The Dallas Cowboys are just hoping to linger in the playoff discussion long enough to get running back Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension on Dec. 24, but Christmas came early on Sunday with the return of linebacker Sean Lee.
Just as Elliott changes the dynamic of the Cowboys offense, Lee changes everything for the Cowboys defense in a moment they need it most. Two road games before Elliott’s return and two more games against current playoff contenders with Dallas needing four wins to realistically have a chance at the postseason put a spotlight on Lee and he didn’t disappoint.
Lee made an astonishing 18 tackles and intercepted a pass as the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants in a 30-10 rout. He was heroic and suddenly defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s defense looks significantly more formidable.
The All-Pro is an eraser in the second level who gives Cowboys defensive linemen the confidence to know that if they lose gap integrity in the interest of making a play, he’ll fill the hole and make the stop before it becomes costly. In coverage, he helps eliminate matchup issues with running backs and tight ends.
And it shows up directly on the scoring line. In the seven games where he’s played the majority of the contest, the Cowboys give up an average of 16.9 points and that number is skewed by 42 points the Cowboys gave up to the Denver Broncos in a Week 2 misstep.
In the six games that he’s either missed entirely or the majority of, the Cowboys gave up an average of 29.3 points. In other words, having him on the field is worth about 12.4 points per game.
He simply changes everything for that defense and you can make a pretty compelling argument that he’s the single most important player on a team that’s loaded with big-name talent. With him back and Elliott on the way, the Cowboys have to feel like they’ve got a decent shot of getting in despite the fact that the numbers suggest otherwise.
And if they do get in, they’re going to be a tough out on the road because of Sean Lee.