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FRISCO — The bug has gotten around.
Linebacker Justin March is dealing with a respiratory illness. Linebacker Joe Thomas, a reserve who could start this weekend, missed the entire practice week to the flu. Safety Donovan Wilson missed the final two days. And linebackers coach Ben Bloom also has the flu, multiple players said, hence why he hasn’t coached a practice this week.
The Cowboys knew preparing for the New England Patriots would involve containing the catch.
This isn’t what they had in mind.
The defense absorbed a blow Thursday when it learned that continued neck discomfort for linebacker Leighton Vander Esch required prolonged rest. He won’t play Sunday and likely will be sidelined into December with a disk issue, sources said. The team considers him week-to-week.
That setback, combined with an illness spell that prompted the Cowboys to give quarterback Dak Prescott preventative care this week, only complicates the effort to thwart a Patriots passing game that leans on its backfield.
New England averages an NFL-high 11.4 pass attempts per game to running backs. Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles were effective when defending 14 passes from quarterback Tom Brady to the position group.
The Patriots (9-1) managed only eight catches for 61 yards.
Without Vander Esch, a Dallas defense that missed 24 tackles the last two games looks to bounce back and achieve similar success.
“The screen game, it’s obviously [about] recognition,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “It’s the whole entire group hustling to the football, understanding your fits in the screen, being able to recognize them, being able to hustle. A lot of times it takes three or four guys. A lot of times it takes a guy from the back side hustling. It’s a group effort on screens. It’s communication. We know they’re great at that.”
Lee is a key piece to the Vander Esch contingency plan.
Like when the 2018 first-round pick was sidelined with neck stiffness on Nov. 4 against the New York Giants, Lee worked at weak-side, or “Will,” linebacker during Friday’s practice, switching from his usual strong-side (“Sam”) spot. Luke Gifford, an undrafted rookie who has yet to play a defensive snap in 2019, worked at Sam backer on Friday with Thomas recovering.
The expectation is that Thomas, despite not practicing at all this week and missing most meetings, will play Sam on Sunday in the base defense. Lee not only will replace Vander Esch at Will but also in the nickel defense beside linebacker Jaylon Smith.
“Sean has been Sean for his whole career,” cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said Friday. “He’s made a name for himself before anyone else on this defense has. For that reason, he’s well respected. He’s on it. He studies. He anticipates things, and he reacts really well. The expectation for Sean stepping in for Leighton is nothing less than what Leighton would do. Even more sometimes.
“We’re happy for him to be in his natural habitat. We’re praying for Leighton and hoping he gets better. We’re praying for Joe and hoping he gets better. But this defense, we’ve got a standard. And whoever is in, we’ve got to step up.”
The Patriots generally rotate four running backs.
Of them, James White is the most dynamic as a receiver, and his usage reflects that. In 84% of his 281 offensive snaps, the team has operated a pass play. Understanding what an offense likes to do with certain personnel in what groupings and which game situations is among the first steps to containment.
The Patriots have passed on 73.1% of Rex Burkhead’s snaps. By comparison, with Sony Michel on the field, 63.5% have been runs. For added context, New England has attempted to pass on about 60% of plays this season overall.
Identifying which back is on the field is just one part to defending how the Patriots involve their running backs in the pass game.
“You’ve got to be alert for pick situations,” Vander Esch said Wednesday, one day before an MRI determined he won’t play Sunday. “You’ve got to know down and distance; that tells a lot. You’ve got to know their alignment. If you can just stay ahead of the snap, that pretty much does your job for you.”
The Cowboys didn’t quite see this practice week coming. No one did.
Defending the catch started early.