Examining the loss of Cowboys LB Sean Lee, a “proven difference-maker”

Cowboys LB Sean Lee injured his foot in the Panthers game (Associated Press)

By now, you know that the Cowboys lost LB Sean Lee for the season. It was a crucial loss, one that hits the stellar Dallas defense right in the middle. Not only was he the team’s leading tackler (by 26 tackles!), he was also its leader.

I discussed the various issues on NFL Network’s Around the League, hitting on a few things. But let’s explore here.

First, the basics.

SAM linebacker Bruce Carter will take over the play-calling duties previously assigned to Lee. He’s done it before, it’s not that taxing (just repeat the call in your helmet), but there is extra responsibility because of the pre-snap adjustments. “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Carter said. It helps that Lee was at practice yesterday helping out. No surprise there.

Then, former veteran reserve Dan Connor slides up to starting WILL linebacker, taking Lee’s place. He’s actually good buddies with Lee, former Penn State teammates. He described himself as “heart-broken” to take over for his friend, and he called Lee “unreplaceable,” which isn’t really a word, but I know what he means.

Everyone’s got to pick up the slack,” Connor said. “I gotta try to pick up the slack. You don’t want to do it (get playing time) like this. Not at all. It’s terrible. Not a good feeling for me. I talked to him (Tuesday night), and he’s putting a bright face on it. But I’ve been in that situation, it’s not a good feeling. To step in and play for him, it’s bittersweet.”

Oh, and on passing downs, Connor will come out and Ernie Sims, the former first-rounder, will come in. Off the street, off his couch really, he’s looking for another chance. And they are easing him in.

First and foremost, they are starting me off in small packages, sub packages, nickel packages,” Sims said. “Do I think I can play in a 3-4? Yes. If you look at me, yes I’ve been smaller than I am right now. I’ve gained 5-6 pounds now of lean mass. I’m stronger, faster and bigger than I was in my first couple years. I’m pretty confident in my ability. But time will tell.

So, that’s how the Cowboys will try to do it. Two guys will equal the play off Lee. And clearly in the locker room yesterday, there was frustration with Lee going down. No one wanted that. But as DL Marcus Spears said, “They won’t cancel Sunday’s game because Lee is out.” Actually, when I asked him how long it took him to get over the loss of Lee, Spears laughed. Spears has been doing this for a long time. He knows you simply take the players you have and move on.

Like I said, guys have been preparing for this opportunity during OTAs,” CB Brandon Carr said. “In football, you’re one play away from being that guy that’s in the light, that’s making the calls, that’s being out there with your number called. o guys have been preparing. Sean is doing a great job of helping guys and being around for whatever questions they may need. He’s a smart football player, we’re going to miss him dearly, but guys are ready for this challenge, and we’re going to rally behind each other, continue to be an 11-man defense and keep executing and making plays.”

Two big places Lee’s impact will be felt: Diagnosing the play pre-snap for the defense and leadership. One, a little extra preparation can handle. The other? Someone will have to emerge. Just like the Ravens without Ray Lewis. Just like the Texans without Brian Cushing. Just like the Jets without Darrelle Revis. Every team deals with. It’s how you respond that’s important. As owner Jerry Jones said, “He’s a proven difference-maker.” Can they do it? Definitely. Teams do every year. And DC Rob Ryan will adjust, too.

He’s a leader,” Connor said. “It’ll be hard for us. But we’ll get different guys to come in and do it.”

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