IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys lost a player and gained a coach with Sean Lee sidelined for the year.
While Lee's productivity on the field will vanish, he'll be on the sideline prepping every player whose role might be altered for his loss. The Cowboys must find a way to manage without their star linebacker, and it begins with a new defensive signal caller in Bruce Carter.
"He's going to be truly missed," Carter said. "He was a great leader on defense. For me, personally, I look up to him a lot. But as a defense we've got to keep moving on and keep fighting. It's a long season."
Carter knows how fastidiously Lee studied his position. He said he wants to make the type of plays Lee did, but he also doesn't want to add any unnecessary pressure on himself. Carter said he doesn't expect to switch over to Lee's position in the base or sub packages, though his responsibilities will increase with Lee out.
"It's just a certain situation where you've got to step up," Carter said. "You've got to be a man. There's nothing you can go back on. I feel sorry for what happened to Sean, but at the same time, you've just got to keep pushing. It's part of the game."
Carter will make calls, set the front and serve as a primary communicator on defense, sharing some of those responsibilities with veteran linebacker Dan Connor.
Carter's relayed signals for his defense before. He did it in college at North Carolina and twice this season in Seattle and Carolina when Lee was off the field at different points.
"Those guys have got to step up and get it done," said head coach Jason Garrett, "and some of the other guys who have been backup players for us have to get ready to play more on defense."
Connor, Lee's former Penn State teammate, will help fill Lee's void, along with linebacker Ernie Sims, whom the Cowboys signed Wednesday to bolster depth.
Carter expects Connor, who took over on the inside against the Panthers after Lee went out, to be the primary inside linebacker in the 3-4 base scheme, while Sims will rotate in on passing downs. Connor said his heart breaks for his good friend, Lee, but he has the utmost faith in Carter to handle the signals with Lee out.
"He did a great job last week when I was in there," Connor said. "He got the helmet. He was making the checks. He really took control and did an unbelievable job."
Sims, who's in his seventh season in the NFL, has never played in a 3-4 defense before. Typically an outside linebacker in the 4-3, Sims has also seen limited action on the inside to compensate for injuries while spending time in Detroit, Philadelphia and Indianapolis.
He's not concerned about the unfamiliar scheme in Dallas. He said he added lean mass since the last time he took an NFL snap, so he should be better prepared for a role on the inside.
"As I've seen when I got done with practice today, it's really just X's and O's," Sims said. "It's the same principles."
One option to make up for Lee's loss could be to play different schemes, including a 4-3 look to take advantage of a healthier defensive line.
While Carter said he doesn't expect the schemes to change in Lee's absence, defensive end Marcus Spears said teams must prepare for a 3-4 or 4-3 look against what he described as a multifaceted defense employed by Rob Ryan.
Spears called Lee one of the top linebackers in the league, but he's hopeful the drop-off won't be too great with the experienced athletes behind him.
"It's something that definitely stings when you lose your middle linebacker, but at the end of the day, they're not going to cancel and postpone the games because Sean Lee got hurt," Spears said. "You don't have a lot of time to dwell on it. All you can do is move on."
Other options to add depth would be linebacker Alex Albright, who can play as an inside or outside linebacker, and Orie Lemon, whose contributions have come on special teams. Lemon said Lee approached him after a meeting yesterday and told him to study harder and be ready in case he has to contribute.
That type of push and encouragement for the less experienced players will be welcomed in the Cowboys locker room, according to cornerback Brandon Carr, who said the backups must find a way to step in for a linebacker capable of diagnosing plays quicker than anyone he's even seen.
"We're going to miss him dearly," Carr said. "But I think guys are ready for this challenge. We're going to rally behind each other."