“Our defense,’’ Sean Lee tells me, politely leaning up to speak clearly into my microphone while also somehow leaning down to put on his socks in the postgame locker room following Dallas’ 41-14 preseason win over visiting Miami, “has a chip on its shoulder. We can be the defense we want to be.’’
The first thing Dallas Cowboys critics (or even Cowboys lovers) think of when they think of Sean Lee is “fragility.’’ And in a sense, that’s the first thing we think of when we consider the Lee-led Cowboys defense, too. It doesn’t record sacks. It doesn’t record takeaways. It doesn’t hold leads. It doesn’t avoid breakdowns.
The Dallas Cowboys defense, in general, is “fragile.''
Sean Lee knows you think this.
"Sean Lee, Multi-Tasker’’ is also “Sean Lee, Mindreader.’'
“I’m aware of the reputation and when you win four games, as we did last year, criticisms are deserved because 4-12 is unacceptable,’’ Lee says. “Also unacceptable was just 11 takeaways. We’re sick about that. We pride ourselves on being able to give the ball back to our offense, and we didn’t do that in the fourth quarter, especially, last year. Now, if you watched us (in 2015), we did play a lot of good football defensively in terms of keeping the points down. But in the fourth quarter, we didn’t get turnovers and we didn’t get stops.
“That’s got to change.’'
If it does, Lee will be a central reason for it. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time last year, something he’d have done more often were it not for his injury history. He’s excelling as the weakside linebacker and carries a large playmaking role in that position group in part because middle linebacker Rolando McClain is on drug-related suspension and will likely never play for Dallas again.
Lee considers McClain a friend, and is concerned for him. But that’s a personal concern. A professional concern is making sure he’s ready to lead a Dallas defense that needs to do its part so in 2016 the Cowboys don’t need to win games 32-31 every week.
“I want to play as much as I can in this preseason,’’ said Lee, who started against the Dolphins, played 12 snaps, and is planning to do more of the same in Thursday’s “dress-rehearsal’’ game at Seattle. "It helps me get ready for the season. As a leader, you always want to be on the field with your football team. It was fun to show it (against Miami).’'
Coordinator Rod Marinelli’s staff emphasized takeaways at training camp in Oxnard (as coaches everywhere do at all times) and there was a noticeable success to it all, a noticeable vibe. Takeaways are part luck, part game situations, part talent, and another part luck. But as Lee says, "We need to fix it. We did do it in camp. Wr had a major focus on that in camp. It needs to carry over.’'
The Cowboys had just 31 sacks last year (eighth-worst in the NFL) to go with eight interceptions (second-worst in the NFL) and that is not how playoff teams stack up statistically.
Lee, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason and was kept out some spring and summer work, is ready to go fix all of that. And the offense is ready to be “fixed’’ from last year, too; remember, largely without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, those 4-12 Cowboys too often struggled to score 20 points.
By reputation, last year was largely the defense’s fault. That’s what many think.
Ny reputation, this year’s success will largely be despite the defense. That’s what many think.
Sean Lee, Mult-Tasking Mindreader, knows what you’re thinking.
And I guess you can read his mind, too. Because, predictably and ever-so-politely, Sean Lee thinks you’re wrong.