IRVING, Texas – The third player to call the defense this season also happens to be the most experienced of the three.
Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer will take over as the primary defensive signal caller with Bruce Carter and Sean Lee both on injured reserve.
"The person that stands in front of the huddle is usually the leader of the defense," Spencer said. "I'll embrace it, definitely. I'm definitely happy to be right there. It adds a little bit more to the game."
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's voice echoes through the helmet of one player who calls and sets the defense. Though he'd never called a defense at any point in his football career, Spencer accepted that responsibility after Carter left Thursday's game with an elbow injury that will sideline him the rest of the year.
Spencer admitted it felt odd to take on that role, given that he's not the most vocal of players. But the role wasn't too difficult for him, besides adjusting to Ryan's voice in his ear.
"It went pretty well," Spencer said. "It was louder than I expected, but it went pretty well. I do anticipate having him in my head the rest of the year."
Spencer, who led the Cowboys with two sacks and seven solo tackles against the Redskins, now guides a defense facing significant alterations the rest of the year with its top two tacklers out for the season.
The probable starters at inside linebacker are now Ernie Sims and Dan Connor. Before Spencer clarified, head coach Jason Garrett seemed to indicate that Connor might take the role of the primary defensive communicator.
"I think he's comfortable with our defense," Garrett said of Connor. "He's been in and out of the lineup with injuries himself, but he'll get a chance to play an extended period of time. The snaps he's gotten when he was playing behind Bruce and Sean were good for him. I think he's getting more and more comfortable with what we're trying to do."
The Cowboys went with the player they knew would be on the field almost every play. Spencer's the leading tackler behind Lee and Connor, while Sims has only been around since Week 8 and Connor missed two games after a neck injury at home against the Giants.
Even if Spencer takes Carter's role in gathering the defense, Sims, Connor, Alex Albright and a new member of the Cowboys will play prominent parts on the inside of the defense.
"Ernie's done a nice job for us," Garrett said. "Alex has to have an ability to play in there. That's one of the things we like about him is his versatility. He's been a very good special teams player for us and he can also play outside and inside linebacker. Then we signed Brady Poppinga as well. We need to have a little depth in there. Those guys have got to be ready to play, regardless of what their role is."
Injuries caught up with Poppinga after spending six seasons in Green Bay. He went to St. Louis last year and had been high on the Cowboys' wait list this year after working out with the team in early November. The outgoing, lively linebacker is excited to finally get another NFL opportunity after having discussions with multiple teams and working out with the Chiefs.
Poppinga said he's not sure how many snaps he'll get this week, but he's prepared to perform as much as needed and will attempt to figure out the defensive terminology throughout the week.
"It's not my first rodeo, so I understand the kind of movements and feel I want to have," Poppinga said. "I've been taught very well by my position coaches and strength and conditioning coaches, and from them I've been able to formulate a plan customized to how I like to feel. I'm in what you call "Batman shape," meaning when I get the call, boom, I put the mask on, I'm gone. So I've got the mask on, here I am."
It will be clear what kind of shape Poppinga is in this week. Ryan has never been bashful about using every player available on his defense. The Cowboys have no choice at this point but to move on without an assortment of key defensive players. That list includes cornerback Orlando Scandrick, whom Garrett said will likely be out for the time being after undergoing surgery on his hand last week.
Spencer remains confident the defense can hold steady. He also remains hopeful Sean Lissemore can return this week to help out rookie defensive ends Ben Bass and Tyrone Crawford.
"Injuries are part of the game," Spencer said. "I was injured earlier in the season. Guys kept playing. Guys that are injured now, we don't have any choice but to keep playing. That's the will of this team. We're going to keep fighting no matter what. We've got the right guys to do it."
Spencer said it's easier to adjust for injuries on defense with younger players like Bass and Crawford who've been around the system rather than street free agents. But regardless of which player is stepping in, Spencer said it's crucial that a sense of doubt doesn't pervade the defense's mindset.
"I think about football the way life is," Spencer said. "Things never work out the way you want them to work out, but you've got to keep going, regardless of what's happening. That's the way this team is. Whatever's happening on the field or what's happening off the field, we're going to just keep playing and grinding it out. That's the type of people that we have."