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Never Fear Zach's Here

a 34-year-old inside linebacker is on his last leg, that he's old and decrepit and can't run anymore. For the obvious-man thinker, this story is for you. 

  Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo struggled dearly in the second game of the season last year, throwing for the fewest yards (186) of the first 13 games. And even though the Cowboys won, 37-20, to Romo, who completed only 14 of 29 passes, finishing with his second lowest QB rating of those opening 13 games - who can forget Buffalo? - this one was no laughing matter. 

  He blamed most of his frowns on some guy named Zach Thomas. Yep, same guy, just 11½ months younger. To Romo, the 34-year-old Thomas was a pain in the ass to the Cowboys' passing game, be it first down, second down or third when they went into their nickel offense. He never came off the field, that is, not until suffering that concussion which contributed heavily to landing him on IR for the rest of last season. 

  Romo told me Thomas got such great depth in coverage, and would always take such good angles on his drops, that he messed up the Cowboys' vertical passing game. Romo said Thomas' speed running underneath that hash-mark throw he loves to hit tight end Jason Witten on down the seam was nearly impossible to make, because having to get so much loft on the throw to get over Thomas' head allowed the safety to break on the ball. 

  The Cowboys ended up picking and pecking underneath, and Romo's 34-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the fourth quarter to put the game away didn't come until well after Thomas had left the field. 

  Romo shook his head after deftly explaining everything that went on in that game, saying, "That guy is amazing." 

  Who'd a thunk it? 

  "I still got to work on it," Thomas says sheepishly of his passing-down coverage. "But I've been known for that, but I guess coming in here everybody kind of forgets, they think, he's 35 (Sept. 1), just has pedestrian speed or something. 

  "But hey, it's something I have to prove. I have to prove myself because there is a lot of talent out here and you just got to improve everyday."  Evidently he did on Thursday morning, when the Cowboys first-team defense in the final 11-on-11 simply smothered the Broncos' first-team offense. Here is my running list of plays in my notebook of what would have happened if they were putting the guy with the ball on the ground: 

  Zach tackle. 

  Spears sack. 

  Ratliff sack. 

  Zach (dime) tackle. 

  Canty bats pass at line. 

  Zach (dime) tackle. 

  No lie. And when I say tackle, I mean tackles for no more than yard or two gains. Maybe. 

  Evidently Mike Shanahan noticed, too. 

  "Zach is a great football player," the Broncos head coach said. "I think we all know Zach Thomas. He practices at a certain level, and that's why he plays at a certain level every time he hits that football field. He's an experienced pro, a guy I have always admired, and he had a good practice today." 

  Now nothing might change when Burnett returns, and he had been playing well enough on the nickel and dime defenses to hold his ground. But you never know what happens when you open the door for another guy, and Zach would have been too polite to simply open the door for himself. 

  But the best thing about all this is just another illustration of the Cowboys' depth. We've seen it at corner, basically, with Mike Jenkins, Alan Ball and Adam Jones picking up the slack for the missing Terence Newman. And I've got a sneaky suspicion we'll see the same at the inside linebacker spot on the nickel or dime.  I mean, what happens if Zach plays so well they can't get him off the field? 

  "If they need me, sure, you know it," Thomas said if he would welcome the chance to remain a three-down backer. "But there is a lot of depth at linebacker. Bradie can play it, Bobby can play it, KB when he's healthy." 

  But currently, he's not, so if I were you, I'd keep an eye on Zach. He might add to this ever-growing slide show. 


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