How Important Is Sean Lee's Return to the Cowboys' Lineup?

Chris TrapassoAnalyst IDecember 3, 2013

October 20, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee (50) during second half action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY S

Though many make every Dallas Cowboys season about quarterback Tony Romo, we mustn't undervalue the quarterback on the other side of the ball, middle linebacker Sean Lee

The fourth-year pro from Penn State has rapidly become one of the most well-rounded, impactful linebackers in the NFL, and he's flourished as the central figure of Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense this season. 

His Defensive Player of the Year-caliber campaign was halted when he tweaked his hamstring during Week 10's humiliating 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints, a tweak that's caused him to miss the Cowboys' last two games.

But it sounds like they'll get him back this week:

Jerry Jones said Sean Lee will return this week but Morris Claiborne is questionable.

— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 3, 2013

Sure, Dallas hasn't lost since Lee went down with an injury, but there's no doubting it needs him back.

In Week 12 against the New York Giants, the Cowboys allowed 5.7 yards per play—respectable but far from stingy—and a whopping 6.7 yards per carry on the ground. 

On Thanksgiving, Kiffin's run defense tightened up and surrendered two yards per carry to a strong Oakland Raiders rushing attack. But undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin, who was making his third career NFL start, completed 18-of-30 passes for 255 yards, good for a robust 8.5 yards-per-attempt average. 

Dallas has been relatively efficient on offense this season—only the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos average more points per game—but it's been almost equally as defensively challenged. No team allows more yards per game.

Lee affects the defense at every level. 

Before he strained his hamstring, Lee had already amassed 93 total tackles, six defended passes and four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. 

Here's how Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has rated the Cowboys linebacker in 2013:

Also, according to PFF, Lee played every defensive snap for Dallas in seven games this year and missed only 18 plays before he suffered the injury against the Saints.

Discounting that game, the Cowboys allowed an average of 23.2 points per outing with Lee in the lineup, which would rank them in the top half of the league and would be a full two points lower than their current average.

Because Lee missed only two games, and because Dallas faced relatively pedestrian offenses in his absence, it'd be easy to look at the stat book and come to the conclusion that Lee wasn't missed. 

Sean Lee's 2013 PFF Stats (Inside Linebacker Rank)
Overall GradeCoverage GradeRun-Stopping GradePass-Rushing Grade
+7.6 (6)+2.7 (9)+2.8 (9)+1.2 (11)
Pro Football Focus

But he's easily one of the most complete linebackers in the game. Therefore, replacing his production would be nearly impossible, especially as the middle man in the 4-3, Tampa 2 defense— the most vital player in that scheme.

If Lee was solely a specialist—a downhill thumper or coverage ace—the Cowboys wouldn't have too difficult of a task patching the hole he'd create.

However, due to his exceptional versatility, sideline-to-sideline range and quick-twitch instincts, Dallas would need to use two or three different defenders in separate personnel packages to recreate Lee's production.

Just watch; when Sean Lee returns, the Dallas Cowboys defense will get a much-needed boost.