IRVING, Texas – About a year ago, Mo Claiborne began the slow climb back to competition.
In Week 4 of the 2014 season, Claiborne tore the patellar tendon in his left knee against the New Orleans Saints – a season-ending injury and easily the worst of a series of setbacks since he arrived in 2012 as the highly-touted shutdown cornerback prospect whom the Cowboys traded a first- and second-round pick to grab at No. 6 overall.
A year later, Claiborne's returning to his native Louisiana for the Cowboys' Sunday Night Football matchup with the Saints. Not only has he returned from a pair of operations – surgery on the left patellar tendon last October and a right knee scope last January – he has arguably been the team's most productive corner through the first three games.
"I'm just going out and playing," Claiborne said. "No matter who's in front of me, I feel like I have a job to do and I know the team is depending on me to go do my part.
"My confidence level is high. It's just high on the standpoint of just being able to go play football again. I'm excited and I'm just working my tail off to try go get the job done."
Claiborne appeared in only 29 of 48 games in his first three seasons due to various injuries. With reps indeed comes confidence, and positive plays foster more confidence.
The Cowboys and their athletic training staff and strength/conditioning staff were highly pleased with the effort Claiborne gave during his rehab over several months. By training camp he had graduated to team drills in practice, though the team incrementally increased his workload leading into the regular season.
Through three games, Claiborne ranks fourth on defense with 14 team-credited tackles and his pair of pass breakups are tied for second. In last Sunday's loss to Atlanta, the entire secondary had their hands full with Falcons star receiver Julio Jones, but Claiborne appeared to have the tightest coverage. From the Dallas 6-yard line in the first quarter, he nearly intercepted Matt Ryan's slant pass to Jones.
"That's one play that sticks out because if I would've gotten the pick they wouldn't have scored on that drive," he said.
"I feel like I should be two picks right now into the season – two picks that would help this team and also help myself. I'm trying not to leave too many out there on the field and take advantage of the ones that I can get when I get them."
The other near-interception occurred in Week 2 at Philadelphia.
With experience, Claiborne is learning to let the bad plays go more quickly – a key trait that the league's better corners have, knowing receivers will inevitably win on certain routes.
He also used his rehab time to improve his film study habits, sitting in with secondary coach Jerome Henderson and the coaching staff.
"Jerome does a fantastic job with those guys," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He (Claiborne) has veteran players around him. It's a good learning environment for him. The more these guys get a chance to be around football and they understand the importance of details, I think they see how details help them become a better player. I think Mo's learned that over the course of his career."
Claiborne is also learning more and more how to manage his body week to week during the season, such as when he deals with a little knee soreness.
"I know my body. You know what you can go through and what you can't go through," he said. "And I feel like I've been through it all.
"God sat me down for a reason (last year). I don't know what that reason may be, but he did and I took advantage of what I could take advantage of at that time to get myself better for the upcoming season."
The result through the first month is an improved, more relaxed and confident player.
"I think he's playing really good. I mean, he is playing really good man-to-man technique," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "He's tackling, making plays. The one that he dropped down there (against Atlanta), that was a great play. It wasn't great enough – it's a good play. Great plays, you've got to come up with the ball. But we're pleased with where he's at.
"I think a big part of it is coaching with Jerome, and he works on it, but he's got a chance to go out every single day and work on football. He'll get better. He'll get better."