He's back in the starting lineup.
The seventh-year veteran out of LSU was a fixture in the starting lineup for years, reaching double digits in starts in each of his first five seasons with the Cowboys, and then being in the initial lineup in seven of eight games he played last year before being injured. During the first three games of the 2011 season, Spears found himself backing up Jason Hatcher.
But Hatcher is on the shelf for this week, which means Spears is back in the starting lineup. As he prepares for his first start of the season, he finds himself awaiting a Detroit team that hardly resembles those that he and his teammates, not to mention fans, have known over the years.
Gone is the team that got rolled on a weekly basis and ended up vying for the first pick in the NFL Draft each spring. In its place is a squad with a gleaming 3-0 record that boasts some of the most potent offensive weapons in the NFL.
Quarterback Matt Stafford, who played at Highland Park High School, suddenly is healthy, and not coincidentally, suddenly is a very impressive passer. He always had a strong arm, but now his throws are on-target. Stafford has completed 79 of 118 passes through three games for a completion percentage of 66.9 percent — the third-highest in the NFL.
Stafford has a wide array of targets that includes one of the elite wide receivers in the league, in Calvin Johnson, and one of the NFL’s most promising young tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew, who led his team in last week’s comeback victory over the Minnesota Vikings with 11 catches for 112 receiving yards. Each total established a new career high for Pettigrew.
“They’re very capable, one of the NFL’s top offenses,” Spears said of the Lions. “They have a great receiver (Johnson), a young quarterback on the come, and a guy (running back Jahvid Best) who runs about a 3.7 in the 40 in the backfield.”
Spears said that in order for the Cowboys to be successful Sunday against Detroit, the Cowboys need to continue to play smart football, as they have done for the most part through three games. The team’s ability to do so, Spears said, is a direct result of Dallas head coach Jason Garrett’s continuous use of “situational practice.”
“Jason puts us in situations in practice to simulate games,” Spears said. “He has done that since the start of camp.
“Football, a lot of times, comes down to the last two minutes of the first half and the last two minutes at the end of the game. We practice creating turnovers. Some stats … you can look at some stats and think they don’t matter, but turnovers, that stat matters maybe 95 percent of the time, so we want to do everything we can to make sure we come out on the right side of that one.”
Spears said another Garrett-ism that has improved the Cowboys’ performance in the early portion of this season is that Garrett has the team’s first-team offense square off with the first-team defense in live “team” drills as opposed to having the starters face mostly scout-team players, as many teams do.
“It’s more real,” Spears said of the Cowboys’ starters-against-starters practice routine. “(Garrett) gives us the time on the clock and the situation in a game, and we have our offensive ones (first-teamers) go against our defensive ones.
“It helps. I don’t know that our offense is every going to face a better pass rush than (DeMarcus) Ware and (Anthony Spencer). When our defense goes against their ones, you’ve got Dez (Bryant) and Miles (Austin) and Jason Witten. It’ll get you ready.”