DALLAS - The Dallas Cowboys are 2-3 without Ezekiel Elliott this year.
Over the past five games the offense has sputtered, Dak Prescott has struggled carrying the load and the running game has been lackluster. Yes, it hurts not having the NFL rushing champion from 2016.
But Elliott isn't who the Cowboys have missed the most this season.
Oh no, that title belongs to someone else. And he wears No. 50.
Without Sean Lee, the Cowboys are 1-4. With him, Dallas is 6-2. In games Lee plays, opponents average 18.1 points and 313.6 yards per game. When Lee is not on the field, the Cowboys are a completely different team.
Opponents average over 10 points more per game (29.8) and 50 more yards per game (386.4) when Lee is out of the lineup. Opposing quarterbacks go from averaging an 89.3 passer rating to 110.9 when Lee is sidelined.
And we haven't even talked about the turnover margin yet.
Dallas is a +8 in that department when Lee is roaming the middle of the field. When he isn't, the Cowboys are a staggering -6.
Simply put, Sean Lee is arguably Dallas' most valuable player. Tyron Smith is up there, too, especially when you consider what happened in the game against Atlanta when Falcon end Adrian Clayborn recorded six sacks in Smith's absence.
But on a defense that is already young, inexperienced — and on a good day, mediocre at best — Lee is the glue that holds everything together.
When he returned last week from his hamstring injury, Dallas held the Giants scoreless in the second half, outscoring New York 20-0 in the final two frames.
The formula is easy — Dallas plays better against both the run and the pass with Lee, who is one of the best defensive signal callers in the game. He knows when to audible, what gaps to shoot and where to go in coverage. He can hang with tight ends up the field and tackle shifty running backs in space.
Which is why it’s so unfortunate Lee has been hampered with injuries virtually his entire career. From knee to neck and now hamstring issues, Lee just can’t seem to catch a break. When he’s healthy, Lee is an All-Pro linebacker. He’s seemingly in on every play and flies to the ball, sometimes not even allowing plays to develop — music to Rod Marinelli’s ears.
A healthy Lee is especially critical when you consider how young and inexperienced Dallas’ secondary is. The less time they give opposing offenses, the less likely coverage is to break down.
You could even make the case Lee affects the Cowboys’ offense, too. When he plays, teams are averaging fewer points and yards per game, which means Dallas’ offense generally has more opportunities. Instead of worrying they might not get the ball back, Dak Prescott & Co. can breathe a little easier when Lee is on the field.
You may miss Zeke, but there’s no denying the Cowboys have missed Sean Lee more.
Is Sean Lee the Most Valuable Cowboy? Share your thoughts with Reece on Twitter @ReeceWaddell15.
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