One play shows J.J. Wilcox's improvement

IRVING, Texas – With expectations low, success for the Dallas Cowboys' defense in 2014 will be measured in stops, not necessarily yards and points allowed.

It will be critically important they play well in situational football, especially on third down.

With their regulars -- or what can be considered their regulars anyway -- the highlight of Saturday’s 37-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens was a third-down stop anchored by J.J. Wilcox.

On third-and-2 from the Dallas 22, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a slant to Steve Smith with cornerback B.W. Webb in his hip pocket. As Smith was about to come down with the catch, Wilcox came in to break it up with a big hit.

Wilcox gave Webb the credit.

“He stood on the top of the route, pushed him into me, squeezed him to me as being the low robber,” Wilcox said. “When a chance comes out like that you’ve got to take your opportunity.”

That it came against Smith, one of the toughest receivers in the NFL and owner of hundreds of contested catches in his career, made it even more noticeable.

“I realized it when I was coming and I really knew I had to bring it because he’s a great player,” Wilcox said. “He’s got a lot of punch behind him.”

The Cowboys defense forced Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

Wilcox will be counted on for those kinds of plays this season. He will be mostly manning the center of the field with Barry Church playing in the box.

“A thumper? Oh yeah he’s a guy who can definitely bring the wood,” Church said. “He’s definitely showed that each day in practice thumping around. I’m looking for big things to come from him this season.”

Wilcox has all but cemented his starting spot, going unchallenged in Oxnard, California. He has been among the most vocal defenders when things have not gone well for the defense. At one practice when Webb and Terrance Mitchell were out of position, Wilcox called them out.

He has played safety for only three years, but the Cowboys believed he had all of the ability to be a long-term starter. He would have been that guy last year as a rookie but missed time in camp following the death of his mother. When he eventually was named the starter he suffered a knee injury and the coaches chose to remain with Jeff Heath.

There is no doubt he is the guy this year.

“He’s a guy who’s got a nose for the football,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a very physical player and I thought that was an important little sequence for us. That’s a good receiver that B.W. Webb was covering now. Steve Smith has been an awfully good player in this league for a long time, so I thought B.W. contested it well and then for J.J. to have that range to knock that thing out, that was a good play and a really big play for our defense to get off the field there.”