ARLINGTON, Texas -On Saturday night the Cowboys played their second straight preseason game without franchise linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who is nursing a hamstring injury.
In his return from a foot injury, Jay Ratliff was also lost to a high ankle sprain. Fortunately, the Cowboys' third preseason game did include some players coming back in the front seven.
Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher both made their 2012 preseason debut against the Rams. Both started the game and their presence was made known almost immediately. On only the Rams' third play from scrimmage, Spencer assisted on a tackle and the very next play, Hatcher sacked Rams quarterback Sam Bradford for a loss of eight yards.
Spencer finished the game with three tackles and played an active role in stopping the Rams running game, which was held to a meager 10 yards in the first quarter.
Spencer talked about shaking off the rust and how he felt playing for the first time this season after missing the majority of training camp with a hamstring injury.
"I felt good," Spencer said. "I didn't mess up on anything. Our practices are so intense that when you get into a game it makes it a little easier."
Whenever a player returns to the field after significant time off from a hamstring injury there is always a risk of reinjuring the hamstring or feeling pain on the field. However, Spencer made it clear that any discomfort that he felt had nothing to do with his hamstring.
"The only thing I was a little uncomfortable with was my jersey," Spencer said with a laugh. "It was a little tight but that's just because I haven't had it on all season. … I wouldn't have been out there if I had something still lingering from the hamstring."
This is a contract year for Spencer, and the Cowboys will use it season to evaluate his worth on the team and how much they are willing to commit to him. Prior to the season Dallas placed the franchise tag on him allowing him to earn almost $9 million in 2012. While fans and media may talk about his future with his team, Spencer sees his role within the defense this season to be the same as what it has been in previous years.
"Pretty much the normal responsibilities for me - hold the edge, rush the passer when I have the chance to and get tackles on the running game," Spencer said. "Just stop the ball. That's pretty much the bottom line."
He only remained in the game for two series, but with injuries being a theme to the Cowboys' preseason, Spencer's presence in the starting lineup alone was a positive sign in itself.
In fact, the return of both Spencer and Hatcher may represent the exciting potential of the Cowboys' defensive front seven when healthy. The first team defense had held up quite well in their absence during the first two preseason games. The first teamers pitched shutouts in the time that they were in against Oakland and San Diego and they continued their success upon Spencer and Hatcher's return by giving up only six points in the first half on Saturday.
Spencer pointed out the significance of the two starters being able to return to the field and work with the rest of the defense.
"Everybody's got to be on the same page with this defense," Spencer said. "From the starters to the guys playing behind us."
Hatcher, who had been nursing a hamstring injury, did not look to be hampered by any pain and remained in the game until midway through the second quarter. Hatcher talked about the status of his health.
"No pain, just as far as coming back off an injury you got to get your body back under you, get your muscles back going," Hatcher said. "I felt pretty good for the most part, as I think you can tell. I've still got a long ways to go. I'll be there by the time we play New York."
While Hatcher may claim that he has "a long way to go," his sack of Bradford in the first quarter is exactly what Cowboy fans are hoping to see from him during the regular season. Hatcher talked about what it felt like to make such a big play immediately upon returning to the field.
"I love getting sacks," he said. "That's what I was brought into this league to do. Hopefully there's a ton more coming. … I'm still a little rusty coming out, but a sack makes everything feel better." Spencer and Hatcher are both likely to rest, along with the other starters in the final preseason game against Miami.