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Cowboys news: Health improving (mostly), young players stepping up in secondary

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David Irving is also back from suspension, and in shape.

Divisional Round - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys
Veteran LB Anthony Hitchens is very close to being ready to play.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Blog: Only Two Cowboys Not Participating At Wednesday's Practice | David Helman, Dallas Cowboys
Health is a big factor in the NFL, and things are going pretty well for the Dallas Cowboys. At the start of the week’s first practice, only Sean Lee and Stephen Paea were not full participants. Lee is continuing to rehab his hamstring, while Paea has been taking days off to manage a knee problem.

The Cowboys look healthy as they begin their preparations for Green Bay.

Wednesday morning marked the first practice of Week 5, and just two of the Cowboys’ 53 active players did not participate in the open portion of practice.

Linebacker Anthony Hitchens Says 'I'm Healthy' As Dallas Cowboys Prep For Visit From Packers - Mike Fisher, Cowboys HQ
It looks like Anthony Hitchens, injured in preseason, may be back sooner than was expected.

"I’m healthy,’’ Anthony Hitchens proclaimed from the Dallas Cowboys locker room at The Star on Wednesday. “I practiced. I’m at the point where I feel I’m ready to go.’’

This is not a medical opinion. Nor does it come without an asterisk, as in our observation, Hitchens - the veteran starting middle linebacker for a 2-2 team that could use all hands on deck - was actually participating at the start of the workout, and then exited for a time before returning.

But the notion that Hitchens is nearing a return is huge news for Dallas and for him.

Report: DE Charles Tapper has broken foot, to miss extended time - Patrik Walker, 247 Sports
While there is some good news on the injury front, it was bad for DE Charles Tapper, who was apparently hurt during practice.

After being relegated to the inactives list for Week 3 and Week 4, it looks like he'll be out for an extended period of time with a fractured bone in his foot -- according to Clarence Hill, Jr. of Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This may be the answer to where the Cowboys come up with a spot for David Irving, returning from suspension.

Cowboys' David Irving tried boxing to stay in shape during suspension - Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys Blog- ESPN
Irving had to sit out the first four games of the season, and he put in plenty of work to make sure he was ready to go.

“Cardio, man, it’s a lot of cardio and hand speed,” Irving said. “I figured I would mix it in. I was doing all types of cardio, metabolics, and I did this little MMA circuit thing, it was ridiculous, mixed in some boxing. It’s really good cardio. It works on hand speed, shoulder stability, things like that.”

Forest Through Trees: Cowboys need Xavier Woods in starting lineup | A.J. Mada, Cowboys Wire
One of the most impressive rookies this season has been sixth rounder Xavier Woods, and it may be time for him to take a bigger role.

Trying to replace Barry Church is a tough challenge for anyone, but in his first full-time roll on the defense, Heath has not been an adequate replacement. Byron Jones’ groin injury seems to be a thing of the past, but Heath isn’t showing any improvement. Heath seems to have come down with the missed tackle bug that plagued J.J. Wilcox in his four years with the Cowboys.

The touchdown pass to Todd Gurley was a perfect example of Heath failing to make a crucial stop because he took a bad angle. And with third safety Kavon Frazier not faring any better, now is the time for the Cowboys to turn to rookie Xavier Woods.

Jourdan Lewis is the Cowboys best new addition for the 2017 season - Dave Halprin, Blogging The Boys
While Woods is impressing, his fellow rookie Jourdan Lewis is shining even more.

Not only is Lewis playing well, he is defying expectations. Because of his size, it was generally believed that he would be a slot corner only and that he would have trouble tackling NFL backs and receivers. So far in his career, neither has been true. Lewis is playing on the outside and Scandrick is manning the slot in most three corner formations for the Cowboys. Matching up against the big boys on the outside hasn’t been an issue. And even more surprising is his tackling ability. As PFF notes, he hasn’t missed a tackle yet.

Grading Cowboys Secondary Through Week 4 - John Owning, Fanrag Sports
Owning takes a look at how all the defensive backs have performed this year, and projects what the team should do with the unit getting healthier. He concurs that Woods and Lewis are part of the solution.

While many are lamenting the play of the Cowboys secondary after the first month, the unit’s play hasn’t been that bad, especially the cornerbacks. Many of the Cowboys issues against the pass can be attributed to poor linebacker and safety play, rather than at cornerback.

With Awuzie and Carroll likely returning to the lineup Week 5, it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff divides the snaps. Based off film, the Cowboys starting secondary moving forward should be (since nickel personnel is used more often than base, a slot CB is included):

CB: Orlando Scandrick

CB: Jourdan Lewis

Slot CB: Anthony Brown

FS: Byron Jones

SS: Xavier Woods

Dallas Cowboys: Sturm: Marinelli Report Checks In On The Young Defensive Pieces | Bob Sturm, SportsDay
Sturm focuses most of his report on the struggles Jaylon Smith is having since he has been forced to play so much due to injury. But he also takes a look at the big picture for young defenders on the team, and it is much more positive.

5 of the first 7 picks in 2016 and 6 of the first 7 picks in 2017 have been given to the defense to try to correct the issues. Only Zeke, Dak, and Ryan Switzer have been given to the offense in the first 14 picks of the last 2 drafts.

Of those 11 picks, Maliek Collins has been excellent. Anthony Brown has been a regular of decent quality (I realize I don't rate him as highly as some) but excellent for Round 6. And now, Jourdan Lewis is knocking on the door with Xavier Woods and Awuzie close. Charles Tapper and Kavon Frazier are roster pieces who may not have real high ceilings. Taco Charlton should be a starter in 2018-19. Jaylon Smith is a massive question mark for now and the other two are not on the 53-man roster.

Film Room: Travis Frederick Still Among NFL's Elite OL ⋆ Kevin Brady, Inside the Star
This is a breakdown of some plays that show that whatever problems the offensive line is having, Travis Frederick is not one of them.

There is no doubt that something hasn’t been right with this offensive line in 2017. After being one of the top 5 units over the past three seasons, they have played rather average thus far. But, all in all, Travis Frederick is part of the solution, not the problem.

Despite some early struggles and some stiff competition, Frederick still deserves to be mentioned among the elite offensive linemen in this league. His play has earned him that right.

Brady is not the only one who sees Frederick doing well.

Dallas Cowboys finding third down a difficult road so far - Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys Blog- ESPN
Add this to the things the Cowboys really need to solve.

One of the big reasons for the Dallas Cowboys' inconsistencies on offense through four games is their work on third down. They have converted just 20 of 52 opportunities in the first four games, ranking 17th in the NFL. A year ago, the Cowboys were 10th on third down (42.3 percent) and they were even better in the first four games of last season (27 of 54).

A deeper dive into the Cowboys' third-down numbers reveals the biggest difference in the first four games this year is on plays of third-and-10 or more. Last year, the Cowboys converted on 5 of 13 opportunities. This year, they have made good on just 2 of 15 tries in those circumstances.

Sham: Don’t Jump Off Just Yet; Season Is Still New, So Let’s Take A Longer View | Brad Sham, Dallas Cowboys
The longtime radio voice of the Cowboys offers some perspective on the 2-2 start.

To be sure, the Cowboys have some problems. To suggest anything else would be to be in denial. Remember the remonstrations of my colleagues Babe Laufenberg and Kristi Scales. Babe says just because you can identify the problem doesn’t mean you can identify the solution. Kristi says a problem without a solution is an issue. From this angle, it can’t be proved yet that the Cowboys have issues.

One of their problems is that this is not 2016. Every year and every team are different, but fan (and media) expectations rarely reflect that truth. We saw what you did last year, and we expect you to double-down this year (if last year was good, of course). The fact that it doesn’t work that way is no satisfactory response.

There hasn’t been enough season yet to know what we’re looking at. Admittedly, when a team loses as thoroughly in every area as the Cowboys did in Denver, it’s a cause to raise a red danger flag. But then Denver just handled Oakland. Yes, but it was at home. When Denver went on the road, they lost to Buffalo. Yes, but Buffalo just beat Atlanta. But they lost to Carolina, who just won at New England.

Dallas Cowboys' Ryan Switzer looking for balance of 'gut' and smarts - Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys Blog- ESPN
There is an argument to be made that the muffed punt by Ryan Switzer was the turning point in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He is not letting that dent his confidence.

“What makes me a great player is my gut and my instincts on the field,” Switzer said. “Obviously that doesn’t always turn out to be the right decision, but more times than not it is. I’ve got to be smart in the back end sometimes, realizing how deep I am. Sometimes as a player you want to make a play so bad and you get so anxious that sometimes you maybe in the heat of the moment you don’t make the best decision, but I’m pretty comfortable with my mental instincts, my decision-making and I’m looking forward to continuing to show that throughout the year.”

Dallas Cowboys: What Dak Prescott remembers about playoff loss to Packers: 'No way Aaron Rodgers made that play' | SportsDay
The coming game with the Green Bay Packers brings back some bad memories for Cowboys fans, and the players.

A remarkable escape and throw -- stop us if you've heard this before -- by Aaron Rodgers in the final seconds sparked the Packers' playoff victory over the Cowboys nine months ago. The 34-31 win marked the second time in three years Green Bay kept Dallas from advancing to the NFC Championship Game.

What does Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott remember about that play?

"No way," he said. "No way he caught the ball and no way Aaron Rodgers made that play."