Sean Lee’s Return Will Be Key in the Cowboys’ MNF Showdown with the Titans

Sean Lee’s Return Will Be Key in the Cowboys’ MNF Showdown with the Titans article feature image

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Sean Lee

  • Anthony Amico breaks down how much Sean Lee's return will factor into the Dallas Cowboys' Monday Night Football matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
  • He also explains how to derive betting and fantasy football value from the following analysis.

I’ll be leveraging my experience as a fantasy analyst with a statistics background and a high school football coach to identify aspects of one matchup every week that you can take advantage of while setting your fantasy football lineups and/or placing bets on the upcoming slate.

For Week 9, we’re focusing on the Monday Night Football matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys.

A Heavy Rushing Attack

The 2018 Titans are not very different from the 2017 Titans, despite changes to the offensive coaching staff. Tennessee plays at a slow pace — 30th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders — and frequently plays out of big sets.

Only the Eagles utilize more two- and three-tight end sets than the Titans do, per Sharp Football Stats. Tennessee runs 44% of its plays with at least two tight ends. This has led to the Titans being predominantly a rushing attack. They have a 66% run rate out of these sets.

Only the Rams and Seahawks have higher overall run rates than the Titans (47%). Tennessee also runs the most on first down (63%).

At least some of the offensive decision-making seems to be the result of a terribly inept pass game. The Titans rank 29th with 5.5 net yards per pass attempt.

Tennessee is one of the worst overall offenses in football. Only Buffalo and Arizona average more yards per play than Tennessee’s 4.8 mark.

The Value of Sean Lee

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has deep roots in Tampa 2 coverage dating back to his time as an assistant with the Buccaneers in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

The basic premise of Tampa 2 is a Cover 2 defense with two high safeties, each responsible for a deep half of the field. The corners typically cover the flat, while the linebackers cover hook-to-curl zones.

The major delineation between Tampa 2 and standard Cover 2 is the responsibility of the middle linebacker.

In a Tampa 2, the middle backer is asked to continually get more depth to help in coverage. He is essentially a deep third player underneath the safeties, and is responsible for a lot of ground.

You really cannot be successful in Tampa 2 if your middle backer isn’t a great player.

With former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard on staff, the Cowboys have mixed in some more Cover 1 concepts, but the defense is still rooted overall in Tampa 2, making Sean Lee the most important player on the defense. Lee is truly a great linebacker, ranking inside the top 10 of Pro Football Focus grades since 2015.

Unfortunately, Lee has also missed a ton of time due to injury over his tenure as a Cowboy. He missed 39 games between 2012 and 2017, and has already missed three games this season.

Opponent splits with and without Lee in the lineup have been extreme. Here they are for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

As you can see, opposing offenses have sputtered with Lee in the lineup. Dallas’ 5.6 yards allowed per pass attempt with Lee in the lineup would rank first in the NFL for 2018. The Cowboys would also rank as a top five run defense in terms of yards per attempt.

In total, only the Ravens currently allow fewer yards per play than the Cowboys defense with Lee.

How to Find Betting and Fantasy Value

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Cowboys have one of the best defenses in the NFL when Lee is healthy. By that same token, the Titans are one of the worst offenses in football.

And while Dallas opened as a four-point favorite, the Cowboys were quickly bet up to 6.5, where the line remains as of writing (see live data here). Both teams play slowly, as the Cowboys are also bottom four in overall pace, which has me hesitant to bet the Cowboys at -6.5.

While the window to bet Dallas might have closed, I do like the under on Tennessee’s team total of 17.25. I would also avoid all Titans in DFS this week.