Back in the distant and dimly remembered reaches of antiquity, otherwise known as the start of the current NFL season, one of the anticipated keys for the Dallas Cowboys when playing the Philadelphia Eagles was going to be how well their duo of inside linebackers, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, could contain dangerous running back LeSean McCoy.
Well, none of those players will be on the field Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium when the teams play their second game of the season. Lee and Carter have both gone on IR. McCoy, along with quarterback Michael Vick, has been ruled out because both players have still not recovered from concussions. Instead, the Eagles will be starting Bryce Brown in McCoy's place. He was one of the few bright spots in their loss to the Carolina Panthers. Prior to that game he had only accumulated 141 yards in spot duty, but filling in for McCoy, he racked up 178 yards on only 19 carries, and the Panthers had no answer for him. He was very unexpected as a big factor in the game.
For its own response to Brown, Dallas is probably going to have to rely on the replacements at inside linebacker. Dan Connor and Ernie Sims will start, and Rob Ryan has announced that Kyle Wilber will be brought in on some sub packages to play inside as well.
These names are just as unexpected for the Cowboys as Brown is for the Eagles. Connor was signed as a free agent in the offseason, primarily as an insurance policy should Carter not pan out. Instead, he became the next man up when Lee suffered his season-ending foot injury. Carter blossomed into another force on the inside and was doing a remarkable job of replacing Lee, which hardly anyone would have expected prior to the season. Connor stepped up beside him and the performance inside was, at least to me, better than I was expecting with Lee on the sideline.
When Connor went down to injury, the Cowboys did not have another adequate replacement on the roster, and signed Sims, who, among other stops, had played the 2010 season in Philadelphia. Sims has looked somewhere between marginal and good so far filling in. Connor got better, but then Carter went down, so now Sims is settling in beside Connor as a starter. And he is ready to face his old team again.
"The good thing is that we've already played them and already beaten them, so we've seen their hand," Sims said. "We just have to go out there and fly around and make plays."
The Cowboys also signed Brady Poppinga to help inside, but word is that he is not going to be ready to play Sunday. So Rob Ryan plans to turn to rookie Wilber to help inside on some sub packages - even though he has never played the position before. And Ryan is not planning on going easy on him.
Ryan said he expects Wilber, who has made only two tackles on defense this season, to play "anywhere from 12 to 50" snaps against the Eagles, depending on personnel groups.
"The kid's got to come through for us," Ryan said. "He's going to play quite a bit so ... he'll be tested a lot. It's baptism under fire."
It is a rather daring move, but reflects just how badly depleted the Cowboys are, particularly on defense. Ryan was trying to be stoic about it, but you can tell he is starting to wonder just what the team did to deserve all this bad luck.
"These injuries, they keep mounting up and we're going to play with who we've got," Ryan said. "We'd love to have Jay (Ratliff) back. We'd love to have Charlie (Peprah) back. But it is what it is. It doesn't help (complaining) about injuries and crying about it doesn't help us. We're just going to go on. We've got good players and they're going to play."
By the way, if you want the unedited version of the (complaining) part, you can check this Tweet out.
It is going to make for an interesting time when the Eagles try to run the ball. One thing to watch is going to be Brown's ball security. He had two fumbles in the last game, which played a major part in the Eagles losing. You can bet Connor, Sims and Wilber will be tackling the football when they meet him, hopefully at the line. This is part of the continuing challenge for the coaching staff and the players, many of whom are still figuring out how they fit in with the rest of the team. And flexibility is being asked from a lot of people, with Brandon Carr having to step in at safety due to the severe depletion there.
It actually is a chance for some players, and possibly a team, to rise and grow through the adversity. If the team does somehow make it into the playoffs, a huge amount of credit will go to players who were not expected to be major contributors, or who were not even imagined to be on the roster, at the start of the season. And regardless of how the team finishes out the season, there are likely to be several players who will have a larger role next year because of how they performed under some pretty severe duress.