Texas

Cowboys focus on reload with defense on playoff trip to Bucks

FRISCO, Texas – Safe Jaron Kears was more than happy to reflect on the end-of-season surge from the Dallas defense while the regular season was still underway.

Now that the playoffs have arrived, Kears believes 2023 will be a difficult year for the Cowboys.

“This leaves 2022 behind us and let’s start this new season that we have ahead of us the way we should start it,” Kiers said on Wednesday. “What we did in the regular season means nothing.”

In keeping with the reboot idea, the Cowboys will visit Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a wildcard game on Monday night, with two defensemen expected to return to the lineup after missing several games with injuries.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Ashe has been out of action in the last three games of the regular season with a neck injury and is set to resume game-management duties that fell partly on Kears.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, acquired mid-season to plug a leaky run defense, is on his way to play after missing four games with a strained chest.

The Cowboys (12–5) have already lost two cornerbacks to season-ending injuries: Anthony Brown (Achilles tear) and Jordan Lewis (broken foot).

Tied for second among NFL rookies with five steals, Daron Bland quit 26-6 loss last week to Washington in the regular season finale with a chest injury, but is expected to play the Bucks (8-9).

“I feel great about where we are,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “Any time you can stand here and come in on a Monday night, some guys will be disappointed that they are not on the 48 (-man) list. For me, it’s the most rewarding thing you can dream of at this time of the year.”

The Cowboys led the NFL with 33 carryout wins, becoming the first team since the 1972–74 Pittsburgh Steelers to lead the league in that category for multiple consecutive seasons. Dallas also led the league in sacks for most of the season, but only scored six points in the last five games.

There were other signs of failure at the end of the season.

Kears admitted the defense struggled to find their form early in the season after a consistent 40-34 run in December – the first overtime loss in Jacksonville and the second a home win over NFC top seed Philadelphia.

Dak Prescott’s third pick-6 in the last four games and special teams gaffes spurred the Commanders on early in last weekend’s loss. But the Cowboys allowed Sam Howell and the Washington offensive to control the second half of the debuting rookie quarterback.

With Prescott missing five games after breaking his thumb in a season-opening loss to the Bucks, the defense in his absence took the Cowboys to a 4-1 record. The late-season D was not as dominant.

“The guys understand that we are not where we were at the beginning of the year,” Kiers said after the December 24 victory over the Eagles. “Just the realization that it will take conversations, tough conversations that will get us back where we need to be when it comes to a ruthless defensive style that really leaves nothing to chance.”

Last month, the Cowboys added three cornerbacks due to injuries and the demotion of one of their replacements, Calvin Joseph. The last was Xavier Rhodes, selected by the Minnesota in the first round of the draft in 2013.

Rhodes, 32, added to the training roster last week, has 127 regular season starts and six playoff appearances and could make his debut in Dallas against Tampa Bay.

Whether it’s fresh reinforcements or torn bag leader Micah Parsons, Kears sees the playoff opener as a reload for everyone.

“Whether you’re injured or not, when the off-season starts, it’s like newfound energy,” Kiers said. “You feel good. You are ready to go. We know that everyone will try their best.”

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