Jones poised for breakout

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IRVING, Texas (AP) – Julius Jones was tempted this week to dig up the game tape of his breakout performance as a rookie and slap it on a coach’s desk, maybe even with a note saying, “Keep your eyes on No. 21.”

That would show his bosses what he’s capable of doing in Seattle.

And it would remind them about him, period.

Jones feels like a forgotten man these days, his role reduced by the emergence of Marion Barber and some lopsided scores against the Dallas Cowboys lately.

“The coaches know what I can do,” he said. “I’m just looking for the opportunity to prove it.”

He hasn’t shown much lately.

Although Jones played every game for the first time in his three-year career and ran for a career-best 1,084 yards, he’s been in a big slump the last six games, topping 40 yards only once.

Over the last three games, he’s gained a total of 91 yards. Sure, he hasn’t had more than 13 carries in any of those games, but maybe that’s because he’s averaging a measly 2.8 yards per carry during this span. The low point came in the second half of the season finale, when he was stopped for no gain on the second play – and never got another try.

One game might be all it takes to change everything, especially the next one: A wild-card playoff game tonight in Seattle. In his only other game in Seattle, Jones ran 30 times for a career-best 198 yards and three touchdowns in December 2004. He hasn’t come close to those numbers in a game since, but thinks he could if given a chance back at Qwest Field.

“I feel really good about that stadium,” said Jones, who will be playing in his first playoff game. “They have really good FieldTurf, the best out there, I think. It’s just a fast track. I can’t wait to get out there. … Hopefully the team can have a performance – and me, too, individually – like I did last time.”

Dallas won that game 43-39. That’s also the kind of score many are expecting this time around.

The Seahawks have a patched-together secondary featuring safeties converted to cornerbacks, which could be a problem going against Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Jason Witten. Although Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has struggled lately, this might be the kind of game that could help him snap back to Pro Bowl form.

As for the Dallas defense, the unit is healthy in a physical sense but its performance has been sickly. The Cowboys allowed 33 points and 433.5 yards per game over the last four outings. They have the league’s worst defense on first downs and aren’t much better on third downs, allowing foes to convert on more than half their attempts the last six games. By comparison, Seattle allowed more than 50 percent only once all season. So Bill Parcells and the rest of the Dallas staff face an interesting dilemma: How much do they throw? Quick drives, points or not, result in the Seattle offense (and Cowboys defense) getting back on the field. And the Seahawks might take their time to keep their defense on the sideline. Having Shaun Alexander healthy and back in top gear makes that highly likely, too. Alexander led the NFL in rushing last season, but missed six games this fall with a cracked bone in his left foot. He’s gained 232 yards his last two games, marking his most consistent production since returning Nov. 19. He’s also no longer sleeping with a bone stimulation machine wired to his left foot.

“I feel a lot better,” Alexander said. “I’ve got my legs up under me.”

Hmm. Maybe Dallas will need Jones and the entire ground game more than ever.

In losing three of their last four games, the Cowboys went away from their backs. Their three fewest rushing attempts (16, 19 and 21) of the season came in those games. Jones wasn’t the only one letting them down, either. Barber has only 17 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries in those games.

“The game just unfolds a certain way,” Parcells said, blaming big deficits and turnovers for the lack of balance.

“That doesn’t create running opportunities. I still think we can run the ball.

“I would hope we can run the ball some,” he added. “I don’t know what the weather is going to be this time of year up there. I know you have to expect wet conditions.”

At least Jones should be well rested. And stepping onto his favorite patch of FieldTurf should bring back fond memories, ones he planned to stoke this week by watching the replay of the 2004 game for the first time in more than a year.

“Just to reminisce a little bit,” he said. “Maybe I’ll pop it in to get some motivation.”

AP-ES-01-05-07 0341EST

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