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Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Major dropoff if Ware sits vs. Saints

By Tim MacMahon

IRVING, Texas -- The timing of DeMarcus Ware's frightening neck injury couldn't have been much worse for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys, who were fighting to hold on to the NFC East lead and slay some December demons, were tied with the San Diego Chargers early in the fourth quarter Sunday when Ware crumpled to the turf. Two plays after he was carted off the field on a gurney, San Diego scored, with Philip Rivers delivering a pair of perfect passes to put the Chargers ahead for good.

"We missed the playmaking ability he has," linebacker Keith Brooking said of Ware, whose 43 sacks since the start of the 2007 season lead the NFL. "Your best defensive player gets knocked out of the game in a situation where you need a pass rush and playmaking ability, that hurts more than anything."

The good news is that Ware, who never lost movement or feeling in his extremities, didn't suffer a serious injury. He was released from the hospital Sunday night after being diagnosed with a neck strain.

The bad news is that the Cowboys need Ware's playmaking ability more than ever Saturday night in the Superdome. He's officially listed as day-to-day, but it's unlikely he'll play against the undefeated New Orleans Saints. It would be the first game the five-year veteran has missed in his career.

Ware didn't have a sack in Sunday's loss to San Diego, but Rivers' statistics before and after the injury indicate Ware's effect on the game. Rivers completed 15 of 27 passes for 178 yards with no touchdowns and an interception before Ware went down. Without Ware chasing him, Rivers went 5-of-5 for 94 yards and a touchdown.

Scary thought: The Saints and Chargers are tied for the league lead in yards per pass attempt at 8.9, more than a half-yard better than any other team. Giving Drew Brees time to deliver the ball is a disaster waiting to happen.

Jake Delhomme Sacked
Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler (57) had two of his three sacks this season versus Carolina. He'll start in place of DeMarcus Ware on Saturday if the Pro Bowler is unable to play.

You can't judge Ware's impact by just his impressive sack totals. He's a scheme changer, the focal point of every opponent's pass protection plan. Without him on the field, the Saints can feel free to spread the Cowboys out and attack downfield. They won't have to ask tight end Jeremy Shockey or a back to chip or double Ware.

The Saints also could attack Ware's replacements in the running game. There could be a major dropoff in that department if Ware, an underrated run stopper, can't play.

Rookie Victor Butler filled in for Ware against the Chargers and is likely to start against the Saints. The fourth-round pick has three sacks in limited, late-game playing time, but he hasn't earned Wade Phillips' trust enough to become the part-time situational pass-rusher the Cowboys envisioned this season.

"We think he's a good prospect," Phillips said, "but we don't think he's there yet."

Fellow fourth-rounder Brandon Williams would have been another option, but he's spent the entire season on injured reserve after tearing knee ligaments in a preseason game. Phillips said Williams looked like a stronger possibility than Butler to be the third man in the outside linebacker rotation before he got hurt.

Curtis Johnson and Steve Octavien are the only other outside linebackers on the roster. Their playing time has come solely on special teams.

With Ware, stopping the NFL's top-ranked total offense and scoring offense is a tough enough challenge. Without him, it's hard to see how the Cowboys can keep the Saints from marching up and down the field.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.