IRVING, Texas (AP) — Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory will be a pass-rushing pair for the first time.
Sean Lee and Rolando McClain are set for their second game anchoring the Dallas linebackers.
The Cowboys just don’t see Sunday’s visit to the New York Giants as a show-and-tell moment for a unit trying to help win games while the offense is missing injured stars Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.
“There are no special players,” said Hardy, who had two sacks in his Dallas debut against New England after a four-game suspension for his role in a domestic violence case. “There’s no special answer. There’s no special formula. We work harder than anybody else and when we don’t, we lose. And that’s what we’re here to do. Work.”
The defense faltered in all three full games without Romo and Bryant. There were second-half letdowns against Atlanta and New England. In between, a breakdown in overtime gave New Orleans the victory on an 80-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees.
The loss to the Saints was the last game without Hardy and McClain, who was suspended four games for a violation of the NFL substance-abuse policy. And Gregory was still out a week later against the Patriots, the last of four games he missed with a sprained right ankle.
The Cowboys (2-3) will technically never be at full strength on defense because cornerback Orlando Scandrick had a season-ending knee injury in training camp and defensive tackle Terrell McClain is out for the year with a toe injury. But it will be as close as the defending NFC East champions can get against the Giants (3-3).
“There is no question that everyone’s excited about getting some of these guys back and healthy and in the lineup practicing and playing together,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We saw a couple of pieces come back a couple of weeks ago when we played New England.”
Hardy, who missed practice Thursday because he was ill, sacked Tom Brady twice on his blind side, the second one forcing a fumble that the Patriots recovered beyond the line of scrimmage for a short gain.
That play illustrated maybe the biggest problem for the Dallas defense: not forcing turnovers. A year after finishing second with 31 takeaways, the Cowboys are tied for last with three and haven’t had one during the three-game losing streak. There have been chances marred by dropped interceptions and bad bounces on the loose balls.
“We are based off effort and turnovers,” Lee said. “And if we don’t have great effort and if we’re not getting turnovers, we’re not playing the right way.”
Gregory was a projected first-round draft pick who slid to the end of the second round because of concerns about his conduct, including a failed drug test at the combine. He had a promising preseason and three pressures of Eli Manning in the opener against the Giants before spraining his ankle.
Now he gets his first chance to line up opposite Hardy in the regular season — and maybe even next to Hardy if the Cowboys use the sixth-year player inside as they did a few times against New England.
“Me and him have been talking a lot about it, and add a little more pressure to that defense hopefully,” Gregory said.
A win would be a huge boost for a team looking to stay in contention with Romo sidelined at least three more games by a broken left collarbone and Bryant trying to get back sooner with a broken right foot. The All-Pro receiver hasn’t been ruled out for the rematch with the Giants after getting hurt in the opener against them.
Either way, Lee isn’t taking a win-one-for-the-offense approach.
“I think when our focus gets away from what our job is, how to play it play in and play out, that’s something that can distract you a little bit,” the sixth-year linebacker said. “So our focus is purely being our best every single play.”