The key Sunderland vulnerability other Championship managers admit they're targeting right now

Playing without strikers has presented Sunderland with a major challenge in recent weeks and it has understandably been the focus of debate on Wearside after two goalless draws at the Stadium of Light.

Head coach Tony Mowbray has been left understandably frustrated with those two stalemates but he was eager to stress that three clean sheets in four is a feat worthy of note.

Particularly because those injuries to Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms have denied him not only his two attacking focal points but two of his key players in defending opposition set plays.

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Without them, opposition managers have admitted that is an area they're actively targeting.

Anthony Patterson makes an excellent save from a Preston corner

Sunderland have enjoyed a bit of luck in terms of some poor finishing, but there have also been some excellent saves from Anthony Patterson and some excellent last-ditch defending from a generally small side.

"We are one of the best in the division for set-plays," said Preston North End boss Ryan Lowe on Saturday.

"It is just converting them. I showed the group before we left the hotel, a few stats that we work on and what we've asked for. We knew Sunderland weren't the biggest.

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"They had Danny Batth, who is big and strong, but without Simms and Stewart, they lack a bit of height. With every opportunity, from free-kicks, we sent them up to try and get a goal.

"I thought we were good at that - first contacts and drop downs, but give Sunderland a lot of credit because they defended for their lives. You have got to stay positive, haven't you?

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"The good thing is that we've come here today and done well against a fantastic team - with the way they play and the threat they have got going forward. We handled that fantastically well."

Blackpool boss Michael Appleton said: "Yeah we did [target set plays].

"They're not the biggest side without their two strikers so we know that we could do that."

The significance of coming through that challenge was not lost on Mowbray, who said: "It's amazing to see us defending set pieces and putting our bodies on the line like that, because I think we have only two lads above 6ft.

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"You can lose those games easily 1-0 from a set play."