IRVING -- The NFL calendar says the Dallas Cowboys (3-4) will reach the midpoint of their 16-game schedule Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (7-0) in the Georgia Dome.
But Cowboys rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, the first defensive player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, is hesitant to consider himself in midseason form despite coming off his best statistical performance in a 29-24 loss Sunday to the New York Giants.
Claiborne had a season-high six tackles, broke up a pass and recovered a fumble. It marked his second consecutive game to force a turnover, following his first career interception in the Cowboys' end zone during a 19-14 victory over Carolina on Oct. 21.
On a defense that has forced only eight turnovers, Claiborne has accounted for two -- 25 percent of Dallas' team total. He is tied for the team lead in interceptions, albeit with one.
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But while he acknowledged his game against the Giants was "the best I've played this year," Claiborne said Wednesday that bigger things are in store during his rookie season.
"It's coming," Claiborne said. "I feel like I'm getting close. I'm around the ball a little bit more. But you always feel like there's something more you could've done. I'm just trying to be as physical as I can and stay around the ball. I believe I could still be a little more physical. But so far, I can't complain."
Claiborne, the sixth player taken in April's draft, has battled wrist and knee ailments since joining the team. Before the Giants game, he said he felt behind in preparations and had hoped to perform "way, way better" than what he had shown to that point.
Then, he broke up a third-down pass on the Giants' opening possession, recovered a second-quarter fumble and was regularly around the ball during a contest in which Dallas allowed only 293 yards -- and one offensive touchdown -- to one of the league's top offenses despite regularly defending a short field because of six Cowboys turnovers.
The performance, Claiborne said, boosted his confidence. To coaches and teammates, it reinforced the notion that Claiborne is nearing the back end of his learning curve as an NFL rookie.
"I think he's grown right before our eyes," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Over the course of the season, you've seen him grow physically and also in his demeanor and how aggressive he's playing. His mentality is that of a playmaker and that's a really positive thing for us."
Asked if teammates still consider Claiborne a rookie, inside linebacker Bruce Carter said: "I think he's way past that. At this point, I think he's out there just playing."
Claiborne acknowledged he still has a lot to learn about the tendencies of elite NFL wide receivers. He will see two of them Sunday in Atlanta's Roddy White (40 catches, 591 yards, 4 TDs) and Julio Jones (35 catches, 499 yards, 5 TDs). But Falcons coach Mike Smith said he does not consider Claiborne, who had six interceptions last season for LSU, a soft spot to attack.
"He's playing at a high level," Smith said Wednesday. "I've watched six games this season [on videotape], and he has played better in each game. Young players that have a great skill set, you see that advancement week to week. He's a rookie but he's playing like a first-round draft pick."
Although Claiborne was excited about getting his first career interception against Carolina, he considers that as a bad game because of other errors. He said he tends to be "really hard on myself" and tries to lean more on feedback from secondary coach Jerome Henderson when gauging his progress at the NFL level.
The two huddled Monday. Claiborne accepted praise, but grudgingly.
"He feels like we're right on pace and I'm playing well," Claiborne said. "But it's a challenge in the NFL each and every week."
Say this much for Claiborne. He's learned to laugh in the face of those challenges. During last week's game, when the Cowboys were forced to defend multiple short-field situations because of turnovers by the offense, Claiborne said he -- and his teammates -- responded with laughter.
"You might not see it. But when we're in those situations, our guys are on the field laughing," Claiborne said. "Because we know what type of talent we have on this team. We know we can get that ball right back. We like being in those situations."
Claiborne, in turn, is learning to thrive in them during a rookie season when he remains convinced his best game has yet to be played.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760