FRISCO, Texas – At full strength, linebacker is among the deepest positions on the Cowboys' roster.
They're far from full strength at the moment.
Eleven-year veteran Sean Lee began the season on injured reserve for at least three weeks and now is expected to be sidelined into October following recent sports hernia surgery. Starting middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch joined Lee on IR this week after breaking his collarbone in the season opener against the Rams. He'll likely be out 6-8 weeks after surgery to repair the fracture.
A week into the season, the Cowboys have to regroup at the position.
Six-year veteran Joe Thomas moved into the starting lineup after Vander Esch got hurt in the first quarter against the Rams. Justin March and Luke Gifford provide depth, and the Cowboys signed rookie Rashad Smith off the Bears' practice squad Tuesday.
With Vander Esch sidelined, starting weak-side linebacker Jaylon Smith said he'll take over communicating the defensive calls to the group before the snap, as he did the last two seasons before he and Vander Esch switched positions in training camp this year.
"For one, I love all of those guys and really praying for their health to come back stronger," Smith said of Vander Esch and Lee. "With a linebacker corps, it's all about chemistry, and especially me being out there with another linebacker, we have to get our rhythm together.
"That's what me and Joe Thomas are working on this week, just dialing in, locking in everything. The beautiful thing is we've got guys that can play at the linebacker position. We have depth, all these guys that can play. We're locked in and we're ready."
Thomas has primarily played special teams in Dallas, but he started eight games for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy during four years with Green Bay.
"He's more prepared for this, he's experienced, he knows the defense, he's a good communicator and he definitely does a good job with the matchup part of it," McCarthy said.
Similar to the Cowboys, Atlanta's offense has a talented receiver group featuring seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. All three topped the 100-yard mark in their season-opening loss to Seattle. But Smith emphasized that the defense must try to contain running back Todd Gurley, too.
"We've got a solid game plan, and at the end of the day it comes down to execution," Smith said. "So for us, we don't want to beat ourselves. We want to play solid, clean, physical Dallas Cowboys football."
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