What you probably know: An NFL team in Texas recently lost its inside linebacker, robbing its defense of perhaps the best player at his position in the game.
What you might not know: We're not talking about Brian Cushing of the Houston Texans, who went down with a knee injury in Houston's Week 5 win over the New York Jets. We're talking about Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys, who will miss the rest of the 2012 season as a result of the toe injury he suffered last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Lee is Dallas' leading tackler, but that's not what makes him special -- inside 'backers are frequently leading tacklers because they get so many opportunities. What sets Lee apart is his ability to do everything well on the field. In his analysis of the impact of Lee's absence from that defense, ESPN's Dan Graziano compared Lee to Troy Polamalu, and I think there's something to that -- like Polamalu, Lee throws his body around with clear disregard for his own well-being, and his closing speed is truly elite.
Lee is also one of the few 360-degree players in the NFL -- he diagnoses and closes in on running plays with precision and abandon, his pass drops are superlative, and if a team ever put him in an "endbacker" position, he has the short-area speed to put up double-digit sacks.
Dan Connor will take over Lee's spot in Dallas' defense, and linebacker Bruce Carter will call the defensive plays for the rest of the season. The Cowboys have Orie Lemon and Alex Albright for depth, and they signed veteran Ernie Sims after placing Lee on injured reserve, but there's no way to Frankenstein together a player of Lee's talents and abilities.
There's no question that San Francisco's Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman constitute the NFL's best duo of inside linebackers, and I haven't seen anyone else bring power against a running back quite like Cushing. But if you ask me, no inside linebacker in the game today does more things well than Lee, and that's why this injury will be a huge blow to Dallas' defense and subsequent playoff opportunity.
"He's right there," Greg Cosell said in last week's matchup podcast, when I asked him where Lee stands in the current pantheon of inside linebackers. "First of all, he plays every snap. Very, very good against the run, he's an excellent blitzer, and he's terrific in pass coverage. You could make the argument that when you're talking about the elite linebackers in the game right now, he's in the conversation."
The conversation for the Cowboys must now center around how to replace an irreplaceable player. As Greg noted, it's not just that Lee is so good -- he's that good on every single down, and great three-down linebackers aren't generally sitting around on the bench. In every Cowboys game this year except for their Week 2 loss against the Seattle Seahawks, Lee was on the field for 100 percent of his team's defensive snaps, and he was in for 91 percent of the plays against Seattle. The ability to have that kind of player is a tremendous relief to any defensive coordinator, and Rob Ryan will have to put his thinking cap on now.
"Coach Rob isn't going to change anything," end DeMarcus Ware told ESPN Dallas on Wednesay ."Everything's going to stay the same. … You could see, when Bruce Carter came in there, when Dan Connor came in there, we didn't lose a step. We've got guys in the 2 position that can play 1 … Nothing's going to change. No matter who's out there, you need to know how to do it and do it effectively."
But that effectively? We're not quite sure.
The Cowboys still have some excellent defenders. Ware is having another fine season, and the cornerback combo of Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr is paying dividends. But if you wanted to take one player out of Dallas' defense and pretty much gut it on a play-to-play basis ... let's just say that the Cowboys are about to find out that Lee's value could be even more pronounced in his absence.