FRISCO, Texas – It was a cruel twist of fate and a reminder of life in the NFL.
Before kickoff last Sunday against Atlanta, Justin Durant was ruled inactive. The veteran linebacker was healthy enough to play, but he sat down so the Cowboys could meet their game day roster limit.
An hour later, Sean Lee had injured his hamstring – which meant that not just one, but two different linebackers had to watch the 27-7 loss to Atlanta from the sideline.
"I just hate it for him, because I see what he does to prepare for games. For something like this to happen again, it's tough," Durant said. "And knowing that I can't do anything to try to help him out, it's tough for me also."
Frustrating as it might have been to watch, Durant should have an opportunity to rectify that this week. With Lee unlikely to play while he rehabs that injured hamstring, the Cowboys will have all hands on deck to fill his sizable hole in the lineup.
"We know what Sean means to our defense, of course – let's not take that away from him. He's an All-Pro," Durant said. "It's going to be tough when an All-Pro player of his caliber is out, but you can't use that as an excuse. You have to go play the game."
Durant has been inactive for a month – two games due to injury and two due to roster constraints. And he's not the only Dallas linebacker likely to get a look this week, as the Cowboys may also look at Justin March-Lillard, who has been active for two of four possible games since the team acquired him in mid-October.
"We anticipate those guys getting some work in practice and having a role in this game," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "We don't really make the final determinations on roster spots and all of that until the end of the week. But those guys will get plenty of practice work."
If Lee can't go, the smart money says Anthony Hitchens will slide over to his spot on the weak side. Hitchens hasn't had to play that spot this season, given that he was dealing with an injury when Lee missed time with his first hamstring problem earlier this season.
Of course, by the fourth year in his career, Hitchens said he's plenty prepared to play at multiple spots in this system.
"I try to make it easier on myself by studying throughout the week. You never know what's going to happen," he said. "Unfortunately, early in my career I did it a lot, so now when I'm watching film, I'm never watching just what I've got to do. I'm watching so to see what everyone's job is."
That'll leave Durant, March-Lillard and Jaylon Smith to handle Hitchens' vacated middle linebacker spot. Smith manned that role in the early going of the season, with mixed results.
With a full contingent of other linebackers to help carry that load, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys opt to handle it. Smith had been averaging roughly 25 snaps per game over the past month, but that number jumped up to 50 when Lee went out against the Falcons.
"I think with a lot of young players, I think just keeping them in a place where, whether it's the role that they have or the number of snaps that they play, I think that's a really important assessment," Garrett said.
"Sometimes you're able to stick to what that plan is, keeping them in a spot or playing 'x' number of plays in a game. And other times because of situations you have on your team, they have to do more or do something differently. That's just the way it is in our league."
Perhaps Durant will be able to help with that, as the Cowboys seek to patch things together without their best defender. However they decide to handle it, it's a challenge Durant said they're ready for.
"We have to be aggressive, we have to know our assignment and just go out and do it," he said. "We can't hold anything back. We all have made plays in this league, so we just have to go out there and do it."