Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said Thursday the Dallas Cowboys will finally field their expected starting linebacker corps Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
That means Sean Lee will be back at weakside linebacker after missing the past two games with a strained hamstring.
Jaylon Smith will be replaced at middle linebacker by Anthony Hitchens, who returns to his starting role. Damien Wilson will continue to start on the strong side.
Smith leads the Cowboys in tackles with 54. Lee is next with 32. But while the numbers are impressive for Smith, who missed all of last season with a catastrophic knee injury, they have come with minimal impact on a defense that has been unable to stop the run on a consistent basis.
Marinelli admits that Smith has been exposed because he had to play too much and had too much responsibility with making the defensive calls.
“I don’t see a lot of physical limitations,” Marinelli said about Smith. “It’s just a lot for a young guy, a rookie, coming in at that position. It’s a lot and the communication and all the things you have – close calls, adjustments – it can wear you out as you go. It’s a lot to it.”
Smith will continue to play in concert with Hitchens but the Cowboys will now go back to their original plan of bringing him along slowly. Marinelli plans to put him on a pitch count.
“You’d love to be able to bring a young player like that on with a pitch count, not for injuries or anything, but you like to monitor guys as they’re coming in so they’re getting comfortable. Then you have a veteran player with them, who makes the calls, the fronts, the fits, to emulate a little bit. But that’s a situation we were in and we had to deal with it.”
Hitchens missed the first four games with a knee injury sustained in the Aug. 26 preseason game against Oakland. But Marinelli called Hitchens one of the MVPs of training camp.
“He was all over [the field],” Marinelli said of Hitchens. “That’s who he is, so that really allows a younger player to see it, work on it, see the adjustments, see the communication. Communication is so important and it’s got to happen because you’re setting 10 other guys. So it’s a great learning process and it would’ve been nice to start the season that way, but that happens.”
Cowboys at 49ers
3:05 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4