(Eds: With AP Photos.)By SCHUYLER DIXONAP Sports Writer
Jason Hatcher is happy to have the rest and not worried about accumulating rust.
The Dallas defensive tackle and his teammates were back at work Tuesday – but only for meetings – after having nine of the previous 19 days off thanks to a late bye and their annual mini-bye after Thanksgiving.
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The Cowboys get another day away Wednesday and will have been off the field a full week when they return to practice Thursday.
Continuity heading into a Monday night matchup at Chicago? Who cares, says Hatcher. He’ll take the couch time.
”You need rest in a stretch like this,” said Hatcher, the team’s sacks leader with nine. ”So to get everybody’s body healed up, this is awesome.”
That list starts with linebacker Sean Lee, who could return after missing two games with a strained hamstring from a blowout loss to New Orleans. Lee hurried out of the locker room without talking to reporters Tuesday, but said he was ”ready to roll” and expected to practice Thursday.
The Cowboys (7-5) won twice without their defensive leader to keep pace with Philadelphia atop the NFC East with four games remaining, including the season finale when the Eagles visit Dallas.
Ernie Sims took most of the snaps at middle linebacker with Lee and his primary replacement, Justin Durant, both missing victories against the New York Giants and Oakland. Kyle Wilber played where Sims and Durant normally would have been.
Wilber was drafted as a pass-rushing linebacker when the Cowboys were using a three-man front last year. Dallas tried him at defensive end first in the new 4-3 alignment this year, then switched him back to linebacker when the health issues arose. Now there’s talk he might be a starter alongside Lee and Bruce Carter.
”To have two new linebackers in there, two of the three positions are new guys, different guys,” coach Jason Garrett said. ”And that’s a challenge. And a real tribute to those guys, Wilber and Ernie, just kind of learning on the job and learning quickly. You literally could see them getting better within a game, recognizing things better in the second or third quarter than they did in the first quarter.”
The Cowboys are moving on without Lance Dunbar after the backup running back injured his left knee and had season-ending surgery Tuesday. He was placed on injured reserve, and the Cowboys signed fullback Tyler Clutts, who played four games with Miami this year and has 36 appearances in three seasons.
Dunbar’s injury was significant because it came while the undrafted player from nearby North Texas was having the best game of his two-year career in the 31-24 Thanksgiving win over the Raiders. He had 82 yards rushing on 12 carries, while starter DeMarco Murray did the finishing work with three touchdowns.
”We’re certainly going to miss him,” Garrett said. ”He was a big factor in the ballgame the other day, really gave us a spark, made a lot of positive plays. But we certainly move on.”
Joseph Randle, a fifth-round pick this year who was expected to end up as Murray’s backup, will likely resume that role. It’s not the first time he’s been in it because Dunbar was battling hamstring issues before his knee injury.
Randle scored his first career touchdown in a win over Washington and had 91 yards on 33 carries – a 2.8-yard average – in the two games Murray missed with a knee injury.
”I know the numbers might not indicate that, but he went in and played football at this level,” Garrett said. ”He hasn’t played perfect football. But we have a lot of confidence in him. He runs downhill. He’s got good vision. He’s tough.”
While owner Jerry Jones said Lee would play against the Bears (6-6), he called cornerback Morris Claiborne questionable. Claiborne is also trying to come back from a hamstring injury sustained two weeks ago against the Giants.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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