FRISCO, Texas –The Cowboys are hoping their defense will look a bit different when it lines up this Sunday against Green Bay.
That's a literal statement, not a figurative one. Obviously, the Cowboys will need to play better than the 281 yards and 19 points they allowed in the second half against Los Angeles. Otherwise, their Week 5 meeting with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will be a long one.
But that's the initial point. When the Cowboys welcome the Packers to AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon, there's at least some optimism they'll have some reinforcements on defense – starting with their top two linebackers, Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens.
"The good news is we've got a chance to have both back right now, this week," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones on Tuesday. "We're going to see how they do in practice. It could be early. We've got the bye week coming up. That may be a decision to make there."
Lee was a game time decision last week and ultimately did not play in the loss to the Rams. Hitchens has been absent through the first month of the season, after he sustained a minor fracture in his knee during the final preseason game against Oakland.
It might be too early to speculate on their availability for Sunday, but it has to be encouraging that both of them are making progress in their returns.
Jaylon Smith has been solid in his first month of action after an 18-month injury rehabilitation of his own, but Jones noted that having the two veteran linebackers on the field could only help him raise his level of play.
"He's playing outstanding for being a rookie, but still, rookies do find themselves out of position a lot. Opposing offenses know this," Jones said. "So we've got to maybe have a group out there that can give him – maybe fewer plays. That would be the result if we've got Hitchens and if we get Lee back."
Elsewhere, the Cowboys' secondary will bear monitoring. Chidobe Awuzie and Nolan Carroll were both inactive for Week 4 – Awuzie with a hamstring injury he suffered against Denver, and Carroll with a concussion he suffered in the same game.
With those two sidelined, the Cowboys have seen some positive contributions from their rookie duo of Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods. Lewis has 15 tackles and an interception in three appearances since becoming one of the secondary's top three corners, while Woods has posted five tackles and a pass breakup in spot duty at a variety of different positions.
"Candidly, I like the help we've got on the way," Jones said. "We're going to get Awuzie, and you're going to see even more of No. 27, Lewis. I like what he's doing. You're going to see a lot of what No. 25 is about in the future."
And there is the obvious addition of David Irving, who hasn't been with the team since the regular season began. Monday marked the end of Irving's four-game suspension by the NFL, which he incurred for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Unlike the Cowboys' other suspended defensive lineman, Damontre' Moore, Irving was not allowed at the team facility during his month away from the field. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Monday his primary goal for the week is to get Irving integrated back into practice heading into the weekend.
"I just think the biggest thing is you take it case by case, and hopefully he's ready to go and in shape," Garrett said. "He had a good training camp for us, had a good preseason for us. Hopefully in this time off, he's done what he's supposed to do each day to get himself ready to go."
Irving posted 17 tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles for the Cowboys as a rotational player last season. Fittingly enough, he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after he posted four tackles, a sack, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery during the Cowboys' Oct. 16 win against Green Bay last year.
With all of those things in mind, it's understandable why the Cowboys are feeling hopeful about improvement going forward.
"I think our defense has got some personnel coming," Jones said. "You can be critical of the other day, you can be critical individually, you can be critical as a unit – but we're progressing, let's put it like that."