IRVING, Texas – It’s not an easy thing to lose your leading tackler and defensive leader, but the Cowboys were doing their best to keep a positive attitude Wednesday.
After learning that inside linebacker Sean Lee would miss the rest of the season with a toe injury, the Cowboys’ mood at their Valley Ranch practice facility was somber yet determined.
“In this business you don’t have time to grieve,” defensive end Marcus Spears said. “It’s something that definitely stings when you lose your middle linebacker, but at the end of the day, they’re not going cancel or postpone the games because Sean Lee got hurt.
“We don’t have a lot of time to really dwell on it. All you can do is move on. A lot of guys have been in the situation before so we know how to react to it.”
The news stung Dan Connor the most. Connor will now take over Lee’s starting spot at inside linebacker. It’s an opportunity for Connor, but not one he wanted at the expense of his former college teammate at Penn State.
“My heart breaks for him. He’s a great a friend of mine and he was having a spectacular season,” Connor said.
“Everyone’s got to pick up the slack. It’s going to be hard to replace a guy like that. He’s unreplaceable.”
Lee’s numbers backup that impression. He leads the team with 77 tackles, 34 more than anyone else. His 61 solo tackles are nearly double that of the next-best total: 31 each by DeMarcus Ware and Bruce Carter.
Lee isn’t just a run-stuffer in the middle. He makes plays all over the field, as evidenced by his eight quarterback pressures, two tackles for loss, one interception, two pass break-ups and one forced fumble.
Lee is often described as a coach on the field. In fact, he wore the helmet with the radio headset to receive defensive signals and made calls on the field.
Now, that helmet is passed on to Bruce Carter, the other starting inside linebacker in the Cowboys’ 3-4 scheme. Other than making the calls, Carter said his responsibilities won’t change.
“I don’t want to put any more pressure on myself than it already is,” Carter said. “I’ve just got to play my game, study and communicate with everybody. Just go out there and just play.
“I feel sorry for what happened to Sean, but at the same time you’ve just got to keep pushing. It’s part of the game. Everybody understands that.”
With Lee being placed on injured reserve, Orie Lemon was the only true backup at inside linebacker. To bolster the depth, the Cowboys signed veteran Ernie Sims, who most recently played with the Colts and Eagles.
Sims has mainly been a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment during his career. That may not be much of an adjustment to the Cowboys’ schemes because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan uses 4-3 sets in his defensive bag of tricks.
“Knowing Rob, we’ll have a couple of different packages to keep them guessing,” Connor said. “That’s got to be the way we do it.”
There’s even been speculation that the Cowboys will shift to a 4-3 alignment to take advantage of current personnel.
“I don’t know, I don’t have an idea about that,” Spears said. “I think that’s something that they’ll evaluate…But we’ve been a multi-faceted defense since the beginning of the year. Guys have to prepare for 4-3 and 3-4 when they play us, that’s the way we’ve been playing up until this point. I don’t think that will change.”