Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is back playing football again.
It’s not just that Lee is back after missing last season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. It’s that he’s back playing as well as he ever has and possibly better.
Lee is as healthy, strong and fast as he’s been because the surgically repaired knee is better and more stable than it was before the surgery.
And he’s moved from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker. It has him covered from a blocker by a defensive tackle, allowing him to take advantage of his natural linebacker instincts to run free to the ball and make plays.
“That’s fun when you get to run downhill fast and you’re going to the ball,” Lee said. “That’s what linebackers dream of.”
It all came together Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles when Lee broke a Cowboys record for production points on defense. Lee was credited with a team-high 14 tackles with two tackles for loss and an interception. He broke up two passes and recovered an onside kick.
“I felt like the ball was coming my way a lot,” Lee said. “I felt like the defensive line did an unbelievable job penetrating. I was free to the hit a lot of time. So I give them an unbelievable amount of credit. That helped me a ton.”
Lee was named NFC defensive player of the week.
“He’s a robot,” Cowboys defensive lineman Jeremy Mincey said. “He understands exactly what is going on. He understands where to be and what position to be in when he gets there. The thing that makes him so special is that he’s never content. He’s always working to be the best.”
The Cowboys (2-0) need Lee and the defense at their best at noon Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (2-0).
Lee’s return is a big reason the defense has gone from a weakness to the strength of the team through the first two games, despite being without three playmakers in defensive ends Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory and middle linebacker Rolando McClain.
Lee leads the Cowboys in tackles (23) and tackles for losses (3). He is tied for the team lead in interceptions (1) and pass deflections (2).
“I know now after these first two ballgames what the year-before’s injury to Sean Lee meant,” owner Jerry Jones said. “You couldn’t talk about our defense without talking about the difference and the impact he’s making.”
Lee credits the team’s athletic trainers and doctors for getting him back on the field. It’s also about the work Lee has put in on, and off, the field.
Coach Jason Garrett said Lee has a knack for making plays dating to when he was 7 years old, but his commitment and work ethic are second to none, and it showed in his rehab from the knee injury.
“He’s a great football player,” Garrett said. “It’s a long road back for him. He spent a lot of time rehabbing and getting himself healthy enough to play. He did it the right way. He looked at that adversity, stared it down and somehow, some way got himself ready to play again. He has been outstanding the first two weeks.”
Lee is en route to having the best season of his career and could possibly make the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has compared his potential impact and fit at weakside linebacker to Chicago Bears Pro Bowler Lance Briggs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.
Lee has no interest in big-picture takes. He has never played a full season with the Cowboys because of injuries. His focus is game to game and being on the field for all 16.
If he does that, the honors will come.
Mincey sidelined; Collins at guard
Defensive end Jermey Mincey was diagnosed with a concussion late this week, putting him out of Sunday’s game.
His absence puts the Cowboys down three right ends: Greg Hardy has another two games to sit out in his four-game suspension, and Randy Gregory continues to rehab the ankle he injured in the season opener.
Jack Crawford likely will start at right end. He played mostly inside for his 28 snaps in the season opener, but with Gregory out against the Eagles, Crawford played only one snap inside and the other 36 at end.
The Cowboys have only three healthy defensive ends in Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence and Ryan Russell. They also have linebacker Kyle Wilber, a former defensive end whom they can use as a pass-rusher.
The Cowboys had only three defensive ends on their 46-man game-day roster last week, with Lawrence playing 51 of 62 snaps.
Wilber (hamstring) and Russell (groin) are probable. Russell, a fifth-round pick, was inactive for the first two games.
Tight end James Hanna (knee) also is probable.
The Cowboys listed left guard Ron Leary (groin) as questionable, and rookie La’el Collins will make his first career start. Executive vice president Stephen Jones made the announcement on his weekly radio show on KRLD/105.3 FM on Friday afternoon.
Clarence Hill, 817-390-7760
Falcons at Cowboys
Noon Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington
TV: KDFW/Channel 4