Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant have been replaced by Brandon Weeden and the likes of Devin Street and Cole Beasley, respectively. It’s tough to write off any opponent, but given the Patriots’ hot start and the Cowboys’ dwindled depth chart, this game looks a lot more interesting when broken down to individual matchups rather than predicting which team will win (Spoiler: It will be the Patriots.)
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That pesky injury bug — perhaps a white Coccinellidae with a red cross on its back — also bit the Cowboys’ defense Sunday night when linebacker Sean Lee suffered a concussion. If Lee is forced to sit out, one of those individual matchups becomes far less interesting.
If any player in the NFL can slow down Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — no one can stop him altogether — it’s Lee. The sixth-year linebacker stands 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 236 pounds. He ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash with a blazing 6.89-second 3-cone drill at his pro day in 2010, and despite an array of injuries, he doesn’t seem to have lost that speed or short-area quickness at age 29.
Lee and Gronkowski, each drafted in 2010, are special, game-changing players when they’re on the field. The problem for both, however, is staying healthy. Lee has suffered three torn ACLs, dating back to college, and he’s also missed games due to wrist and toe injuries. He’s played just 50 games in five-plus seasons, but he has 12 career interceptions, second most among active linebackers.
The Cowboys typically stay in Cover-3, where Lee, also a strong run defender, will drop into the middle of the field. His combination of instincts, short-area speed and ball skills could keep Patriots quarterback Tom Brady from targeting Gronk over the middle. The slightest hiccup easily could result in a turnover. Brady knows first-hand about Lee’s playmaking skills.
Lee already has an interception this season, when he picked off Sam Bradford on a passing attempt to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. Lee showed off impressive instincts that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick raved about Wednesday morning turning right before Bradford’s pass reached its destination.
The Cowboys typically don’t split out linebackers, so if Gronkowski is lined up out wide, he’ll likely be covered by Morris Claiborne or Brandon Carr, both of whom can keep up with the big tight end but can be overpowered. Gronkowski also likely will see rookie cornerback Byron Jones, who has been used as a cornerback and safety to cover big tight ends 1-on-1. Jones has the speed to stay with Gronkowski, but the big tight end has a major size and strength advantage.
If Lee can’t play, then the Patriots will exploit mismatches on linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain and is likely destined for another 100-yard game. If Lee is cleared before Sunday’s matchup, however, Brady would be wise to pick his spots when targeting Gronkowski.