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Chidobe Awuzie joins starting lineup as Cowboys shuffle secondary

Chidobe Awuzie will replace Anthony Brown in the starting lineup Thursday against the Redskins. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- In the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys essentially said goodbye to one secondary and hello to another.

Gone were Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox via free agency. While holdovers Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones remained, the Cowboys moved Jeff Heath and Anthony Brown into starting roles and drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods.

The Cowboys knew there would be growing pains, but they are about to make changes.

Brown, who started 10 of the first 11 games, will be replaced by Awuzie on Thursday against the Washington Redskins. Brown has a team-high 10 penalties. Awuzie, a second-round pick, has played more than nine defensive snaps just once this season because of a recurring hamstring injury. Before the most recent strain, the Cowboys planned to give him more work at safety.

They may not be the only changes. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said he would move to a cornerback rotation in hopes of finding a combination that will cut down on the big plays. Jones, Heath and Woods could find themselves in more of a rotation at safety as well.

In the last three games, the Cowboys have given up 13 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including a season-high eight on Thanksgiving to the Los Angeles Chargers.

“You understand the personnel moves you're making, you understand the growing pains you're going to have,” coach Jason Garrett said. “But the standards for how you want to play are going to have to remain the same. Making big plays on offense and preventing big plays on defense correlates to scoring more than anything else. So we value that. At times we've done a good job of that this year, we've kept the score down. At times within games, we've done a good job to keep the score down, but when they make big plays the likeliness of them scoring increases dramatically, so we have to do a better job."

Awuzie had a good offseason and training camp before the hamstring injuries cropped up. The Cowboys effectively shut him down for a month to get healthy, and he has played mostly special teams in the last wo games.

“I think his approach has been excellent; it’s been unfortunate that he’s been out,” Garrett said. “For all players, you need to practice, particularly for young players. But I do think the work that he’s gotten outside of practice has been good. I think he’s engaged, I think he’s learning. But you get better by practicing and you get better by playing.”

When things have gone as poorly as they have the last three games, making changes is the only recourse.

“I don’t know if you do it for effect, I do it for some guy may have an opportunity to be better,” Marinelli said. “Or sometimes it’s standards; if you don’t like what you’re seeing standard-wise, it’s incumbent on us. The bench is our best friend as a coach. Or playing time, however you look at that. That’s how I’ve always dealt with it my whole career.”