Jeff Heath last played at Ford Field in a state championship game as a senior. He attended Detroit Lions games there, too.
So at least he can take comfort in his surroundings as he makes his first start for the Dallas Cowboys.
Heath, an undrafted rookie from Saginaw Valley State, will start at strong safety in place of rookie draft pick J.J. Wilcox. Wilcox, who has started the past five games, sprained a knee in Thursday’s practice.
“You only have so many guys on the team, so you have to be ready to play,” Heath said Friday. “We have kind of had that on our defense the whole year, guys coming in and stepping up and playing good in games. Now it’s my turn to do that.”
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Heath got some valuable experience in last week’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, spending time at each safety spot. He was in for 24 plays. Heath had played only 17 snaps the first six games.
“We like him,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s been a guy who’s done a lot of really positive things for us since he’s been here. Again, a college free agent who came in and said, ‘I’m going to make your football team based on my performance each and every day.’ It first showed up on special teams, but he’s been a solid performer on defense when he’s gotten opportunities.”
Wilcox, who injured his knee fighting for the ball with tight end Gavin Escobar during red zone drills, walked with a noticeable limp Friday. He could miss next week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, too, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said Friday that he expects Wilcox’s injury to be short-term.
“It’s similar to what DeMarco [Murray] has,” Jones said.
Murray missed last week’s game with a sprained knee but is expected back this week.
For the only time this season, the Cowboys play back-to-back road games on consecutive weekends. (They have a bye between trips to New Orleans and the New York Giants.)
Having won last week in Philadelphia, the Cowboys try to make it a sweep this weekend in Detroit.
The Cowboys have not won back-to-back road games on consecutive weekends since 2009. From 1996-2012, the Cowboys faced 34 back-to-back road trips — 68 total games — and they managed to sweep only three times.
“One of the things we’ve preached to our team is you really can’t worry about where you’re playing, who you’re playing, when you’re playing, all that kind of stuff,” Jason Garrett said. “We all smile when I say that stuff, but I just believe it.…What matters is how we prepare and then how we go play, regardless who the opponent is and where we’re playing them. That’s really our mindset.”
The Cowboys list defensive end DeMarcus Ware as doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Lions.
He has not practiced since injuring his thigh two weeks ago against the Redskins.
Receiver Miles Austin (hamstring) was limited in Friday’s practice and is questionable. So is running back DeMarco Murray, who was limited this week with a sprained knee.
The Cowboys have ruled starting safety J.J. Wilcox out with a sprained knee and rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman (neck) will miss a second consecutive game.
The other eight players on the team’s injury report, including Dez Bryant (wrist/hamstring), are probable.
The Cowboys continue to try to put a happy face on the drama with former defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. The Cowboys released Ratliff last week for a failed physical, but Ratliff’s doctor this week cleared Ratliff to play.
Ratliff’s agent is soliciting offers from other teams.
The Cowboys insist there are no hard feelings toward Ratliff, though they acknowledge they might pursue legal recourse with the former four-time Pro Bowler who was signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension in 2011.
Owner Jerry Jones said Friday on his radio show on KRLD-FM that the Cowboys could possibly get salary-cap relief if Ratliff signs with another team.
“It is better for everybody concerned if Jay can go on and play,” Jones said.