Second-year linebacker Sean Lee is out for the rest of the season with a toe injury sustained on Sunday. Lee had been a standout defensive player, notching two interceptions and providing some much-needed athleticism and leadership.
Lee's isn’t the only injury the Cowboys are going to feel. Running back DeMarco Murray is out for at least the upcoming game against the New York Giants, and though Felix Jones (also questionable for Sunday) and Phillip Tanner haven't been disastrous when replacing Murray, they don’t have his explosiveness.
With a 3-3 record there is little room for failure, and if they Cowboys have any shot of earning a playoff berth—a far more difficult task in the NFC than the AFC—they’ve got to look to the following players to step up:
Because of injuries, the Cowboys are going to have to turn even more to Tony Romo’s arm to get them into the postseason.
For the better part of his career, Romo has been a tale of two quarterbacks. There’s the savvy playmaker who showed up in the season opener against the Giants; then there’s the quarterback with the five-pick night against the Chicago Bears.
Statistically speaking, Romo has been fairly accurate this year, ranking third in the NFL at 68.8 percent. However, he’s struggling with the deep ball, completing only 17 passes of 20 yards or longer. However, that has more to do with a lack of downfield targets. If Romo keeps making good decisions in and out of the pocket, the Cowboys can eventually post a win-loss record more reflective of their quarterback's talent.
If you were going by that first game against the Giants, Ogletree was going to be one of Romo’s main targets for the year—especially on long passes. Since that season opener, Ogletree has been virtually silent.
Unless you count a number of drops.
With Dez Bryant being all over the map, it’s absolutely necessary Romo gets more production from his other receivers. As of now, however, it looks like Ogletree’s game against New York was an anomaly. If he wants to get back into the good graces of Jason Garrett and his quarterback, Ogletree’s going to need to show more consistency.
Considering Austin is probably the Cowboys most consistent wide receiver, it’s a shame he’s had a relatively quiet season compared to Dez Bryant. A four-touchdown season is nothing to dismiss, but Austin is capable of more, especially since one of those touchdowns came during garbage time against Chicago.
Which player is most important for the Cowboys postseason hopes?
Against Baltimore, Austin only had two receptions. If Dallas expects to have an explosive offense against the Giants this week, Romo is going to need to target Austin as much as possible.
Last week the rookie cornerback recorded his first career interception against Cam Newton, picking off a pass in the end zone.
It’s also the first interception from the secondary in 333 snaps (h/t ESPN’s Calvin Watkins). Claiborne has been consistent this year with eleven solo tackles but is heading into a heady matchup with Hakeem Nicks on Sunday. He’s matched up well against elite players like Steve Smith, but Nicks would be a huge test for Claiborne.
With Lee out, the defense is going to rely heavily on Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Victor Butler–but expect Claiborne to be the one to really watch.
Saying a player like DeMarcus Ware needs to step up sounds crazy. He’s easily the heart of the Cowboys defense.
And though he gets pegged for “padding” his statistics with meaningless sacks, this year he’s shown up at all the right times. In their last game against Carolina, Ware had a team-high eight tackles. So far on the season he has 6.5 tackles.
Unfortunately for Sunday, Ware is looking probable to play because of an illness. But going forward, the Cowboys are going to rely heavily on their veteran pass-rusher to get them into playoff contention.