IRVING, Texas – The focus on Morris Claiborne is finally off his knee and on his performance, as he's progressing into the type of cornerback the Cowboys hoped he could be when they moved up to snag him in the first round.
On a defense maligned for its inability to create turnovers, Claiborne now has an interception and a fumble recovery in consecutive weeks. Perhaps more indicative of his play as a cornerback was his ability to keep receiver Hakeem Nicks in check last weekend.
Claiborne said it built his confidence early in the week to know he'd primarily be facing Nicks, and he tried to keep that confidence through Sunday. He said he chats with defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson after every game to see how he did, but it didn't take the specialty coach's knowledge to know how he played last Sunday.
"Overall, as a whole game, I feel like that was the best I've played this year," Claiborne said.
He's not the only one who's noticed his progress from week to week. In addition to intercepting a pass on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, he also led his team with two pass deflections in Carolina.
Claiborne's beginning to play with the same type of confidence, competitiveness and – as he'd call it – the "swag" the Cowboys saw in him at LSU.
"If you look at him over the course of the season, you've seen him grow physically and also in his demeanor and how aggressive he's playing," said head coach Jason Garrett. "There are a couple of plays in (Sunday)'s game where he's making tackles and he's really consciously trying to rip the ball out, and the ball didn't come out, but his mentality is that of a playmaker, and in relation to the football on the back end, that's a really positive thing for us. I think he's grown right before our eyes."
The Cowboys defense ranks third in the league in passing defense, allowing just 187.7 yards per game through the air. Quarterback Eli Manning put up a season-low 192 passing yards against the Cowboys last weekend and failed to throw a touchdown pass, despite favorable field position all game after six Dallas turnovers.
Even in harsh circumstances with the Giants starting in Cowboys territory throughout the day, the rookie cornerback never panicked.
"You might not see it, but when we're in those situations, guys are on the field laughing, because we know what type of talent we have on this team," Claiborne said. "We know we can get that ball right back. We like being in those situations."
Claiborne will admit his confidence is much higher now than it was when he first entered the league. Fellow cornerback Brandon Carr said it's not only Claiborne's confidence, but his attitude and aggression, as well.
"It's been two games now he's gotten his hands on two balls and gotten two takeovers," Carr said. "Just seeing his confidence on the field, just his mentality and the way he thinks now as a defensive back, I can see him growing."
The Cowboys will need to see continued growth out of Claiborne to contain the massive, speedy receivers in Atlanta. As Carr said earlier in the week, their talent might exceed and differ from any previous opponent's threats.
Claiborne saw wide receiver Julio Jones in college, but at that point, Jones was going against former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Claiborne said Jones is a completely different receiver after two NFL seasons. While Claiborne's noticed a change in Jones, Atlanta coach Mike Smith's noticed a similar enhancement in the Dallas rookie.
Smith said Claiborne plays with the competitiveness needed from a shutdown corner, and his play has directly translated to some of the low opponent passing totals.
"I've seen six games this season, and he has played better in each game," Smith said. "It's a learning curve that you're going through, and it's something that we all go through as lifetime learners. I see this guy as a very physical corner, and he's done very well thus far."
While Smith sees an athlete playing like a first-round draft pick, Claiborne's teammates don't see him as a rookie at all.
"I think he's way past that," said linebacker Bruce Carter. "At this point, I think he's just out there just playing."