He doesn't have a choice': Why Cowboys believe Anthony Hitchens can fill in for Sean Lee


Troy Aikman knows a big hole when he sees it. After all, he became a Hall of Famer playing at Texas Stadium under its distinctive opening in the roof.
What the former Cowboys quarterback sees now is a giant void in the middle of Dallas' defense without All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee.
"It's pretty remarkable when you look at the numbers when Sean Lee is playing and when he's not playing," Aikman said Thursday on KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket. "It's hard to imagine one guy having that significant of an impact but yet the numbers back it up."
Lee re-aggravated a hamstring injury eight snaps into Sunday's game at Atlanta, and the Cowboys couldn't slow the Falcons' offense the final three quarters in 20-point loss.
Lee is expected to miss the next three games beginning Sunday against the Eagles. He missed the first two games of October because of a hamstring injury and the Cowboys lost both despite reaching 30 points each time.

The Cowboys have won without Lee. They finished 12-4 in 2014 after Lee missed the entire season with a torn ACL. But that was when they had veteran linebacker Rolando McClain roaming the field.

The wheels have fallen off this season when Lee has been on the sideline. As Aikman emphasized, the numbers are striking.
Without Lee on the field, opposing offenses have scored on 18 of their 25 drives. Half of those were touchdowns. Opposing offenses are averaging 5.3 yards per carry without Lee compared to only 3.5 yards per carry when Lee is playing.
"Sean is just a remarkable leader," said Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the NFL's sack leader with 11 1/2. "He makes sure everybody is situated and straight. He controls the defense. We got Hitch [Anthony Hitchens] stepping up and we feel like he's able to do the same thing. He doesn't have a choice. I know he will. I've got so much faith in him."
The Cowboys plan to replace Lee at weak-side linebacker with Hitchens, who missed the first four games with a knee injury he suffered in training camp. Hitchens showed great closing speed against the Falcons and finished with a team-high 10 tackles, but he needs help.
The Cowboys will use a combination of Jaylon Smith, who has struggled against the run, and Justin Durant, who has been inactive the last four games, at middle linebacker Sunday.
Like Lee, Hitchens will be in charge of lining up the Cowboys' defense pre-snap.
"I absolutely believe in Hitch," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "He's healthy and playing extremely well. He is going to be ready to go. Everybody has unbelievable confidence in him. He is really going to play well."
Over the last month, the combination of Lee and Hitchens had helped the Cowboys' defense improve its play.
Lee has played the run better than any other 4-3 linebacker in the league this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Lee puts hours of preparation each week in dissecting opposing offenses, putting him in position to play fast. Lee also gets other players in the right position pre-snap because of his ability to know what's coming.
Lee's strength is his ability to read the play immediately and react quickly, moving swiftly from sideline to sideline. He's rarely out of position and almost never misses a tackle.
That hasn't been the case for Smith, who started the first five games more out of necessity because of Hitchens' injury. Smith is in his second season but his first on the field after missing his entire rookie campaign recovering from a major left knee injury he suffered at Notre Dame.
Since the Cowboys' Week 6 bye in mid-October, Smith's snap count has been nearly cut in half. Dallas wanted to limit his snaps coming into the season as he worked his way back but was forced to play him with Hitchens out.
Marinelli said the limited snaps for Smith has helped him play better. But Smith has been inconsistent against the run, at times reading a play wrong, filling the wrong gap, overrunning the play or just simply missing a tackle.
"As a rookie there's some things you just have to go through and you have to make those mistakes in order to achieve greatness," Smith said of his season. "I've improved. For any first-year player there's some learning curves. Being able to contribute at a high level is something I do and I aspire to continue to get better at. It's something you guys will see. No one expects more of myself than me."
Durant, in his 11th season, said Smith has played "pretty good."
"This is his first year still. He's going to make mistakes from time to time," Durant said. "Coaches are expecting a lot out of him and he's expecting a lot out of himself. He's going to be alright."
Smith said he's "very confident" the Cowboys defense can play well without Lee and keep Dallas in the playoff hunt.
"Our linebacker corps is elite, so it's all about the next man stepping in," Smith said. "We're praying for Sean and we've got to hold it down for him.
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He doesn't have a choice': Why Cowboys believe Anthony Hitchens can fill in for Sean Lee He doesn't have a choice': Why Cowboys believe Anthony Hitchens can fill in for Sean Lee Reviewed by Unknown on 9:00:00 AM Rating: 5

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