Irving, Texas -- Some thoughts as the Cowboys make their final preparations for the Lions:
When J.J. Wilcox suffered a sprained knee at practice on Thursday, the fear of every coach and trainer was realized when he was helped off the field. Injuries during the games you can live with, but the ones during practice kill you inside.
Wilcox was coming off one of his best games of the season last week, but this injury will most likely sideline him a couple of games. In his place, Jeff Heath will be making his first start against the Lions in his home state of Michigan.
If anyone in this secondary can handle that assignment, it's Heath. This has not been an easy road for him, but he has shown a knack for finding a way to get the job done no matter what. As a matter of fact, the hardest part about his journey will not be the start this weekend, but how he has arrived here.
There is a great deal of confidence in his ability from this coaching staff. He has shown the ability to play with smarts, toughness and skill. He has been a core special teamer for Rich Bisaccia this season, and last week against the Eagles Monte Kiffin and the staff put him in several situations where he was called on to play in the game, and he was spot on.
Heath will be prepared for this opportunity. His father is a football coach. You love to be around players who take the game seriously, and Heath is this way. He will work well with Barry Church in the back end. His range is good, and when he sees it, he can get to the ball. There is length to his game and when he has to be physical in coverage, he can match up.
What I like about Heath is his ability to burst and cover some ground to get to the ball.
I do not expect Monte Kiffin to alter his game plan one bit because Jeff Heath is in the game. All season long, Heath has been getting work with the first defense in practice and has been very productive. This experience should not be too big for him at all.
Mature Receiver There would have been a time where I would have worried about Dez Bryant trying to do too much in this game with all that has been said leading up to it. There is no question that Calvin Johnson is an outstanding receiver, even rare in some of his physical traits and abilities, but so is Bryant.
As much as this Cowboys defense will have their hands full with Johnson, the Lions are in the same boat with Bryant. Neither of these teams can afford to allow the opposing receiver to take over the game, and both players have that kind of ability.
This will be an outstanding matchup of two of the most dynamic receivers in the game, with two quarterbacks that can feed them the ball down-after-down.
What is different about Bryant now in his third game against the Lions is that he is a more mature player. Bryant has always been an emotional guy who plays with a great deal of passion, but he does a much better job of controlling himself in these games, especially when it comes to fighting through periods of frustration. Bryant wants the ball, and against the Lions, you may worry about him complaining if it doesn't go in his direction.
But I don't believe you will see that.
Bryant will play with a boulder on his shoulder -- to steal a Jason Garrett line -- but that's what you love about him. What we all learned from the Kansas City game earlier in the year is that if you keep feeding him the ball, good things are going to happen.
As much as Tony Romo likes to spread the ball around, he understands what this game means to his team but also to Dez Bryant, who was taken to task by the Detroit media this week when trying to draw him offsides in his comments about Calvin Johnson.
Dez Bryant will once again play with that fire in his gut but more importantly, he will play with a level head. Earlier in his career, we would have not seen that.
Back In Mix
After dressing two running backs last week against the Eagles, the Cowboys will have their full group available to them on Sunday. DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar will be dressed and ready to go, which will be a nice boast to Bill Callahan's game plan.
Murray took the majority of the reps at practice this week, with Joseph Randle in the backup role. Where this offense missed Murray the most, I felt, was in the passing game when it came to the blitz up and working with these offensive linemen. Murray has been rock solid in this area and having him back against the Lions should provide the stability they need.
Lance Dunbar will be in some packages as well on third downs, and this would be a great week for him to get untracked. But more importantly, he will resume his responsibilities on the Cowboys special teams as a core player. Dunbar has been outstanding as a cover man on kickoffs, but also as a gunner on the punt team along with Dwayne Harris.
You have to give Will McClay and the Cowboys Pro Scouts a lot of credit for what they are trying to do to patch all these injuries up along the defensive line.
Rod Marinelli and Leon Lett have also done a great job coaching these guys up to play at the level they have.
This week McClay and his staff brought in Marvin Austin, who was a second round selection by the Giants and was just recently released by the Miami Dolphins. Austin has always had the talent to play the position, but the question was always his desire to play hard every down.
What Jerry and Stephen Jones are hoping is that Marinelli and Lett can reach Austin and bring the best out of him.
In practice this week, Austin did get some work with the first unit next to Jason Hatcher and with Drake Nevis, as well. I was told from a couple of different folks that as the week went along, he improved each day to the point that there is confidence that if he had to play, he would be able to function and provide some quality snaps.
There are some questions about the health of Nick Hayden, who finally practice on Friday but word was he should be ready for the game. If the Cowboys can get the same work ethic and desire that they have had from Drake Nevis in Marvin Austin, this front office might have just stolen one.