ESSENDON coach James Hird has praised the efforts of his leaders in the absence of injured captain Jobe Watson after the Bombers struggled to shake off the inexperienced Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium. 

The Dons bolted to a 37-point lead in the first term, but were outscored thereafter, with the final margin of 31 points flattering the premiership hopeful.

Watson will be sidelined for up to six weeks after suffering a fractured collarbone last week, and the Bombers clearly missed the reigning Brownlow medallist's playing skills and leadership.

Hird acknowledged it had been "hard to replace" Watson and Heath Hocking, along with fellow midfielder David Zaharakis, who was subbed out in the third term with a sore back. But the coach was pleased by the performances of the skipper's remaining lieutenants.

"I thought the leaders were excellent tonight," Hird said post-match.

"Probably three of our best players were Brendon (Goddard), Brent (Stanton) and Dyson Heppell, and also Jason Winderlich. They're all part of our leadership team and they really stepped up tonight, and Michael Hurley worked really hard in the forward line. I thought our leadership group did a great job in Jobe's absence."

Acting captain Stanton said it had been "a great challenge" playing without Watson.

"You feed off him and the way he leads is contagious, really," he said. "We probably did miss him a little bit around the football with his leadership but the other (leaders) stepped up and took it by the scruff of the neck when the game got a bit tight …

"We're getting a lot of leaders throughout the whole field. I think the most important thing is if we can share the load across the whole team, it's going to be a lot easier for not only myself but when Jobe does come back to lead."

Stanton also said Watson's absence, though not ideal, gave the Bombers a chance to develop a deeper midfield.

Hird was confident Zaharakis's injury was not serious.

"Zaka's got a knee to the back and he just wasn't able to move properly. The doctor doesn’t think it's anything internal, which is good. Hopefully it's just a badly bruised back and he'll be able to play next week," he said.

The Bombers lost the contested-possession count (165-135) and the inside 50s (60-53) but were more efficient, which Hird said they had been working on.

"There was a stage during the year when we were beating our opposition by 15 inside 50s – I think we're number one or two in the competition in terms of differential for inside 50s – so we've tried to adjust our game and get more out of our inside 50s rather than just getting it in there a lot and not scoring. And I think that's working for us," he said.