IRVING, Texas -- Rolando McClain has received a lot of deserved praise for what he has meant to the vast improvement of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, but it is the work of a holdover from last year's defense that has made similar significant contributions to the success.
According to the coaches' breakdowns, Justin Durant leads the Cowboys with 51 tackles, one more than McClain. He has one tackle for loss, two quarterback pressures, one interception, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
The only defensive category he hasn't filled yet is a sack.
"I think he's playing and he's playing pretty darn well," coach Jason Garrett said. "One of the evaluations we made in the offseason you go back and look at guys and you have kind of a reel for each player. And if you look at his reel, it's pretty darn good. He was dealing with some injuries at different times last year, so I don't know if he ever got in a great rhythm in the defense. But when you go play by play and see how he played last year, he did a really nice job for us. We were certainly hopeful about his progress in this defense and I think he's done a really good job emerging as a defensive leader in Sean Lee's absence."
Durant was originally pegged to replace Lee as the middle linebacker, but then McClain was too good to keep off the field. He played strong-side linebacker mostly last year, subbing for Lee in the middle at New Orleans once, but the Cowboys moved him to the weak-side late in the preseason and he has flourished.
"I think it's definitely up there," Durant said when asked if this is the best start to a season he has had. "But it's always room for improvement. I've definitely been around the ball more than I've been in the past as far as getting difference-making plays (like) turnovers. Definitely more than in the past. I've got to give credit to the coaches for allowing me to play the way I play. We depend on each other to be successful on our own. We've got to be thankful for everybody."
Durant played in only 10 games (six starts) last year before injuries cut short his season. He was credited with 30 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback pressures, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. He has 21 more tackles in five games this season, having missed two contests with a groin injury.
Durant's play in the offseason and training camp earned him a vote by his teammates as defensive captain, which also raised his level of play.
"When the guys voted me as captain on the team, I just still can't believe to this day that they believed in me that much," Durant said. "I think it's part of my job to go out there and show them why they voted me captain. I try to play every play like it's my last. I'm not really a big talker, so I try to lead by example as much as I can."