It’s been more than a month since Leighton Vander Esch last appeared at the heart of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, and the former Pro Bowler has now rehabilitated through two significant injuries in as many seasons. But that’s not stopping the 24-year-old linebacker from preparing to make his anticipated return on Monday night. Asked Saturday about the chances of Vander Esch playing in the Cowboys’ Week 6 game against the Arizona Cardinals, coach Mike McCarthy told reporters he’s “definitely encouraged” about the former All-Pro’s progress, adding that “all the arrows are pointing up right now.”

McCarthy’s remarks echo reporting from CBS Sports’ Patrik Walker, who said Thursday that Vander Esch was prepared to take on full contact following recovery from collarbone surgery and was likely to make his official return against Arizona. The Cowboys activated Vander Esch off injured reserve this week, one week after kicking off the linebacker’s 21-day practice window, and would likely slot him right back in the middle of the defense — reclaiming defensive headset duties from Jaylon Smith — against the Cardinals.

“I think anytime you have players, especially Leighton is a key player as far as his responsibility of playing the ‘Mike,’ yeah I think it definitely, hopefully gets us back in the way we were going into the Rams game,” McCarthy said this week, referencing Dallas’ defensive struggles early in 2020.

Vander Esch, who was sidelined during the Cowboys’ season-opening loss to Los Angeles, was initially expected to miss as many as eight weeks after surgery. The Boise State product, who racked up 140 tackles and a pair of interceptions as a standout rookie, also missed significant time in 2019, when he was limited to nine games after undergoing surgery for a neck issue.

Without Vander Esch, the Cowboys have ranked as one of the NFL’s worst defenses, surrendering the sixth-most yards per game and the most points per game (36.0) through five games.

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