FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said this week he believes the health of the team is one of its strengths entering a matchup with the 9-1 New England Patriots.
But at least important one starter will miss Sunday’s game due to injury.
Second-year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will not be available as he deals with a recurring neck issue. Vander Esch sat out Dallas’ Nov. 5 game against the New York Giants to rehab his neck but returned to play against the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.
He practiced as recently as Thursday but symptoms resembling his earlier-season neck injury returned.
“So we had him checked out,” coach Jason Garrett said Friday morning. “We don’t think it’s career-threatening. … We think it just needs to calm down, and needs a little time to calm down.”
Cowboys linebacker Joe Thomas also missed practices this week with illness. He’s expected to start alongside veteran Sean Lee and defensive captain Jaylon Smith.
The Cowboys had the fifth-best run defense in 2018, allowing 94.6 yards per game. But they’ve struggled this season, falling to a tie for 15th (105.2 yards per game) against the run. The last two games, the Cowboys allowed 153 rushing yards to Minnesota and then 121 to a Detroit team featuring backup quarterback Jeff Driskel and Bo Scarbrough, a running back signed the day before the game. (Each scored a rushing touchdown.)
One challenge the Cowboys expects from the Patriots: running backs in the pass game.
“They get them out quickly and get the ball in their hands pretty quick,” Vander Esch said Wednesday. “All those guys can run and create something out of nothing.”
Vander Esch had looked forward to playing Tom Brady, whom he said he looked up to growing up in Riggins, Idaho, and while playing at Boise State.
“I’ve been looking forward to it my whole entire life honestly, even when I was in college, what it’d be like to play against him in the NFL,” Vander Esch said before symptoms returned. “Just because of his caliber, the reputation he has. If you get a big play against him? Just playing against guys like that really makes you appreciate things.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein