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Spagnola: Have Cowboys Solved Lee-Less Problem?


FRISCO, Texas – Now comes the test.

The Dallas Cowboys dueling the Detroit Lions, high noon Sunday at AT&T Stadium.

Without Capt. Sean Lee, the defensive maestro.

The straw that stirs the Cowboys' defensive drink, or whatever other `cliché you want to use.

The backbone.

The heart and soul.

Once again, a strained relationship with his hamstring, this time the left one, will keep him out of a game. This time, not only Sunday, but who knows if he will return in time for next Sunday night against the Houston Texans or just when.

As the Cowboys previously have discovered, they can't be too careful with his soft tissue ailments. Don't want this to linger.

But this is exactly what the Cowboys were trying to take a pre-emptive strike against during the off-season. Unlike previous years when Lee missed games, the Cowboys didn't want to get caught with their pants down. They just had to prepare for the worst, try to stock their 53-man roster with the ability to absorb the absence of one of their only two Pro Bowl players on this defense.

The evidence of why has been staring them in the face for at least the past three seasons, and the free-agency loss of Anthony Hitchens in March became one of those magnified flip-around mirrors, bringing vivid clarity that they had better do something to brace for the possibility.

Lee's absence crippled the Cowboys last season, as big a reason for going 9-7 and basically missing the playoffs by a Game 9 loss to Atlanta as did Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension when the Cowboys lost the first three games they played without their 2016 NFL leading rusher.

Guess who else was missing in those three games, Games 9-11?

Sean Lee.

Here are the numbers:

In the six games Lee basically missed – he played only eight snaps in one of them before his hamstring balked a second time last season – the Cowboys went 1-5, only beating the Redskins, 38-14, on Nov. 20 in his absence. The losses were one thing. The amount of points yielded in those losses was staggering.

LA Rams 35.

Green Bay 35.

Atlanta 27.

Philadelphia 37.

LA Chargers 28.

That comes to 29.3 points a game in five of the Cowboys' seven losses last year. They gave up 42 to Denver and 21 to Seattle in the other two losses that Lee did play in.

So without Lee's presence on the field in those six games opponents averaged 29.3 points a game.

With Lee on the field for the other 10 games?

Try 15.6.

Coincidence? Me thinks not.

And, let's take this one step further. In 2016, without Lee in the lineup, the Cowboys were beaten by Philadelphia, 27-13, in the meaningless final game of the season with their playoff fate wrapped up. But still, 27 points.

Then in 2015, that lost 4-12 season, complicated by Tony Romo injury problems and woeful backup quarterback play, the Cowboys lost all four games Lee either completely missed or partially missed with injury, and the point totals were staggering once again:

New Orleans 26.

Philadelphia 33.

Tampa Bay 10.

Washington 34.

Mere coincidence?

That means over the previous three seasons in the 11 games Lee has missed the Cowboys have given up 306 points, or 27.8 points a game while going 1-10.


Thus, taking the 2018 preemptive strike:

"That's why we drafted Leighton with the 19th pick," Jaylon Smith said.

You are correct, sir.

That is Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 255, linebacker, Boise State, the guy who moves like a deer for his size, who seemingly can play weakside linebacker, strongside linebacker or middle linebacker, whatever the Cowboys might need.

In this game Sunday, against Detroit's Matthew Stafford-led offense that has scored 27 and 26 points in the past two games, Vander Esch will start in place of Lee on the weak side. This will be his first NFL start, and incredibly for a guy growing up playing eight-man football in high school, just his 15th start in an 11-man game.

"You got to be ready for whatever," LVE says. "There is a reason they drafted me in the first round and I have to live up to it. So, when they need me, I'm going to be there."

Oh, they need him more than ever on Sunday.

Now, as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says, "It's not his first game, we've been rotating in there."

That the Cowboys have. So far in three NFL games Vander Esch has played 78 snaps, or 43.8 percent of the Cowboys' defensive snaps. He's also been out there for 40 special teams snaps, totaling 50 percent of those. So, he has gotten his feet wet.

And none more than in this past game, a 24-13 loss to Seattle. Lee played only 36 snaps before they finally took his helmet away, missing the majority of the second half, but also some of the second quarter and was not on the field when the coverage broke down on Russell Wilson's 52-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett.

In came Vander Esch, playing a career-high 33 snaps.

Brother, he made the most of those snaps, racking up 10 tackles, seven of those solo and one for a loss. That goes with the six he had against the Giants in 28 snaps and four more in the season-opener against Carolina, for a total of 20 in three games. That already ranks him fourth on the team, one behind Chidobe Awuzie and just six off Jaylon Smith's lead (26). And to think Smith already has played 176 of the team's 204 defensive snaps.

"When you meet Leighton, you see how serious he's taking it," says Cowboys veteran safety Jeff Heath.

And Marinelli seems to be all in on the rookie.

"We knew he was smart – very smart, very smart," Marinelli says, calling him a steady Eddie. "Nothing seems to affect him."

Now making plays is one thing. But just who takes over Lee's leadership role, the guy who is going to make sure everyone is lined up properly, the guy who is going to make the adjustments before the ball is snapped, the guy capable of diagnosing what's going to happen before it happens? You know, those things Lee is well-known for doing.

Well, even though LVE is a rookie, the defense will be counting on him, along with Smith to pick up that slack.

"No doubt in my mind," Marinelli says of both linebackers doing those jobs, Smith and Vander Esch.

"It's my role to call the defense, set the defense, set the tempo, just stepping in as the next man, something I prepare for being a natural born leader myself," Smith says. "It's not something that is going to be difficult. I have a great relationship with all the guys."

And as for LVE?

Lee likes his "assertiveness." Claims he has no problem speaking up while on the field, that he's not shy, not like you might expect from a rookie with just three games of NFL experience.

"I feel completely comfortable and confident in my ability to do that," Vander Esch says, as if wondering why you would even ask.

So, like you did that in college? Took charge even though only starting your junior season?

"Yep," he says.

Like, no big deal now to step up and speak up, even as a rookie?

"Nope," he says matter-of-factly. "Got to take pride in that."

And you, Rod Marinelli, you think these two guys, along with some assistance from Joe Thomas, can replace Sean Lee in that manner?

"No doubt in my mind," he says.

Great. All sounds good. But now we're about to find out if the Cowboys have properly insulated themselves from being Lee-less on defense.

And here comes the first test, Lions, Sunday at noon.