Anthony Spencer battles Rams tight end Randy McMichael
As the outside linebacker opposite reigning NFL sacks leader DeMarcus Ware, Spencer has the luxury of knowing offensive coordinators aren't setting up their pass protections to avoid him. If anything, quarterbacks trying to avoid Ware might move toward Spencer and teams almost certainly will have fewer blockers in front of him.
At least, that's how things shape up now. Spencer's goal is to make teams worry about him almost as much as Ware.
"Teams are going to be focused on Ware no matter what I do," Spencer said. "It's just how I respond to it. If I'm making plays and making sacks off the edge, that's going to make teams respect both of us and make them change their scheme a little more."
When Bill Parcells switched the Cowboys to a 3-4 defense in 2005, he spent the 11th overall pick on Ware, a college defensive end who could be retrained as a quarterback-seeking outside linebacker. That experiment worked so well that in '07 the Cowboys spent their top pick on Spencer, another college defensive end.
That year, Greg Ellis was Dallas' incumbent at the "other" OLB spot and he didn't like the idea of a rookie coming in to take his job. Ellis was so motivated that he had his best season, going to the Pro Bowl for the first time and winning the NFL's comeback player of the year award. Spencer actually started the first six games and played in all 16, but he was clearly the third man in a three-man rotation.
Spencer was poised to break out in '08, getting off to a great start in training camp, only to hurt a knee. He needed surgery and missed the entire preseason, plus two of the first three games. A hamstring problem cost him two more games. He never got the starting job back, finishing the season with only 1½ sacks, 18½ behind Ware for the team lead.
Now Spencer is going into his third year. He's healthy, experienced and faces no competition; Ellis was released this summer. It's time for the Cowboys to see if No. 93 can be anywhere as good as No. 94.
"He's a tremendously good athlete," said coach Wade Phillips, who also is the defensive coordinator. "He has all the attributes you need to be a good player. ... Spencer has looked good in the running game. We knew he would. I think he is getting better and better passing game-wise. He is a natural pass rusher. Staying healthy and having the opportunity is the biggest thing for him."
At 6-foot-3, 256 pounds, Spencer is the perfect size for his role, with good speed to match. After 28 games of experience, and hours upon hours of film study, meetings and practices alongside Ware and Ellis, Spencer has long since shed the robotic feel of being an out-of-position defensive end.
"I definitely feel like a linebacker nowadays," he said.
It's also important to note that Spencer has played a lot, albeit mostly against the run. He was better at it than Ellis and that enabled the veteran to remain fresh to rush the quarterback. So Spencer didn't get many chances for sacks.
He knows that's about to change.
"I'm just elated about the whole situation," he said. "This position that they put me in, it's something that I've wanted since I've been here. So I'm more focused than I was before just because I know that everyone is going to be counting on me. I've got to get my job done."
Ware said the only thing Spencer has to prove is that he can handle playing full games over a full season. That's no knock considering it's something he's never had the chance to do.
Otherwise, Spencer has Ware's full support, which might be the biggest thing he has going for him.
"Me and Spencer watch each other," Ware said. "We're both young guys. I'll tell Spencer what he's doing wrong and what he has to improve on and he'll tell me. ... I don't have to worry about him at all."