FRISCO, Texas - The Cowboys plan to be without linebacker Leighton Vander Esch on Sunday against the New England Patriots and likely longer, sources said Thursday.
Vander Esch practiced this week before a flare-up in his neck area prompted an MRI on Thursday, one person familiar with the situation said. Those results dictated that he will rest the ailment for an indefinite period. Vander Esch already missed one game this season following an Oct. 20 neck stinger versus the Philadelphia Eagles. He won't practice Friday.
Sean Lee is now expected to see an expanded role Sunday. Past usage would suggest that Lee will flip from strong- to weak-side linebacker while working beside linebacker Jaylon Smith in the nickel defense. Joe Thomas would replace Lee at strong-side backer in the Cowboys' base package.
Notably, Thomas has not practiced all week.
He's dealt with the flu.
This situation very much has developed over the course of recent days. Vander Esch, a 2018 first-round pick and Pro Bowl selection, will appear on the injury report Friday for the first time this week. On Wednesday, he expressed eagerness to face Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, fully delving himself into the game plan with the intent to participate. He discussed the team's running backs, whose involvement in the passing game poses a challenge that Dallas now must take on without him.
"All those guys can run and create something out of nothing," Vander Esch said. "It makes it difficult when they've got three or four dudes who can all do different things special. So it's going to be fun."
Undrafted rookie Luke Gifford, active just once this season, could be in uniform Sunday to assist on special teams; however, like when the Cowboys were without Vander Esch on Nov. 4 against the New York Giants, the brunt of extra responsibilities will fall on Lee. The 33-year-old responded well to that opportunity versus New York with his best game of the season.
The two-time Pro Bowler will work to step in with similar results against the Patriots.
Vander Esch dealt with neck issues for a portion of his Boise State career, and he's worn a neck collar at the NFL level. Early indications were his Oct. 20 neck injury was minor and that the ensuing bye week would provide ample time for him to rest. But tightness lingered longer than expected, forcing him to miss the one game.
This time, multiple missed games could be in store.
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