How the Dallas Cowboys Can Overcome Sean Lee's Season-Ending Injury

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How the Dallas Cowboys Can Overcome Sean Lee's Season-Ending Injury
Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

The Dallas Cowboys defense took a major hit with star linebacker Sean Lee's season coming to an end.

According to ESPN's Todd Archer and Ed Werder:

The Dallas Cowboys announced they are placing the inside linebacker on season-ending injured reserve with a toe injury and will sign veteran linebacker Ernie Sims to fill his roster spot.

Lee will have surgery on his right big toe, according to sources, with a full recovery expected for 2013. 

Lee has undoubtedly been one of the NFL's best linebackers and defensive players since his rookie campaign in 2010. And with 105 tackles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries last season, an even more impressive 2012 was to be expected.

Well, Lee was certainly living up to the standard in recording 58 tackles and defending three passes through Big D's first six games. Unfortunately, the Cowboys' season just got increasingly more difficult and they are hosting the New York Giants this week.

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To that end, let's break down how Rob Ryan's defense must adjust to compensate for Lee's absence.

 

Inside Blitz Packages

With Lee not present inside of the front seven, you can reasonably anticipate any opposing offense to extensively attack Dallas over the intermediate level and on the inside. Lee was a dominant force at creating a solid umbrella for the underneath coverage because his instincts are among the best around.

That, unfortunately, cannot be easily replaced. Therefore, the best way to minimize the damage an offense can put over the middle is blitzing. Not so much from Ernie Sims, but angling DeMarcus Ware to jolt inside at the snap is one option.

As Big D's best rusher, getting him in the backfield as soon as possible is quite crucial. Plus, when facing the prototypical pocket passers, disrupting through the middle can obstruct field vision.

Eli Manning is just one prime example, because with his limited mobility, Dallas can have success by interfering up the gut. Blitzing outside doesn't have nearly the same impact, since Manning will just step up and laser one downfield.

Another option would be to blitz an inside 'backer and sink a defensive lineman underneath. As we look at next, adjusting the coverage can make up for Lee's absence by becoming more dynamic.


Press Coverage Dynamics

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

Any time a defense blitzes, regardless of where the extra pressure is coming from, the coverage must always give up something in return. Meaning: in a front such as the 3-4, blitzing one inside 'backer forces the other to cover more ground because of a widened zone.

The same can be said when rushing an outside linebacker or defensive back.

One way to limit an offense's approach, though, is constantly having the cornerbacks play man coverage on the outside, but with inside leverage. That inner leverage forces the receiver to adjust his route outward and, in most cases, will make the pattern take longer to develop.

Additionally, the cornerback can use the boundary as an extra defender, which makes any pass more difficult for a quarterback. As a result, the underneath coverage can focus more on slot receivers, tight ends and running backs leaking out of the backfield.

It's a numbers game that must be played by factoring field space. Blitzing up the middle won't do anything if a corner allows a quick slant to develop, because the back just picks up the blitz and the wider zone makes for an easier throw.

Here, combined with the inside leverage has to come a safety rolling down into the box. Yes, that leaves the secondary more vulnerable downfield in Cover 1, but it's a risk Dallas must take to force additional ill-advised passes.

After all, giving up cheap yards across the middle expands the vulnerability to double-moves and play-action.


Offense Must Run Effectively

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

No matter who is in the backfield, the Cowboys must run the football.

Sure, the passing game presents explosive players, but without a key defensive player, Tony Romo and Co. have to assist their defense. And that comes in the form of keeping the opposing offense sidelined.

Establishing a balanced attack if anything, is imperative. It keeps opponents off-balance and allows for better clock/game management. Simply put, the more Dallas possesses the ball, the odds of an opponent taking advantage of Lee's absence significantly reduce.

Shorten the game, play the field position battle and wear down a defense's front seven. Provided that the Cowboys enjoy even mild success between the tackles and display a refusal to abandon it, that sets up for big plays later on.

Not to mention when a team faces a must-win game, the best way to control it from opening kickoff is with a physical attack. Dallas possesses this ability, it just has to build consistency, which allows the defense to then take over.

 

Follow John Rozum on Twitter.

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