Playbook: Sean Lee’s injury hurts Cowboy D

Losing a game to a division rival is hard. But for the Cowboys, losing one of their best linebackers might be the hardest thing to overcome after Sunday’s loss to the Eagles.

The status of Sean Lee is uncertain for Week 9, but the linebacker could wear a cast on his injured left wrist if he does play against the Seahawks. If Lee can’t play, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will not only be missing a rising star at his position but also a key cog to his highly ranked run defense. After Lee left the game, the Eagles were able to run all over the Cowboys (239 rush yards), and, maybe more importantly, found Dallas’ linebackers proved to be porous in coverage.

The Eagles didn’t hit the deep pass (their longest completion was 24 yards), but Michael Vick was efficient (21-of-28 for 279 yards and two touchdowns) and targeted Keith Brooking and Bradie James‘ zones in Cover 2 and Cover 3. On mostly three-step drops, Vick was on time and hit every window, especially on underneath routes to tight end Brent Celek and crossing patterns to Jeremy Maclin.

In the run game, the Eagles spread the Cowboys out and made their linebackers play in space. All but three of Philadelphia’s runs were out of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) which presented 2-by-2 (two receivers to either side) or 3-by-1 sets (three receivers to one side).

Moving forward, Ryan has to know that offenses will be targeting his defense at the linebacker level, in both the run and pass games. That’s quite a conundrum, because Brooking looks slow versus the run on tape, and there is a reason Lee had taken James out of the game on passing downs.

Dallas has lost speed, athleticism and instinctive play at the linebacker level that cannot be replaced by anyone else on their roster.

Tidbits

  • Patrick Willis, as we’ve written about, is probably the best middle linebacker in the league, but Navorro Bowman is not playing too far below his level right now. He made 11 tackles in the 20-10 win over the Browns, and was all over the field both in the pass game and filling aggressively versus the run. Between him and Willis, at least one of the 49ers’ inside linebackers were in on every play of the Browns’ first two offensive series. That is complete dominance on tape.
  • The Bills made some serious adjustments during the bye week to compensate for the losses of Kyle Williams and Shawne Merriman up front –- and those adjustments worked in a 23-0 win over the Redskins. Marcell Dareus moved to nose tackle, Arthur Moats received an increase in pass-rushing snaps, and Chris Kelsay played on the edge in a “4-3 over” look. Their interior push generated by Dareus and Moats helped produce nine sacks.
  • Rams CB Al Harris -– yes, that 36-year-old, former Packer, Al Harris -– was left on an island to cover Saints receivers one-on-one. His success in those situations allowed St. Louis to roll its safety and linebacker coverage away from Harris’ side and tighten throws in the middle of the field for Drew Brees. New Orleans’ passing game suffered (269 yards on 44 passes and two interceptions) and Harris was the first domino.
  • While Jerod Mayo was back for the Patriots this week versus the Steelers, he only had limited action. And it is showing how much New England misses him on defense. Despite having an interception, Gary Guyton had another tough week versus the run and pass, looking lost in zone coverage. Brandon Spikes also seems slow to diagnose plays and read the run. On the offensive side of the ball, we are wondering why Kevin Faulk continues to see action over someone like rookie Stevan Ridley. It’s probably a trust thing with the coaches, but on tape you can see how slow Faulk is at this stage of his career and the yardage they are losing with his lack of speed.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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