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Behind Enemy Lines: Can Cowboys Overcome Loss Of LB Sean Lee?


On the eve of the NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, here is a preview from a different perspective.

David Helman is a staff writer for Follow his work @HelmanDC.*

1. Quarterback Dak Prescott said it's a must-win game for the Cowboys to contend in the division. How is the team approaching it following last Sunday's loss in Atlanta?

David Helman: It doesn't generate many headlines, but the week-to-week approach for the Cowboys under Jason Garrett has always been fairly consistent. This team knows the importance of division games, and it knows the importance of keeping pace with the Eagles — not to mention the rest of the NFC. That's about as much as you're going to get them to say, as far as bulletin board material goes. Garrett loves to preach that the Cowboys are going to focus on themselves and what they can control, and that's typically what they do. It's not an overly interesting approach, but it leads to consistent results. Sunday's loss in Atlanta was a lopsided one, which has been a rarity for the Cowboys in the last few years. It will be interesting to see how they respond to such a thorough beating.

2. This will be the second game without Ezekiel Elliott. What adjustments can be made?

David Helman: This is going to sound weird, but the Cowboys have to fix their pass protection if they're going to run the ball. Against Atlanta, Alfred Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry and the Cowboys ran for 107 yards as a team. The problem is that they were so utterly incompetent in protecting Dak Prescott, it didn't matter. Prescott was sacked eight times and hit another dozen or so times on top of that, which completely sank the passing game. The inability to find balance on offense made the run game predictable, and it got the Cowboys out of what they want to do. I honestly believe this team can run the ball without Ezekiel Elliott, but they're going to need to find some balance if they want to do so.

3. What will be the impact of Sean Lee's absence on the defense?

David Helman: Prior history indicates that not having Sean Lee is bad news for this defense. The Cowboys went 12-4 without Lee in 2014, when he tore his ACL during OTAs. Since then, though, they are 0-5 in games without him. His ability to diagnose plays and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, as well as his knowledge of the rest of the defensive scheme, means everything to these guys. Lee sat out against the Rams and Packers with a hamstring injury earlier this year, and the Cowboys allowed an average of 377 yards and 35 points in those games — both losses. Even scarier: the Dallas run defense allowed an average of 164 rushing yards in those two games. If Lee can't play, the Cowboys' coaching staff will be hoping Anthony Hitchens can step up and fill his shoes. To be fair, Hitchens has been having a solid season since returning from a knee injury in October, but replacing an All-Pro is easier said than done.

4. The Eagles' pass rush gets a lot of attention, but could Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving make life tough for Carson Wentz on Sunday?

David Helman: Simply put, they have to if the Cowboys are going to win. Lawrence and Irving are the main reasons why the Dallas pass rush is so much better than it was expected to be, with 28 sacks through nine games. As noted above, the Cowboys are already going to have a hard time stopping the run without Sean Lee. At the very least, they can't afford to give Carson Wentz time to throw, too. Lawrence has racked up 11.5 sacks playing at left end this season, but I wonder if the Cowboys might let him rush from the right side in order to take advantage of Jason Peters' absence from the Eagles' lineup on Sunday. Regardless of how they dial up pressure, I can't imagine the Cowboys winning if they don't make Wentz uncomfortable.

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