Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer 21d

Cowboys defense getting closer to full speed

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense has not been fully stocked all season, but it’s getting closer.

Linebacker Anthony Hitchens has missed the first four games because of a tibial plateau fracture, but he is expected to take part in full practices this week for the first time this season. David Irving's four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy is over. Sean Lee could return from a one-game absence because of a hamstring injury. Chidobe Awuzie could be back from a two-game absence because of a hamstring strain.

On Monday, Jason Garrett said that Nolan Carroll, who has missed the last two games, remains in the concussion protocol, but even if he is healthy his role is not clear.

"I think our defense has got some personnel coming,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday. “So, you could be critical the other day, you could be critical individually, you can be critical as a unit, but we're progressing. Let's put it like that."

The return of Lee would be the biggest boost. He is the defensive leader and has been named to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, but Hitchens’ return would allow the Cowboys to use a rotation of sorts at linebacker.

With Lee and Hitchens missing, Jaylon Smith played every snap in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Justin Durant took over for Lee, but the Cowboys did not want to tax the veteran with every-down duty. With Hitchens, the Cowboys can spell Smith to help the “quality of his plays to go up,” Jones said on the radio.

“He had a lot of responsibility,” Garrett said of Smith. “He played a ton of snaps in the game. He had the responsibility of getting everybody lined up. He was very productive in the game, he made a lot of hits on the ball, but there were some errors that he made. We’ll address those with him and really everybody on the defense as we go forward.”

Irving had four sacks last year and was the Cowboys’ best defensive lineman at the end of the season. Expecting him to pick up from there, however, is not smart since he has not practiced since the end of the preseason and the Cowboys have had no contact with him.

The Cowboys have a one-game exemption for Irving, so they don’t need to activate him to play Sunday.

“Hopefully he’s in shape and ready to go,” Garrett said.

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