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Cowboys focus on reboot with defense in playoff trip to Bucs

Wednesday Afternoon Top Stories, Jan. 11
Wednesday Afternoon Top Stories, Jan. 11 03:28

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Safety Jayron Kearse was more than happy to reflect on a late-season blip from the Dallas defense when the regular season was still going on.

Now that the playoffs have arrived, it's a hard turn to 2023 for the Cowboys in Kearse's mind.

"That leaves 2022 behind us, and let's start this new season that we have ahead of us the way that we need to start it," Kearse said Wednesday. "What we did in the regular season means nothing."

In keeping with the idea of a reboot, the Cowboys will visit Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a wild-card game Monday night with two defenders expected back in the lineup after missing several games with injuries.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was out the final three games of the regular season with a neck injury, and is set to resume play-calling responsibilities that fell in part to Kearse.

Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a midseason trade acquisition designed to plug a leaky run defense, is on track to play after missing four games with a pectoral muscle strain.

The Cowboys (12-5) have already lost two cornerbacks to season-ending injuries in Anthony Brown (torn Achilles) and Jourdan Lewis (broken foot).

DaRon Bland, tied for second among NFL rookies with five interceptions, left last week's 26-6 loss to Washington in the regular-season finale with a chest injury but is expected to play against the Bucs (8-9).

"I feel great about where we are," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Anytime you can stand here and come Monday night you're going to have some guys disappointed they're not on the 48(-man roster). To me, that's as healthy as you can ask at this time of year."

The Cowboys led the NFL with 33 takeaways, becoming the first team since the 1972-74 Pittsburgh Steelers to lead the league in that category in consecutive seasons. Dallas also led the league in sacks most of the season, but recorded just six in the final five games.

There were other signs of trouble late in the season.

Kearse conceded the defense was trying to find its early-season form after consecutive 40-34 scores in December — the first an overtime loss at Jacksonville and the second a home victory over Philadelphia, the NFC's top seed.

Dak Prescott's third pick-6 in the final four games and special teams gaffes boosted the Commanders early in last weekend's loss. But the Cowboys let Sam Howell and the Washington offense control the second half in the rookie quarterback's debut.

When Prescott missed five games after breaking a thumb in a season-opening loss to the Bucs, the defense carried the Cowboys to a 4-1 record in his absence. The late-season D wasn't nearly as dominant.

"Guys realize we're not where we were at the beginning of the year," Kearse said after the Dec. 24 victory over the Eagles. "Just understanding that it's going to take the conversations, the tough conversations, that's going to get us back to where we need to be when it comes down to playing a relentless style of defense that's not really leaving anything to chance."

In the past month, the Cowboys have added three cornerbacks to address injuries and the demotion of one of the replacements, Kelvin Joseph. The latest is Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota's first-round pick from 2013.

The 32-year-old Rhodes, added to the practice squad last week, has 127 regular-season starts and six playoff appearances and could make his Dallas debut against Tampa Bay.

Whether it's the fresher reinforcements or banged-up sacks leader Micah Parsons, Kearse sees the playoff opener as a recharge for everyone.

"Whether you're hurt or not, when the postseason starts, it's kind of like newfound energy," Kearse said. "You feel good. You're ready to go. We know we're going to have everyone giving their best shot."

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