Sean Lee quickly a leader for the Cowboys defense
OXNARD, Calif. (AP)
''His knowledge of the game is just amazing,'' fellow linebacker Victor Butler said. ''He picks up stuff like that. He probably could coach us.''
When Rob Ryan sees how teammates respond and follow Lee, the Cowboys defensive coordinator is reminded of one of his former Super Bowl-winning linebackers, Tedy Bruschi.
''He deserves the respect. He has earned the respect,'' Ryan said of Lee. ''Tedy didn't have to say anything. They just followed him. It's the same way with Sean.''
They are talking about a guy going into only his third NFL season, a high-energy linebacker who became a starter last year and then played the second half of the season with a broken left wrist protected by a bulky cast.
Lee still led the Cowboys with 131 tackles, 52 more than any other player, despite missing a game because of his injury. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions. The two teammates with more passes defended were cornerbacks.
''A hurt Sean Lee is good. I'd take him at 50 percent,'' Butler said. ''But Sean Lee is a great asset to the team just in leadership qualities.''
As the quarterback of the defense, Lee is responsible for relaying the calls from Ryan, then checking the offensive formation. Lee calls out signals and makes sure everybody is lined up in the right spot.
Lee's intensity is evident even during a walk-through session, such as on Monday when the defense had a bad play. Lee shouted something in disgust and asked to run the play again.
When the Cowboys (No. 15 in AP Pro32) got to training camp after the NFL lockout ended last year, they were in a cram session to learn Ryan's 3-4 defense since they hadn't been able to have any offseason work with their then-new coordinator.
Now they have been with Ryan for a year, including a full offseason.
''We were able to learn the defense. We're coming into camp with a lot more confidence. Now we can really perfect the techniques, instead of finally learning the defense for the first time,'' Lee said. ''Coach Ryan always has wrinkles. He's a guy who loves variations. He loves teaching different defenses, but our defense we have a great foundation to build off of. And I think that's a key, we have got to build on it.''
Lee was hampered by injuries during his rookie camp and early in his first season, though he played 14 games without starting. And there was the December 2010 game at Indianapolis in which Lee intercepted Peyton Manning twice. He returned one for a touchdown and set up a game-winning field goal in overtime with the other.
When Ryan arrived, Lee emerged as a starter and leader on the field. Veteran linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James, both starters previously, wound up splitting time at the other inside linebacker spot last season. Neither was re-signed during the offseason.
''He was ready last year, and that's why we gave him the opportunities that we gave him,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''He knows this game inside and out, he knows this scheme, he studies the opposing offenses. It's really, really important to him. And his personality is infectious.''
Garrett said Lee has determination in everything he does, on the field or when he is ''locked in and focused'' during meetings, trying to absorb everything that is said.
When Lee was sidelined by a torn ACL in his right knee for what was supposed to be his senior season at Penn State in 2008, he took a medical redshirt. He served as basically an undergraduate coach during practices and on the sideline during games that year, then had 86 tackles in 10 games the following season.
''It speaks to his maturity,'' Garrett said. ''So if you are a guy in college to be coaching his teammates, whatever role he was in, I think it senses what the coaching staff thought of him at Penn State. Since day one since he's been here, he's been off the charts that way.''
Ryan said nobody worked harder in the offseason than Lee learning the defense, and that the linebacker earned ''the keys to that'' and the respect of his teammates.
As for Ryan's comparison to Bruschi, who played for the coach in New England, Lee was honored even though he believes he has plenty of work to do to reach that level.
''I need to play a lot more, and I need to make a lot more plays, and we've got to start winning. We've got to win Super Bowls,'' Lee said. ''That's a guy who won Super Bowls, a Hall of Fame-type guy. ... I don't think I'm close to it yet, but I'm going to work to get to it.''