Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer 19d

Jaylon Smith feeling good, but Anthony Hitchens' return will help

FRISCO, Texas -- With Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee unable to play last week because of a hamstring strain, Jaylon Smith played in all 69 snaps against the Los Angeles Rams.

Smith was credited with 13 tackles, to add to his team-leading total, but the Rams were able to isolate him in coverage at times to their advantage.

"Think I had some good. Think I had some bad," Smith said of his production. "So it's all about eliminating the bad plays."

Smith has played in 227 of a possible 283 snaps in the first four games. It might not be more than he expected -- "I go in every game hoping that I get a chance to play every snap," Smith said -- but it is more than what the Cowboys expected.

Smith found himself in the starting lineup because Anthony Hitchens suffered a tibial plateau fracture in the preseason. He found himself playing every snap against the Rams because Lee was out.

The Cowboys might give Lee another week of rest, especially with the bye coming next week, but Hitchens is looking at making his 2017 debut Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. He took part in his first full practice since suffering the injury Aug. 26 against the Oakland Raiders.

"Felt good," Hitchens said. "They're going to watch the film and let me know if I can play or not this weekend."

If Hitchens can play, then he would replace Lee if the All-Pro linebacker is unable to return. When Hitchens suffered the injury the Cowboys feared he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. After he was diagnosed with the fracture, he said it went from a full fracture to a hairline fracture.

"I just knew I was in pain," Hitchens said, recalling the injury. "I didn't know what the circumstances was but glad it was just five weeks now instead of a whole season."

When Lee is able to return, then the Cowboys can move to a rotation of sorts at linebacker to keep everybody fresh. When they are all healthy, Lee is the only linebacker who is likely to play every snap. By cutting back on Smith's snaps, the Cowboys hope the quality of his work goes up.

His recovery from a horrific knee injury, which included nerve damage that led to a case of drop foot and forced him to miss the 2016 season, has been nothing short of amazing. But a player needs time to work back into the game after such a prolonged absence.

"Man, honestly my knee and my legs, they feel great," Smith said. "I mean as far as soreness, it's the regular typical football soreness. It's a good thing. I'm happy to have that type of soreness. It's something I didn't experience last year recovering and things like that, so it's just a blessing to be here."

A case of less is more could help the Cowboys' defense. Hitchens recorded two 100-tackles seasons in his first three seasons, according to the coaches' breakdowns.

"He's a guy that's been here for four years now and he knows a lot," Smith said. "He knows the system. So he'll definitely help."

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