When the Dallas Cowboys take on the Chicago Bears Sunday, look for veteran Justin Durant to supplant Anthony Hitchens in the starting line up at middle linebacker.
The Cowboys won’t make it officially until game day, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli stated the obvious when asked if Durant was the new starter at middle linebacker.
"He’s got a good chance to," said Marinelli with a smile.
It’s not just about last week’s game-saving pass deflection on fourth down against the Washington Redskins that has elevated Durant.
It was the plan along when the team signed him as a free agent in July to replace the suspended Rolando McClain. Hitchens was more than capable enough to hold things down as the Cowboys eased Durant in.
"Initially when he was coming back, because he missed all the time, we didn’t work him back in immediately in training camp and in the preseason," coach Jason Garrett said. "But I think we’re beyond that. Having said that, we want to make sure Hitch gets some snaps – Hitch is worthy of getting some snaps."
Hitchens played 31 snaps in the season opener against the New York Giants to just 17 for Durant.
Against the Redskins, Durant played 29 snaps to just 23 for Hitchens.
Now, it’s time to let Durant play.
"He’s coming," Marinelli said. "Each week we’ve been really smart with him all the way through this, and he’s progressed really nice. And he’s a veteran presence for us, so I think we can hopefully see a few more reps every week."
The Cowboys will still use both players in concert with each other with Hitchens getting much of his work in the regular defense while Durant handles the bulk of the load in the nickel alongside Sean Lee. But there is no doubt that Durant is rising.
"Well, he’s done a good job with the opportunities he’s gotten – there’s no question about that," Garrett said. "But like that combination. Both he and Hitch, they’re doing some good work – both in the base and in the nickel – of playing that middle linebacker spot. Justin is a very instinctive player. He’s around the ball a lot. I think we’ve seen that over the first couple weeks. He made a couple big plays in the game the other day."