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Hidden 'star' knocking on Strahan's door

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Only in Dallas, with a constellation of stars that includes 17 players who have made Pro Bowls, could a Defensive Player of the Year candidate be overshadowed.

On any other team, All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware would be thrust into the spotlight.

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Ware records one of his 3 sacks of Manning Sunday.
(US Presswire/Nelson Chenault)

With a league-high 19 sacks, Ware needs four in the final two games to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. Yet he is outshined in Dallas by high-profile teammates like Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, Adam "Pacman" Jones and even his owner Jerry Jones, the NFL's version of P.T. Barnum.

All of that is just fine with Ware, who was named to his third straight NFC Pro Bowl team on Tuesday.

"The thing is, I like it that way. I'm a guy who came from a small school," said Ware, who played at Troy University in Alabama. "The media, the crowd; I never had that before. So if you never had it, you don't have to experience it.

"Terrell and Romo, and Pacman – and so many other guys I can name – take that stardom, and use it to their advantage. I don't talk much, because I like to show it on the field. Nothing else needs to be said."

The Cowboys have provided plenty of fireworks in an apparent revival of the popular prime-time soap opera Dallas. From Jerry Jones seemingly questioning the toughness of Marion Barber, to Terence Newman calling out his coaches and Owens reportedly resenting Romo and tight end Jason Witten, the Cowboys dominated the news for the wrong reasons heading into Sunday's must-win game against the Giants. However, Ware steered clear of the drama.

"There's always something going on," Ware said just before laughing. "It's been a roller coaster the whole season. But we all knew what was at stake [Sunday]. We can't lose any more games. We can't let, 'he said, she said' get in our way.

"I think the main thing is to lay low and let things die down."

Not that Ware is afraid to speak his mind in closed quarters.

"When it's time to voice my opinion, I do. When someone has an ego or someone doesn't take criticism, I tell them," Ware said. "But I don't address the person, I address the team. You don't want to embarrass someone."

Except, of course, if that someone is an opposing tackle or a quarterback he wants to rattle. For example, Ware blew right past left tackle David Diehl on the Giants first offensive snap Sunday, sacking Eli Manning and forcing a fumble that guard Rich Seubert recovered. The Giants punted three plays later.

Freak of nature

There is no shortage of playmakers on a Cowboys defense that is ranked seventh in the NFL. But asked if Ware is the centerpiece of the group, defensive line coach Todd Grantham diplomatically said, "That's a fair statement."

Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tra Thomas said the Philadelphia Eagles offense has a basic approach against the Cowboys: Where's Ware?

"You know when you play Dallas," Thomas said, "you got to do extra in practice to prepare for him."

But focusing too much on Ware, who lines up in various spots, creates opportunities for others – such as fellow linebackers Greg Ellis (seven sacks) and James (six).

"He's a great athlete; extremely fast and agile," Thomas said, "and he's strong enough to come with a bull rush."

For instance, Thomas said Pittsburgh's James Harrison, who is fourth in the league with 15 sacks, primarily relies on a power rush. Ware, on the other hand, can use his speed, power or finesse, Thomas said, a point even Steelers coach Mike Tomlin conceded.

"Our guys are short, squatty try-hard guys," Tomlin said of Harrison and LaMarr Woodley before his team's 20-13 victory over Dallas earlier this month. "DeMarcus is a freak of nature."

But Ware isn't a one-dimensional player. The outside 'backer and edge rusher defends the run well, and he drops into coverage, although that isn't the greatest use of his skills.

"If you want him to, he can cover tight ends and backs," Grantham said. "But then he's moving further away from the quarterback, which is not what you want."

Ware had two goals entering this season: use his hands better and be more consistent.

Because offensive linemen are almost always taller and heavier (Ware is 6 foot 4, 257 pounds), they try to slow him down and create even more space by getting their mitts on him. Ware focused on his hands, so he could be "dictator and initiator."

"I don't want to go into exactly what I'm doing," he said. "But you want to make them do what you want to do. Set a guy up.

"It's like a mind game."

As for consistency, Ware tied an NFL record with sacks in 10 consecutive games (going back to the final three of the 2007 season). After that run was snapped against the Buccaneers, Ware has the string back up to six, including three (during a 34-9 win over Seattle on Thanksgiving) against arguably the league's top left tackle, nine-time Pro Bowl selection Walter Jones.

Ware said Jones is the "best all-around" tackle in the league, dominant as a run and pass blocker.

"If you throw him the ball, he'll probably catch it too," said Ware, who claimed to not have gotten a whiff of Matt Hasselbeck in his previous encounters against Jones.

Record within reach

That he has had a sack in all but one game is the most impressive part of Ware's season, Grantham said.

"Sometimes, when guys have [a] big sacks year, they have five in a game and it distorts [their performance]," Grantham said. "He's consistent throughout the year."

Despite playing on a bum knee.

Ware hyper extended his left knee in the third quarter against the Seahawks, and he was limited in practice as the Cowboys prepared for the Steelers. But Ware played, and he earned one of the five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

Suddenly, after the three sacks of Manning, Ware has a shot at a record that wasn't on his radar.

"It's there and it's in arms reach and I'm going to try and get it," Ware acknowledged.

And no, Ware said, he wouldn't have a problem if either Baltimore's Joe Flacco or Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb wants to take a dive, as Brett Favre appeared to do with less than three minutes remaining of the 2001 season finale in which the Packers had a comfortable lead over the Giants.

That sack by Strahan was the Giants' only one of the day, in a 34-25 loss.

"Hey, if someone wants to do that, it would be great," Ware said.

Since 2005, when he was drafted 11th overall, Ware leads all linebackers with 52½ sacks, 13 more than San Diego's Shawne Merriman, who played in only one game this season.

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Ware was honored for his 3-sack performance on Thanksgiving.
(US Presswire/Mark J. Rebilas)

Never shy about retaining talented players, Jones could sign Ware – whose contract expires after the 2009 season – to the richest contract by a defensive player next year. Not too shabby for a player who couldn't even get a whiff from his hometown college, Auburn University.

Ware said those humble beginnings inspired him early in his career.

"Growing up, people always said, 'You're too small. You're not big enough.' I always set goals really high, knowing they might not be achievable," Ware said. "Then when you get them, you're like, 'Oh man, I can do this.' "

Now, though, he is inspired by his family, namely his wife Taniqua and his infant daughter Marley.

"This year is probably my best year because I have a little girl now. That's like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines and all the holidays in one," Ware said. "Marley in my life, she's what inspires me. She inspires me every day.

"That's my world right there."

Ware looks over at Taniqua and Marley after a bad play, and he thinks about them on his way home from a bad day at work.

"I'm driving home now, smiling, because she's going to greet me and say dada," he said.

Ware is active in the community, volunteering for numerous causes, but he generally leaves all the endorsement deals and interviews to his teammates.

"You never know what the future holds," he said. "But the main thing for me is family. That's the only endorsement I want, is from my family.

"I keep it simple," Ware said. "Just keep everything simple."

Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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