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Sean Lee Is Critical To The Cowboys Defense In 2013

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Sean Lee has been billed as one of several rising stars on this year's team. As the de facto captain of the defense, it's imperative that he play like one. Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images.
Sean Lee has been billed as one of several rising stars on this year's team. As the de facto captain of the defense, it's imperative that he play like one. Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images.

On a team loaded with up-and-coming talent, no young player has more responsibility and expectation of leadership through disciplined play than the Dallas Cowboys MLB Sean Lee.  

Let’s start with the bigger picture: The 2013 Dallas defense, while undeniably gifted, is best suited to playing sidekick to the offense. The unit’s success is predicated on soundness of play, not sensationalism of it. Weak spots exist in broad daylight, and teams are going to get their yards and first downs against courtesy of them. But if these defenders dominate certain metrics — third-down conversions, red zone efficiency and turnover margins — they’ll give their offense chances to build and keep leads, and that’s really all that should be required of them.

What do these categories have in common? Besides an understated impact on the NFL’s many games that are decided by a single possession, they’re telltale indicators of a disciplined defense.

Lee’s position ensures his role in actualizing these objectives is crucial. Middle linebackers run the show with their reads, calls and movements. They also coordinate the direction of their teammates with a quarterback’s influence and leadership. Their accountability to the run and short pass have equalized with the emergence of receiving tight ends in NFL offenses.

But, above all, a middle linebacker is useless without exceptional football smarts and instincts that constantly place him at the center of the action. Lee possesses these traits in droves, and his numbers prove it. He missed 10 games in 2012, yet still registered 58 tackles. In 2011, he amassed 105 tackles in 15 games — a team high by 30 tackles — to go along with four interceptions. He’s a ball magnet and a can’t-miss, form-perfect tackler with an effective, north-south style of attacking the run.

Unfortunately, Lee’s aptitude for his position has facilitated his only problem: injury. His speed is average, and his ability to cover the deep ball is limited. Consequently, Lee makes his living between the numbers and close to the line of scrimmage, where the hardest blocks and most jarring hits are dished out. In short, Lee’s value lies in his run defense, but utilizing him as such carries risk.

Furthermore, concerns plague the key run-stopping positions around Lee. In front of him at defensive tackle, the oft-injured Jay Ratliff is the unit’s oldest starter, and Jason Hatcher has spent his entire career as an edge pass rusher. Behind him at strong safety is Barry Church, who is still learning the system. An injury to any of those players would be nothing short of devastating, and would subject Lee to more bruising and bashing.

When the rush to contrast Monte Kiffin’s scheme against Dallas personnel landed on Lee, some pointed to the middle linebacker’s heightened role against the pass in the Tampa 2 as problematic. Traditionally, this player is expected to drop into pass coverage more often, because corners are playing press and bump-and-run coverage schemes. Corners win through physicality, not straight cover skills; hence the need for extra help from over the top.

That might have been a valid point in the early 2000s, when Kiffin architected the scheme and the NFL was still a workhorse running back’s league. But it’s precisely the opposite these days. Multiple receiver and tight end sets have prevailed. Certain down-and-distances will always force a team to operate out of its true 4-3 or 3-4 shell, but for many teams, nickel packages have defaulted into the base formation.

By all reports, Lee is a smart, sedulous player who surely recognizes room for improvement in his pass defense and is en route to achieving it. He’s only an X-factor in the sense that we don’t know just how good he can be. But we do know this defense needs a charismatic leader to rally behind, and by virtue of his position, Lee’s an ideal candidate for that title.