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Anthony Spencer playing at a high level

IRVING, Texas -- The tattoo along Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer's neckline is illegible when you face him, unless you can make sense of backward letters and words.

EM EWO UOY

The message isn't meant for you. It's meant for Spencer.

"Every time I look in the mirror, I see it," Spencer said. "That's why I got it there."

If you haven't figured it out yet, the tattoo reads: YOU OWE ME.

Spencer said it is purely coincidental that he got the tattoo before a season that is so pivotal to his career. He had planned to get it while he was at Purdue but never found the time, the money or both.

The timing now, however, seems apropos with him in a contract year after such a disappointing 2010 season.

Statistically, Spencer's numbers from last season to this season are not much different. However, some of that can be attributed to how the coaches credited a player with a tackle last season and how the current coaches grade a play.

In 2010, Spencer had 23 tackles in four games. This season he has 17. Last year he had two sacks. This year he has three. Last year he had four pressures. This year he has six. Last year he had one pass breakup. This year he has none. Last year he had no tackles for loss. This year he has two. Last year he had one forced fumble recovery. This year he has two.

Stylistically, at least, Spencer is a different player in 2011.

"It's probably the most sacks I've had, so if you go by that type of thing, I'd say yeah, definitely [it is my best start]," Spencer said.

Spencer's 2010 season was a vast disappointment, especially with how well he closed the 2009 season. He had a career-high 105 tackles but that looks like a hollow stat in many ways. He had five sacks and only 14 pressures after putting up 36 pressures in '09.

A couple of times during the summer, he commented about not working as hard as he should have.

"See, I never lived with him last year," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "I care not to comment about that, because I know nothing about it."

The Spencer whom Ryan has seen so far more closely resembles the Spencer who had six sacks, four tackles for loss, 17 pressures and 41 tackles in the final six games last season.

"He's another smart, tough guy who loves football," Ryan said. "Those guys do well. When you're playing a system that puts a lot on the guys mentally, guys like this always excel, because they're smart and they're tough. That's a great combination, and obviously he's got first-round talent, so he's going to be a hell of a football player."

Ryan and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus have been positive influences on Spencer. He has become more of a student of the game, using time with DeMarcus Ware to notice small things such as a tackle's hand placement in pass protection or the depth of a tackle's pass set so he can take a better angle.

Spencer was able to rely on his natural gifts but it took him only so far.

"I'm just trying to take what I work on in practice to the game," Spencer said. "I started doing that in camp, and I'm making sure I continue to do it now because if you do it in practice, you'll do it in the games."

With three more sacks, he will tie his career high. He is close to being on pace for the most tackles for loss and hurries in a season. He is not far off on tackles, too. He has matched his career high on forced fumbles.

If the Cowboys are to continue to play at a high level defensively, they will need Spencer to continue to play at a high level.

Many challenges await the Cowboys with eight of the 12 remaining games coming against offenses ranked in the NFL's upper half, and quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Sam Bradford, Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Eli Manning, Josh Freeman and Kevin Kolb littering the schedule.

"He's playing like he really wants it," Ware said.

And if he needs any reminder, all he needs to do is look in the mirror.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.