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Spagnola: Sean Lee Will Cure What's Been Ailing This Cowboys Defense

FRISCO, Texas – This made me think, and yes, contrary to popular belief of some, I do think at times.

         Carolina veteran defensive lineman Julius Peppers was talking about his middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, currently out for the third time in three years in concussion protocol, and the difficulty of replacing the three-time All Pro.

         Peppers said, "You can't replace Luke Kuechly. He leaves a void in the defense. He's the main communicator, his leadership, all those things we miss out there . . .  But you can't replace players like that. He's a special guy."

         Made me say to myself, well I'll be, that's Sean Lee. Right? Very special guy.

         Oh, you can talk boldly about next guy up. You can talk about every team has to deal with injuries. You can talk about this backup or that backup is on the 53-man roster for a reason.

         But face it: You can't just replace Sean Lee.

         The Cowboys have tried for the past two games. Lee has been out with a strained hamstring. Missed the game against the Rams. Missed the game against the Packers, the Cowboys knowing with a bye coming up the next week he'd have ample time to thoroughly rehab that hammy they didn't want to further deal with again if they could help it.

         Well, the Cowboys lost both games even though they scored 30 points in both. Problem was the Cowboys gave up more than 30 in each game to the Rams and Packers. The Cowboys gave up 168 yards rushing to the Rams and 160 to the Packers. Todd Gurley went off for 121 yards rushing. Rookie Aaron Jones did him four yards better (125).

         And here is all I know. Only four times last season did opponents rush for more than 100 yards against that Cowboys defense, the 114 the Eagles totaled in the final game of the season with the Cowboys resting many starters the most. No opposing running back last season rushed for more than 100 yards. And in the first three games this year when the Cowboys went 2-1, opponents rushed for an average of 87.3 yards a game.

But in the next two against the Rams and the Packers when the Cowboys lost back-to-back games for the first time since the end of the 2015 season, the defense was nicked for an average of 164 yards rushing a game.


         Or Sean Lee MIA?

         I'm just sayin'.

         Fortunately for the Cowboys, having dug themselves into a 2-3 hole during his absence, they start finding out at 3:05 p.m. Sunday at Levi's Stadium when they meet the San Francisco 49ers with that deceptively bad 0-6 record, knowing they have lost the past five games by no more than an NFL-record three points each, two of those in overtime.

          Welcome back, Sean Lee.

 The best news they have received since the start of last week's bye, maybe even better than District Court of Southern New York Judge Paul Crotty issuing Ezekiel Elliott a temporary restraining order in his legal battle to sue the NFL for a wrongful six-game suspension/lost loaded arbitration hearing with what one judge called "inherent unfairness" which allows him to at least play the next two games, is right there on the Cowboys practice report, it says:

         Wednesday, Sean Lee – Full.

         Thursday, Sean Lee – Full.

         Friday, Sean Lee – Full.

Praise be.

         "He's our quarterback of the defense, and when he's not there you miss him," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says.

         Funny, heard the same thing, quite independently when asked quarterback Dak Prescott what it's like having to practice during training camp against a Lee-led Cowboys defense:

         "He's the quarterback of the defense."

         And we all know how difficult it is these days in the NFL to find a backup to replace your franchise quarterback. Well, Sean Lee is your franchise defensive QB.

         He's the guy making the defensive calls out there even if he lines up as the weakside linebacker. He's the guy making the adjustments at the line of scrimmage, Prescott pointing out during those camp practices when he's making checks at the line of scrimmage, Lee is doing the same for the defense, making the whole deal "a consistent chess match out there."

         He's the guy out there getting those others lined up properly. He's the guy out there usually recognizing what's going to happen before it happens. And as Marinelli says, he's the "sweeper" out there, you know, "something happens out there and he sweeps it up."

         Well, this Cowboys defense has been a little dusty of late. The Cowboys defense finishing 14th last year in yards against currently is ranked 21st, and an alarming 22nd against the run. Last season, the Cowboys were, uh, No. 1.

         And Lee's absence is even more noticeable when the Cowboys go to their nickel and dime formations. That's when things get even more tricky out there. That's when you have to have someone not only with 20-20 anticipation but with those unteachable instincts.

         "The communication part, getting guys lined up," Marinelli says of the intangibles he insists Lee brings to the defense. "It's the communication, and you can see it, and it gives your other guys confidence to play fast.

         "It's not just the plays he makes, it's his presence. I think it's going to bring a ton to us."

         Now no one is making excuses for these poor past two defensive performances. As head coach Jason Garrett said when asked about the absence of Lee and his impending return, "We've missed a lot of things."

         Oh, and here is another step or two in the right defensive direction. Middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens is back, no small factor, since Marinelli said, "59 might have been our MVP of training camp." Played for the first time this past game against the Packers since suffering his tibial plateau fracture in that Oakland preseason game. But he was playing on the weak side, with Jaylon Smith manning the middle.

         So anticipate Hitchens back in the middle, with Lee on the weakside and likely Damien Wilson on the strongside again in the Cowboys base defense they anticipate playing more Sunday since the 49ers like to run a more old-school offense with fullbacks and two tight ends.

         As Marinelli says of the twosome back in the saddle, "It's huge. Both are really instinctive players."

         And as I was told, "Wilson is a better linebacker with Sean Lee on the field."

         Interpret that as you may.

         Also, and even though defensive tackle Stephen Paea has decided to hang 'em up, suffering from persistent degenerative knee problems, the Cowboys do have David Irving back after serving his four-game suspension to start the season. And though Marinelli continues to say of the guy he nicknamed "Dino" that "you never know where a dinosaur is going to land," seeing he manned Paea's vacant spot against the Packers and excelled, Irving told me he's been lining up at the three-technique spot this week, which means Maliek Collins likely slides over Paea's one-technique responsibilities.

         Sort of like the gang's back in town.

         And that is good.

While so much seemingly is being made of the Cowboys' lack of takeaways – none by the defense in the past three games, and no interceptions in the past four – along with playing through a lot of inexperience in the secondary, Marinelli hit the nail right on the head when identifying the biggest problem this defense must solve:

         "I think the No. 1 factor is run defense."


         In the three games teams have run for at least 160 yards – yes, Sean Lee was out there in Denver when the Broncos ran for 178 yards on their way to that 42-17 thrashing – the Cowboys have lost. In the two games opponents didn't (Giants and Cardinals) the Cowboys won.

Draw your own conclusion.

         And part of that is just not the absence of Lee in the past two games. The defensive line, other than upping its sacks numbers, led by DeMarcus Lawrence's NFL-leading 8½ sacks, is just not making enough impact against the run. I mean I thought this was a misprint when perusing the Cowboys defensive stats. The top eight guys in total tackles – Lee still is second with 32, behind Smith's 54 – are either linebackers or defensive backs. Ninth is Lawrence with just 12 (sacks don't count in total tackles), and 10th is Tyrone Crawford with 11. Collins' eight ranks 14th in the team's top 15. Just three defensive linemen.

         Plus, seems as though offensive linemen are getting onto the Cowboys linebackers far too often, certainly problematic when trying to stop the run at or around the line of scrimmage.

         So here we go, the Cowboys playing a three- of four-game stretch on the road, knowing in order to get back over .500 before meeting up with the now 5-1, NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles the Sunday before Thanksgiving they must win three of the next four. And that won't be easy since the following three after Sunday are at Washington, home against Kansas City and at Atlanta, all currently with winning records.

         But first things first, at San Francisco.

         With Sean Lee.

         Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back for sure.

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