The Dallas Cowboys haven’t been able to mask their defensive issues whenever Sean Lee has been sidelined.
Without Lee in the lineup last month, the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers each scored 35 points in wins. When Lee exited after only eight defensive snaps last week, the Atlanta Falcons scored all 27 of their points.
The 0-3 record when Lee has missed significant time is glaring, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli pointed to one player who may serve as the defensive savior.
“We’ve got Hitch,” Marinelli said, referring to linebacker Anthony Hitchens. “He is a big, strong guy. I absolutely believe in Hitch. He is a system guy who has been here his whole career. He has learned it one way and he is one of the few guys I have ever seen who can go from MIKE to SAM to WILL.”
Well, Hitchens will be making the transition from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker to compensate for the loss of Lee, who is expected to miss the next two, possibly three, games.
Hitchens served as the lone bright spot last week when he took over for Lee. The fourth-year pro out of Iowa led the team with 12 tackles, and appears to have found his stride.
Hitchens missed the first four games, including the Rams game, after going down in the preseason with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee. But he played a season-high 62 snaps against the Falcons.
Hitchens understands the importance of imitating Lee as best as possible against the Philadelphia Eagles this week.
“Communication is huge, getting the guys lined up, and I’m going to be the guy making the calls if he’s out,” Hitchens said. “I’ll just try my best to imitate him and get everyone lined up. He’s going to help me throughout the week. At the end of the day, if he’s out, I’ve got to step up and play the Sean Lee role.”
Easier said than done. Lee is the unquestioned leader of the defense. Even though he’s missed almost three full games, Lee ranks second on the team with 62 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown, including a team-high seven for loss.
Outside of Hitchens, more responsibility will fall to veteran Justin Durant and first-year player Jaylon Smith. Durant and Smith are expected to split time at middle linebacker.
Durant has been inactive the past four weeks, and has just six tackles in 110 defensive snaps this season. But the Cowboys like his experience and will have no issues using him.
“Durant has had a nice week of practice,” Marinelli said. “He is wired in. I feel good about him.”
Said Durant, “(My season) has not gone how I wanted it to go. Early on, I didn’t play as well as I wanted to when I got an opportunity, so this is another chance for me.”
For Smith, it’s another chance to prove himself. His journey from a severe knee injury in his final college game to playing in the NFL has been well-documented.
But, for as much of a feel-good story as that has been, Smith has been exposed at times. He leads the team with 69 tackles, but the Cowboys ideally would have his snap count limited to the 20-25 range instead of the 50 he received against the Falcons.
“There is a certain point when things are going fast against you and you haven’t seen it all,” Marinelli said. “I just think it’s a way to bring a young player along. You bring this guy along, especially at that position, there is more stuff flying at you.”
Smith has seen it firsthand in what is essentially his rookie season, and has made it a point to not repeat his mistakes.
“There’s some things you just have to go through and you have to make those mistakes in order to achieve greatness,” Smith said. “It’s something I’ve done each and every week, I’ve improved. Learn from my mistakes and being able to contribute at a high level is something that I do and I aspire to continue to get better at.”
There’s no question Lee has played at a high level when healthy. Simply looking at the defensive numbers with and without him exemplify that.
“Sean is a remarkable leader. He makes sure everybody is situated and straight,” said defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who is leading the NFL in sacks with 11.5. “He controls the defense. But we’ve got Hitch stepping up. We feel like he is able to do the same thing. He doesn’t have a choice. I know he will. I’ve got so much faith in him.”
Cowboys vs. Eagles
7:30 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5