Sean Lee Out For Season, Can Dan Connor Fill The Hole In The Middle?

Grant Halverson

In a devastating blow to the Cowboys defense, Sean Lee will miss the rest of the season. Dan Connor was signed as a free-agent in the summer, he's now the guy who has to fill Lee's cleats. How did he look against Carolina last Sunday?

By now almost all Cowboys fans have seen the news, Sean Lee's season is over. The mothership reports he'll need surgery for torn ligaments on his right big toe. Next to DeMarcus Ware, Lee has become the most-important Cowboy defender. He does it all in the middle and has the stats to back it up. He leaves behind a giant hole in the middle of this resurgent Cowboys defense. The next man up is Dan Connor.

Dan Connor came to the Cowboys this summer and battled Bruce Carter for playing time. Carter won that competition and Connor's playing time has been negligible lately. Sean Lee was almost always on the field, and Bruce Carter is having a strong first-time-starting campaign. Connor was mostly special teams. Now, he'll be starting in the middle for the Cowboys. After watching the replay of the Carolina game focusing on Connor, below are three specific plays and a general evaluation of how he performed.

Play 1

This was a great play by Dan Connor shortly after he took over for Sean Lee. Carolina is facing a 3rd and 1 with Dallas clinging to a 6-point lead.

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The initial action of the play is to the offense's right, the line is blocking that way and Jonathan Stewart is supposedly taking the hand-off in that same direction. Dan Connor is in the middle of the defense and is moving to his left to meet the run in the hole.

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Turns out, Cam Newton fakes the hand-off and comes back to his left, the defense's right. Connor reads the fake and reverses course to come back to his right Meanwhile, Anthony Spencer has held his ground and is going to force Newton to cut it back up into traffic.

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Newton makes his cut leaving Spencer unable to make the tackle and heads up field. Cornnor is closing but has to fight through traffic.

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Connor gets through traffic and hits Newton short of the first down. Newton is a big, strong QB and is not easy to bring down. Connor did a great job on this play; recognizing the fake hand-off, reacting to Newton going back the other way, fighting through traffic, then standing Newton up short of the first down. These are the types of plays Sean Lee makes regularly, now it's Connor's time.

Play 2

It wasn't all great for Connor, as this play illustrates. On a 2nd and 1, Carolina executes a simple run to it's left, directly at Connor. The result was a big gain.

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Previous to the snap, Connor and Carter get confused about which side they should line up on and are almost stacked on top of each other at the snap. Newton takes the snap and hands it to Stewart, Carter heads immediately upfield to a hole while Connor slides to his right.

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A Carolina offensive lineman gets to Connor trying to come up and fill the hole, engulfing the linebacker and pushing him to the outside. Connor can't fight off the block to step into the hole.

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Stewart rips off a 20-yard gain right past where Connor was playing.

Play 3

The Panthers have a 1st and 10, threatening Dallas at it 19-yard line.

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Newton takes the snap and executes a play-action fake. They are planning on a slant to the receiver at the top and hopefully the fake hand-off will draw the linebackers forward. In fact, the Panthers had been doing this successfully for a lot of the game. Connor had bit on it a couple of times already, but he learned from it. This time he stays home and slides over towards the slant.

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When Newton delivers the ball, Connor is in position and leaps to deflect the pass, almost intercepting it.

Overall

Dan Connor played well once he took over for Lee. In the run game, besides Play 2 above, Connor did a good job, with a few examples of diagnosing the play, getting through traffic, then making the hit. He was susceptible to the play-action pass, several times he bit on the fake leaving the middle open, but he got better as the game rolled on. Of course, by that time, the Panthers were mainly in passing mode. His drops into coverage were quick and generally found the right placement in coverage. Almost all his coverage responsibilities were in zone. On the occasions when he picked up the running backs in a pass pattern, he did a good job of getting physical and hitting them before they got into the pattern. At the end of the game when Dallas used a lot of 'dime' defense, Connor was taken out of the game.

He only played a little over a quarter of the game, but was effective for the most part. He'll never replace Lee, Lee is just that good, but for this one slice of a game, Connor didn't look over-matched.

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