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Rust or Decline, What’s Behind Sean Lee’s Dreadful Week 1 Performance?

Brian Martin

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Rust or Decline, What's Behind Sean Lee's Dreadful Week 1 Performance

For years now, Linebacker Sean Lee has been the Dallas Cowboys best defensive player. There is no denying that when he is on the field and healthy, he makes the defense better. But, that certainly wasn't the case Sunday afternoon when the Cowboys took on the Carolina Panthers to kick off the 2018 season.

Sean Lee's performance Sunday afternoon definitely isn't what we expect from him, or what he expects from himself for that matter. He even admitted as much.

Jon Machota on Twitter

Sean Lee: "I usually tackle well and I work on it every day in practice. I just did not get it done. I am going to have to get better this week. That is unacceptable tackling I did today.

To say that Sean Lee didn't play up to his normal standards would be an understatement. He found himself out of position far too often and missed way too many tackles that are usually routine for him. Unfortunately, the question has to be asked…Was it just rust or is he starting to decline?

Considering his age and injury history, it's certainly plausible Sean Lee is starting to decline as a player. It happens to every professional athlete at some point whether they like it or not. But, is that what is actually happening? I'm not so sure.

Let's dive in a little deeper in order to try to get to the root of the problem.

Sean Lee

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The one thing we know about Sean Lee is that his film study and preparation is second to none. Unfortunately, on this particular play he not only found himself playing out of position, but also failed to make the tackle. With weeks to prepare for this type of run/pass option (RPO), this is simply unacceptable and he would admit as much.

What he should have been doing was scraping over the top and securing the edge. That would have prevented Cam Newton from picking up a good chunk of yardage with his legs.

Let's take a look at another play from Sunday afternoon.

Sean Lee missed tackle

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This is a play that we have seen Sean Lee make more often than not, and usually for a tackle for a loss. Unfortunately, that's not what happened this time.

To his credit, he properly diagnoses the play and reacts accordingly. He is there to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage, but doesn't continue to drive his feet through the tackle, eventually letting wide receiver slip right through his grasp.

These plays are uncharacteristically like Sean Lee. But again, is it due to rust or decline?

Since #50 was held out of quite a few practices and had relatively zero playing time in preseason, I'm hoping to chalk all of this up to rust rather than decline. For the most part he was in position to make the play, but just failed to execute. He did after all almost change the outcome of the game by himself.

Sean Lee tipped pass

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Sean Lee certainly had his fair share of bad plays Sunday, but this definitely wasn't one of them. If Safety Jeff Heath could have secured the interception off Lee's tipped pass, it would have prevented the Panthers from scoring on this drive and quite possibly changed the outcome of the entire game.

I don't know where you stand, but I think Sean Lee's Week 1 performance against the Panthers had a lot more to do with rust rather than decline. At least, that's what we are all hoping anyways.

If I know Sean Lee, he is going to take the way he played Sunday personally and do his best to rebound from here on out. It's just the kind of person/player he is. We will find out soon enough if he's up to the task.

Is Sean Lee just rusty or is he actually starting to decline?



Level C2/C3 quadriplegic. College graduate with a bachelors degree in sports and health sciences-concentration sports management. Sports enthusiast. Dallas Cowboys fanatic. Lover of life with a glass half-full point of view.

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2 Comments
  • Wayne Young

    Going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was rusty. He didn’t play at all in the preseason so that was all but expected to happen. Let’s wait til he’s played a few more games before declaring he’s fallen off after the first game of the season. He is still the heart and soul of the defense until proven otherwise.

    • Brian Martin

      I completely agree. I’m really hoping it was just rust, but I was really surprised how poorly he played.

Game Notes

Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Leverage Defense to Reach .500 Against Falcons

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Cowboys Leverage Defense to Reach .500 Against Falcons

The Dallas Cowboys are returning home for Thanksgiving with a 5-5 record, needing to earn road wins at Philadelphia and Atlanta in the last two weeks to do so. Sunday's revenge win at the Falcons did not come easy, as the Cowboys conceded their first touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the game.

Missed opportunities in the red zone and penalties all had a say in the Cowboys needing a walk off Brett Maher field goal to win. Running Back Ezekiel Elliott once again sparked the offense in the second half, as the Cowboys defense assured this game wouldn't be a shootout in the first 30 minutes.

Here are my observations on the Cowboys latest thrilling win, greatly increasing their chances at reclaiming the top spot in the NFC East considering the Redskins home loss to the Texans.

  • A great down-the-line play from rookie Dorance Armstrong on the Falcons' opening possession to set up DeMarcus Lawrence's first sack.

The Cowboys came into this game thin across the defensive line. Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins and Defensive End Dorance Armstrong really took advantage of the opportunity, pushing the pocket against Matt Ryan and freeing up the Cowboys linebackers to be themselves.

Lawrence's sack was the play that got the Cowboys off the field on third down, but Armstrong meeting Ito Smith in the hole for no gain was as big of a play on second down. The Falcons were smart to test the interior of the Cowboys defense and use the power run to set up their vertical passing game, but Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard simply had their guys ready to play.

If Collins and Armstrong can sustain their high-energy level of play with Antwaun Woods and Daniel Ross working their way back into the Cowboys rotation at DT, this defense can reach a new level of play given their speed in the back seven and ability to give opposing offensive lines fits with just four up front.

  • Cole Beasley did more than enough to make up for it, but his drop in the end zone on the Cowboys first scoring drive is one he'll want back for a while.

The Cowboys play calling on their first goal-to-go situation left a lot to be desired, but Beasley was still able to make a scoring play with the ball in his hands at the pylon. Beasley bobbled the ball going to the ground and couldn't come up with it.

On the next play, the Cowboys finally targeted Amari Cooper, although without Ezekiel Elliott on the field. It was the combination of Cooper on the outside and Elliott in the backfield that provided a boost to the Cowboys offense last week at the Eagles, and for whatever reason they went away from it consistently against the Falcons.

Beasley's 19 yard catch and run on the Cowboys final drive set them up to run Elliott and kick the game winning field goal, giving Prescott an easy target on a crossing route. These are the types of inconsistencies the Cowboys will have to happily live with as they review this win and prepare on a short week for the Redskins.

  • Head Coach Jason Garrett should be questioned about how his offense handled the last drive of the first half.

Trailing by three in a game still looking for its first touchdown, the Cowboys came out firing with 29 seconds left in the first half before shutting the drive down themselves. After Elliott advanced the ball to the Cowboys 35 and prompted a timeout, his catch and run for eight yards was the final play of the half.

I have no problem with the Cowboys getting the ball safely into the hands of Elliott, but after gaining positive yards on two receptions it's inexcusable to sit on a timeout without attempting a pass to the end zone.

  • The Cowboys play calling improved in the second half, evident on Dak Prescott's rushing touchdown to give the Cowboys a 12-9 lead.

Again, taking the good with the bad, the Cowboys did go to this zone read look one too many times in the second half. From four yards out against a defense playing without one of their most talented players in Linebacker Deion Jones, Prescott faking to Elliott and keeping himself is as smart and safe a play as Linehan could have called.

Prescott's score was followed by Leighton Vander Esch's second interception in as many weeks, allowing the Cowboys to go right back to hammering the football. It took just two carries for Elliott to cover 31 yards and put the Cowboys ahead 19-9 off the turnover.

His 23-yard touchdown was sprung by Right Guard Zack Martin, who deserves a ton of credit for not only dealing with an injury sustained last week but seemingly finding an even higher level of play since then to motivate his teammates.

Joe Looney filled in well for Travis Frederick once again, and Xavier Su'a-Filo replaced a now-healthy Connor Williams for the second straight game, making Martin's elite level of play much more important.

Martin's lone mistake in this game came at a costly moment though, as a false start penalty backed the Cowboys up before punting it back to the Falcons for the tying score. Although the penalty created a third and 13 that Dallas used to keep the clock running on a dump off to Elliott, their second down play call to go with another zone read was costly as well.

Prescott lost two yards on a play that didn't fool the Falcons in the slightest, creating the original third and eight situation.

  • Chidobe Awuzie was actually in good position on Julio Jones' fourth quarter TD, but as has been the case all season he reacted late and was beat with the ball.

Awuzie ran stride for stride with Jones, doing his best to force the Falcons best receiver towards the sideline. To Jones' credit, he was able to stay true to his route and run under a perfect pass from Matt Ryan.

Awuzie's fate was sealed on the play when he failed to react in time to jump with Jones, who simply elevated over the Cowboys struggling cornerback to give the Falcons new life in this game. Awuzie has been given every opportunity to be the Cowboys starter across from Byron Jones, trusted by Kris Richard to be a valuable part of this defense.

Quarterbacks in need of a completion have been able to pick on Awuzie far too much this season. The Cowboys don't appear to be in any rush to change this, as Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is designated to handling jet sweeps for the Cowboys offense while Anthony Brown remains the starter in the slot.

It was Brown that struggled through all of 2017 before finding his form again this year, perhaps giving Awuzie some hope that he can respond sooner rather than later.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The early slate of games proved to be a massive one for NFC East implications. The Cowboys escaped Atlanta with a win, and minutes later the Texans put the finishing touches on a win at the Redskins. Much earlier in the afternoon, unbeknownst to the Cowboys fighting for their life at the time, the Redskins also lost Quarterback Alex Smith.

Smith broke his tibia on a hit from J.J. Watt, and will need season ending surgery according to his Head Coach Jay Gruden.

This division has been waiting for a team to seize control of it all season. Realizing this, the Cowboys didn't sulk through their poor start and made the right moves to play into contention - playing as the desperate team that often achieves a lot in this game through their last eight quarters.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Leverage Defense to Reach .500 Against Falcons" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

DAL 22, ATL 19: Elliott, Maher Carry Cowboys to Season-Saving Win

Jess Haynie

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Ezekiel Elliott

A last-minute field goal by Brett Maher lifted the Dallas Cowboys to a 22-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. On the strength of 201 yards of total offense out of Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas improved to 5-5 and arguably saved their 2018 season.

Elliott had 122 yards rushing and 79 receiving today, plus scored one touchdown, to make up well over half of the team's offensive production. Dak Prescott was also solid, throwing for over 200 yards and committing no turnovers.

Dallas and Atlanta traded field goals in the first half, and the Falcons took a 6-3 lead into the locker room. But the Cowboys answered with a tying field goal on their first second-half possession, then scored a touchdown on their next drive.

Maher was 3/3 on his field goals today, which included a 50-yarder. A missed extra point created concern, but the Cowboys kicker delivered in the biggest moments.

Once again, Dallas' defense was impressive and played a major part in the win. The Falcons never got into the endzone until their last possession.

Game Notes

  • Leighton Vander Esch had another interception, securing a tipped ball that lucked its way into his grasp. He also made some big tackles and continued last week's exceptional play.
  • DeMarcus Lawrence was credited with 1.5 sacks, getting him back among the league leaders with 8.0 on the year.
  • Elliott was Dallas' leading receiving today. Next up was Cole Beasley with five catches for 51 yards, and Cole's day could've been better if not for a dropped touchdown pass.
  • Jeff Heath nearly had his second interception of the year, but Falcons WR Julio Jones made an impressive play to hit Heath and break up the catch.
  • Tyron Smith left the game on the final drive with an injury, but Cam Fleming came in and the team didn't suffer for it. We'll have to see what the short Thanksgiving week means for Smith's status against the Redskins.
  • Speaking of Washington, the NFC East leaders fell to 6-4 today at home against the Houston Texans. Even worse for them, QB Alex Smith suffered a nasty ankle injury is almost assuredly out for weeks to come. Colt McCoy will be their starting QB on Thursday against Dallas.
  • If Dallas wins next week, they will pull even with Washington in overall record, division record, and split the head-to-head series. With the Eagles facing a tough road game today in New Orleans, and with Alex Smith going down for Washington, the NFC East may have just become the Cowboys' to control.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones' Hot Streak

The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.

Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!

Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak

With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.

Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.

Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley

Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.

The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.

Takeaway Tuesday: CB Awuzie Hasn't Met Expectations in 2018

Wish #3: Score 28+ Points

The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.

Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.

They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.

Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point

Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.

Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.

I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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