick can be, rocked his body back and forth and bobbed his head to the beat as the Black Hole serenaded him.

“Thirty sucks! Thirty sucks!” the Oakland Raiders fans chanted, a response to Mitchell taunting the crowd every time he made a play in the joint practices.

[+] EnlargeTerrance Mitchell
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsOne of rookie Terrance Mitchell's goals for 2014: lead Dallas in interceptions.
Mitchell didn’t mind the vitriol treatment from the visiting fans. He fed off it. Heck, if he couldn’t handle criticism, there’s no way Mitchell could make it through a meeting with Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Jerome Henderson.

A bemused smile broke out on Henderson’s face when asked about Mitchell, who will get a ton of playing time again in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens with starting corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne sidelined.

“It’s a good thing I don’t have hair with Mitchell,” Henderson said, removing his cap and rubbing his bald head, figuring Mitchell would make his hair fall out if it hadn’t already. “Oh, gosh. Never a dull moment.

“But I love his passion for the game.”

What does Mitchell do to wear out his position coach? Henderson said he doesn’t have enough time to list everything. It’s stuff like playing the proper techniques and alignments, paying attention to detail.

But Henderson wouldn’t be so hard on Mitchell if he didn’t see potential in the Oregon product.

“Shoot, you’ve got to have tough skin at this level and be able to accept criticism,” Mitchell said. “Man, it’s tough. I’m making my coach go crazy, but I’ve got to keep working. I show him some things here and there, and then I can be in the wrong place or something. That could just make him go a little crazy.”

Mitchell’s cocky personality -- he struts around the practice field and says his goal is to lead the team in picks as a rookie -- makes people notice him. So does his ability to make big plays, although he gives up too many of them, too.

Mitchell got toasted a couple of times during those practices with the Raiders. He also had several pass breakups and a remarkable pick, when he showed impressive catch-up speed and ripped a deep ball out of veteran receiver James Jones’ hands.

“I like Terrance Mitchell,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He has a lot of good traits for the position he plays. He has a really good demeanor. He’s got a competitive spirit. He loves to play the game. He’s not afraid of anything. But he’s a young player. He needs to get technically better with his feet, with his hands. He needs to understand the defense better, but he’s still a young guy.

“A lot of those things that he has are things we feel like we can build on. The tape is obvious when he’s not doing things the right way, and I think he’s understanding when I do it right, usually good things happen; when I don’t, usually bad things happen. But he’s got a nice fight to him and a nice spirit to him that you like, for anybody, particularly when you play out on that island.”
OXNARD, Calif. -- Dez Bryant can do just about anything on a football field.

In his first four seasons he has shown he can make the incredible leaping catch over a defensive back. He can make the tough grab in traffic. He can make the short catch and run through and by defenders. The Pro Bowl appearance on his résumé is verification.

[+] EnlargeDerek Dooley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDallas receivers coach Derek Dooley has worked extensively with star WR Dez Bryant, left, on his downfield blocking.
But where Bryant wants to improve is as a blocker, proof that this running game is serious business for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.

“That’s one of my focus points coming into this training camp, getting there, blocking, finding that guy on the back side,” Bryant said. “Playing with DeMarco [Murray], the ball is supposed to be going left and he’ll end up coming back right. So you got to be aware. I think I’ve took a step forward, not only me, but the rest of the guys have took a step forward by taking a different approach with our blocking.”

In the offseason Bryant and receivers coach Derek Dooley met to discuss what he needed to improve upon. Most of the improvement was in the passing game, but downfield blocking was on the list, too.

“It starts with a willingness that you need to want to help and then from there there’s technique involved,” Dooley said. “So to his credit he’s actually worked at it a lot more and it’s showed up a lot more when DeMarco has popped out in the perimeter.”

Dooley twice put his receivers on the blocking sled normally reserved for offensive and defensive linemen in camp. But he said the receivers did the same amount of work on the sled last year.

“I think Dez has probably put a greater emphasis on one of his areas of improvement in the run game and that’s kind of created a story, but our guys blocked fairly well last year,” Dooley said. “I felt good about it but there were times when he could’ve given a lot more effort on it.”

Dooley said receivers have to have a “clock in their feet,” because they need to know when a running back is coming their way with their back to the action most times. He said there were times Bryant and Miles Austin were rolled up from behind and reverted to getting out of the way more than blocking.

“You don’t want to look at [the defensive backs’] eyes because they can fake you out,” Dooley said. “It’s no different than tackling. The beauty of it is blocking and tackling really involve the same fundamentals as it relates to body position and eyes. So when you tackle a ball carrier you certainly don’t want to look at his eyes because they’re going to head-fake you and you’ll fall over. You’ve got to keep your eyes low. But the biggest thing is the clock in your head. The DB will stop and relax on you and then take off. You can’t do that.”

Bryant said he appreciates what Dooley has done for him.

“Coach Dooley is one of the best that’s ever been around me,” Bryant said. “He’s made the game so simple and easy. He’s great.”
OXNARD, Calif. -- Terrell Owens sees a lot of himself in Dez Bryant.

There have been few physical specimens as impressive as Owens to play receiver in the NFL. Bryant is one of them.

Bryant
Bryant
But their ability to make acrobatic catches and break tackles aren't the first things that come to Owens' mind when he thinks of the similarities between himself and Bryant. Owens relates to Bryant because they've both been national lightning rods.

"From the standpoint of a guy that is very passionate about the game," Owens said during his Thursday visit to the Dallas Cowboys' training camp. "A lot of what he does can be misconstrued, misinterpreted. His head mentally is in the right place. He is going to go through those growing pains that I'm sure the organization has already realized.

"That is a part of growing up. That is a part of the maturation process that he will live and learn from."

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It can be argued that Bryant has matured more in the first four seasons of his NFL career than Owens did in his 15 years in the league.

But Owens, who has developed a friendly relationship with Bryant through various charity events they've participated in together, has sound advice for the 25-year-old Pro Bowl receiver.

"Dez has to obviously realize the opportunity he has in front of him and really make the most of the opportunities, because you never know when your last play or your last game is going to be," Owens said. "I think he's starting to get it and I think he has the right people in his corner to really guide him and pave the way for him."

More than Tony Romo to make debuts

August, 15, 2014
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OXNARD, Calif. -- Tony Romo will not be the only member of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense to make his preseason debut Saturday against the Ravens.

Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Lance Dunbar will also play for the first time.

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“Let me tell you right now, I can’t wait,” Bryant said. “Not me, but the offense just been waiting patiently. Me personally, I’m tired of going against the same guys, our defense. I’m ready to see another color.”

Like Romo, just how much they will play is not clear. After sitting out the Hall of Fame Game last year, the starters played two series in the Cowboys’ second preseason game, but without the extra preseason game this year, that plan could change. Typically, they play into the third quarter for the third preseason game and do not play in the final preseason game.

Murray had 19 carries for 73 yards in two preseason games last year.

“I think they know what’s best for me and best for this team, so whatever they tell me to do or decide to do for me and this team, I’m up for it,” Murray said. “But I want to play.”

Witten is going into his 12th season, and even though it is just a preseason game with limited action, he is excited for his first action.

“To get it to carry over to the games, I think that’s where your confidence comes,” Witten said. “So many times people say you have to believe what you want to accomplish, I think it comes from the confident you have. It’s been a good camp, and we have to continue to build on this. We’re not a good enough team to think we’re just going to roll out there Sept. 7 and have a chance. We have to continue to build. I think our football team is pretty resilient. Coach [Jason] Garrett has really pushed up. We have a group of guys who work hard every day. That’s exciting and fun to be a part of.”
OXNARD, Calif. -- The discussion about Dallas Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant this summer has mostly centered around who or what he isn't.

Durant
Durant isn't Sean Lee, the defensive captain and proven playmaker who will miss the entire season due to a torn ACL, prompting the coaches to move Durant from the strong side to middle linebacker.

Durant isn't a former eighth overall pick, like Rolando McClain, the man the Cowboys traded for and talked out of retirement to compete with Durant for the right to replace Lee.

Here's what Durant is: arguably the most productive Dallas defender so far this summer. Perhaps that's damning with faint praise, but Durant has undoubtedly impressed the coaching staff with his performance during training camp.

"With Sean's injury we needed LBs to step up and he certainly is one of them who's taken charge," head coach Jason Garrett said. "One of the examples was on the tape to our team last night of him just running all over this field the last couple days against the Raiders, playing with a relentless spirit and making a lot of plays. He's really showing command and decisiveness playing that spot. He's really had a good camp."

Durant was close to dominant during the second practice against the Raiders. He had a spectacular, leaping deflection on a deep wheel route to Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece, another pass breakup on a pass over the middle and several stuffs on running plays.

He looks like he's been playing middle linebacker for years, not months.

"I'm feeling really confident -- confident and comfortable," Durant said. "Like I said, the more reps that I got, the better I was going to feel. Throughout this whole camp, I've just been focusing on the Mike. I think that if you go and look at it, I'm feeling really comfortable with the reads, comfortable with everything that's going on."

That doesn't necessarily mean Durant, a seven-year veteran who was limited to 10 games due to injuries last season, will be the Cowboys' starter at middle linebacker. But it's a good bet that he will start at one of the linebacker spots.

Durant has gotten limited work at the weakside linebacker, which Garrett says might be his most natural position. If McClain plays well in the preseason, the Cowboys could slide Durant over to the Will and bump underachieving Bruce Carter to the bench.

Durant vows to be prepared to do his part, regardless of position.

"I think I really came in with a different mindset to be honest with you," Durant said. "I've always taken it seriously, being my job, but I had a different type of focus coming into this season. ... I just wanted to go out there and show my teammates that I could be the next man up and I'm ready to do whatever I have to do."

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