The Cowboys’ middle linebacker, one of the season’s defensive standouts, beats quarterbacks through an uncanny anticipation that comes from film work and smart pre-snap reads. If Dallas is to save its season, he’ll be central to it all

By Peter King
November 01, 2013

I don’t know if you saw the play, but I did, and it was mesmerizing. Just before halftime of Dallas-Detroit on Sunday, Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee waited, waited, waited and suddenly, as though he’d been forewarned about the play call, stepped in front of wideout Jeremy Ross running a short slant, picked off the pass and ran 74 yards with it.

How’d he know it was coming? How’d he know when to break? How’d he get those instincts?

Football instincts, of course, are very hard to define. It’s like what Elaine Benes’ uppity boss once said to her about grace: “You can’t have a little grace. Either you have grace or you don’t.” Same with instincts. Ray Lewis had instincts like few players ever. Luke Kuechly has them in the nerve center of the Carolina defense. Jon Beason has them, now for the Giants. David Harris, Bobby Wagner, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman … They, too, see plays before they develop. And watching Lee through the first half of the season—you can see the instincts often. He takes a first step to a play before it develops.

Sean Lee’s interception against the Lions was a product of film study, reading the quarterback and athleticism. (Duane Burleson/AP) Instincts? Smarts? Athleticism? Sean Lee has them all, as his two picks against the Lions and four overall—tied for best in the NFL—attest.  (Duane Burleson/AP)

I talked to him about this particular play, and about instincts. He said it’s a combination of athleticism and film study/knowledge of the game.

“On the play,” he said, “Calvin Johnson was split wide right, and they motioned to a stack formation.”

That was Ross, motioning from way wide of the formation in a few steps to line up right behind Johnson at the snap of the ball.

“No Reggie Bush on the play, and he’s always a threat to get the ball in a down-and-distance like that [third and five].”

Watching NFL Game Rewind this week, you could see a lot: Lee, lined up 4.5 yards over the center, behind a four-man Dallas line … Lee staring at Matthew Stafford, in shotgun … Stafford glancing quickly right, toward Ross … Lee glancing quickly at Ross, then back at Stafford … Ross in motion, stopping behind Johnson …

Lee is tied for the league lead with four interceptions. ( Jeff Gross/Getty Images) Lee’s Cowboys face a must-win against Minnesota. ( Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

“The eyes can tell you a lot pre-snap,” Lee said. “But I knew from film study they like to run slants, and when Stafford looked over there, you get a feeling.”

At the snap Lee looked again, and here came Ross on a slant. Lee moved his legs piston-like up and down, preparing to sprint four steps left because he figured Stafford would throw it to Ross right where the first-down line would be. And so, as Stafford cocked his arm and threw quickly, Lee saw exactly where the ball would intersect with Ross, and he took three running steps toward that spot, at the Dallas 22. Ross reached for it, easy as pie and whoooosh … here came Lee, and there went Lee, in full gallop.

“You learn it, you see it, you feel it,” said Lee, who went to Penn State and was a product of the football program at Upper St. Clair High in Pittsburgh. “When you’re freed up to make a play like that, with no one in front of you, it’s easier. But I think something like that happens a lot because of the work you’ve done during the week. You think, ‘I’ve seen that before.’ ”

Dallas is at a crossroads now, 4-4 and coming off an awful last-second loss—it seems the Cowboys have two or three abominable losses every year. With New Orleans waiting next week, the Cowboys cannot afford to slip against the slumping Vikings Sunday at home. “This season can go either way,” Lee told me. “We have an unbelievable opportunity in front of us, and I believe we have the guys on this team to take advantage of that opportunity.”

If they’d all play with the athleticism and production and instincts of Lee, I’d feel a lot better about their chances to hold on in the NFC East.

Now, on to the rest of my thoughts for Week 9 . . .

About Last Night . . .

Miami 22, Cincinnati 20. A walk-off safety. Fitting, to cap the month of the walk-off obstruction and the walk-off pickoff. But Cameron Wake’s game-winning safety (the right call, by the way) wasn’t the biggest moment Thursday night in Miami. That would be the loss of the best three-technique defensive tackle in football, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, to a season-ending ACL tear. I like what I saw of 2012 third-round tackle Brandon Thompson from Clemson in relief of Atkins, but let’s be frank. The Bengals have lost their two most important defensive players in the last three games—Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles). We’ll see, but it could be too much to overcome.

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

Jon Bostic, middle linebacker, Chicago (number 57). Welcome to Monday Night Football, Jon Bostic. All you have to do now is figure out when to drop in coverage against Aaron Rodgers (he’s pretty good at play-action) and when to smash the middle of the line . . .  and as if the Rodgers assignment wasn’t enough, how about Matthew Stafford next week on a short week, and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco the week after that?

Sound Bite of the Week

Antonio Brown’s miscues are cause for concern in Pittsburgh. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Antonio Brown’s miscues are cause for concern in Pittsburgh. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“We came away from that drive with no points because of an interception on third-down that went through Antonio Brown’s hands and was picked off by their cornerback, Tracy Porter.”

—Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, talking about a mis-play by the NFL’s leading wide receiver after eight weeks, Brown (who has 56 catches), at Oakland on Sunday.

On the surface, this may not seem so significant, Tomlin stating a simple fact about an error by a player. But the fact he used his weekly news conference to highlight the play . . . that’s another matter. Ben Roethlisberger and Tomlin reportedly are not happy with the discipline Brown shows in running his routes and catching the ball.

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. The Ryan Bros. Rob, the Saints defensive coordinator, and Rex, the Jets head coach, meet in New Jersey Sunday, and life is decidedly different for them. Rob is on a high: Last year, the Saints were dead last in the NFL in defense, and this year, they’re the seventh-stingiest in yards (332.4 allowed per game) and third-stingiest in points (17.1 allowed per game). Rex’s defense was horrible last week in a 49-9 loss at Cincinnati.

2. A pretty meh weekend. No games matching teams with winning records. Six byes. Hate the six-bye weeks.

3. The Jonathan Martin story. This is heavy now. After all the warnings at all levels of sports about hazing, a starting tackle for a team with a playoff pulse walks out on his team because he couldn’t take his teammates’ hazing anymore. I wonder if, when Miami officials interviewed Joe Philbin for this coaching job 22 months ago, they asked: “How will you deal with hazing by players if it happens?”

4. Gronkstrung. That wacky Rob Gronkowski. Now he’s come down with a hamstring strain. I swear the Patriots are going to be playing with ballboys at receiver by Thanksgiving.

5. Brady’s hand. Everything’s fine. Really. Tom Brady’s swollen-looking throwing hand doesn’t hurt at all. And I’m Kate Moss’ twin.

6. Protecting Mr. Wilson. It’s panic city in Seattle—after a win. All I know is Russell Wilson can’t afford to take as many hits as he’s taken, and one of the only things Tampa Bay can do well is pressure the passer. The pressures/sacks/hits number on Wilson this season, according to Pro Football Focus, is 13.3 per game. Last year it was 10. Good thing Wilson’s like Gumby and rarely takes a direct blow. But still, it’s too dangerous for a player his size. Looks like the Seahawks will have to play at least three more games without regular tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. Duck, Russell. And I don’t mean Oregon.

The Sunday Slate

Andy Benoit goes beyond the overplayed storylines to analyze the key matchups for every game.

7. Trouble on the way to 9-0. I was in Kansas City this week, and I told a couple of young Chiefs whop hadn’t played in Buffalo before, “Get ready for an interesting experience.” Loud. Consistently loud. Dressed all in white (if the fans do what the Bills ask—the so-called “whiteout” of the stands). Hope the NFL’s lone undefeated team has its silent snap count down pat.

8. Geno Smith the oddball. Smith, the Jets quarterback, in odd games (weeks 1, 3, 5, 7): seven touchdowns, four interceptions. Smith in even games (weeks 2, 4, 6, 8): one touchdown, nine picks. It’s an odd week. Give me the Jets against Drew Brees! (Uh, kidding. Really.)

9. The Panthers could knock Atlanta out. What? The Falcons aren’t out of it already? Atlanta’s sixth loss would mean having to go 8-0 without Julio Jones and Roddy White to have a chance to make the playoffs. Uh, no. They meet in Charlotte, and how bizarre would it be to see the Falcons playing out the string for eight straight weeks?

10. Case Keenum’s chance to take the Texans’ QB job for good.

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