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Why the loss of Anthony Hitchens doesn’t hurt the Cowboys as much as you think

Losing Hitchens is unfortunate, but the Cowboys have the pieces to survive.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not as bad as we were expecting, but the Cowboys will be without Anthony Hitchens for a couple months.

If you came over here looking for a nice cold glass of blue kool-aid, well, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what this article is about. There isn’t one person out there that isn’t disheartened by the thought of losing Anthony Hitchens for an extended period of time. The Cowboys fourth-year linebacker was having a stellar training camp and he was going to be an important piece to the defense this season. Just in the Oakland Raiders game alone, he was blowing up play after play. He had a tackle for a loss, knocked down a pass, and just smothered the ball carrier relentlessly. Make no mistake about it, losing Hitchens hurts.

But it doesn’t hurt that bad.

You see, there’s some good news and some bad news and both were on full display Saturday night against the Raiders. The Cowboys have a lot of satisfying players on defense. Unless your name is Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick, or Maliek Collins - you’re a player who isn’t so marvelous that another guy in the rotation can’t step up and closely replicate your contribution.

The Cowboys are 3-1 in the preseason, and the only loss came in a 13-10 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams where 75% of the game was played with either Kellen Moore or Luke McCown at quarterback. The one quarter Cooper Rush played in, he threw a touchdown to Rico Gathers. The outcome of preseason games don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it does point to how well the Cowboys backups have done, specifically on defense. In the second half of games, the defense has allowed a total of 19 points over eight quarters of football. That equates to 9.5 points a game. That’s a commendable achievement.

On one hand, this is great. The depth along the defense has to make the team feel good for the long journey that is the 2017 season as they will ultimately deal with casualties along the way. But there is also a downside to all the acceptable talent on the defense and it’s the lack of greatness. This is where that kool-aid starts having a funny taste.

The Cowboys aren’t a terrible defensive team. The can play well at times. The problem is that there are limitations when it comes to facing the more talented offensive teams in the league. The Cowboys just don’t have a true get-in-your-face edge rusher. That issue is compounded by not having strong secondary pieces in place to counter the extra time the quarterback has in the pocket. It is going to be rough at times.

The silver lining is that the Cowboys have a phenomenal offense and will win a lot of games based on the collective results of both their units. So that part is good. But it’s going to be a challenge at times until the team can get to where they need to be defensively. There are some new rookies on the defense, but they won’t be shaking things up immediately. It’s going to take time.

The Cowboys defense is something that is going to stress us out at times, but the loss of Hitchens shouldn’t. The team still has Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and Justin Durant on the roster to help fill in. Will they be as good as the often-underrated-but-suddenly-appreciated Hitchens? No. But they won’t be too far off. The Cowboys also play nickel and dime quite a bit so the need for three linebackers on the field at once isn’t high.

Some people will say that these other guys have their own causes for concern. Can Smith stay healthy and perform consistently enough to be useful? What is going on with Wilson’s off-field issue, will he even be available? And we haven’t even seen Durant yet, who’s to say he can stay healthy and play well enough to suffice? These are legitimate thoughts to ponder. And if something goes awry with one of them, then yes - then it becomes time to worry.

But right now, it’s not. This is a deep team. The Cowboys have lost these players in the preseason over the last three seasons: Sean Lee (2014), Orlando Scandrick (2015), and Tony Romo (2016). Two of these seasons turned out to be pretty good for the Cowboys. Escaping the 2017 preseason with only losing Hitchens is certainly the lesser of evils when compared to those other guys.

There will come a day where we will all join hands and collectively appreciate the Cowboys decision to make Jaylon Smith their 2016 second-round pick. As my colleague, R.J. Ochoa points out, that day might come a little sooner than expected.

The middle linebacker position has been looking for a legitimate point of stability for some time in Dallas. Sean Lee needs a tag-team partner, and that’s why Jaylon Smith was drafted. We’ve waited a long time, overcoming hurdle after hurdle, and we could be on the precipice of it all fully materializing.

If you weren’t already a little bit concerned about this defense, well you should be. But the loss of Hitchens doesn’t put this team behind the eight ball by any means. The Cowboys have the resources to fill the void. The team is still right where they were before in an every week battle to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone. It won’t be easy, but this team should still get it done often enough.

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