It wasn't long ago when the Cowboys had Bradie James and Keith Brooking as their starting inside linebackers. While the two had great NFL careers, they began to become liabilities as they got older. Their legs simply couldn't keep up with them anymore.
Now the Dallas Cowboys have a new breed of inside linebacker roaming the middle of the field. The Cowboys have changed their philosophy and are looking for more athletic type of players to play linebacker for them.
This started in 2010 when the front office made a bold move on draft day and traded up for Penn State linebacker Sean Lee. Lee had some major red flags after he tore his ACL in college, but that didn't prevent the Cowboys from taking him on draft day.
Then in 2011, the front office drafted UNC linebacker Bruce Carter in the second round. Carter was once considered a first-round talent, but he also suffered a ACL tear while at UNC. The Cowboys ignored the medical risks of both players and right now the Dallas war room looks pretty brilliant for taking the talented linebackers when they did.
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Lee eventually got into the starting lineup last year, and he never looked back. He developed into one of the fastest rising superstars at his position because he was such a great athlete, but he also had tremendous instincts. We all saw the transformation that Lee has taken since he first arrived in Dallas and you have to be proud of the type of player he is growing into.
Against the Seahawks, Lee tied a 41-year old franchise record when he recorded 21 tackles. Those are the official team numbers, which differ from the official NFL statistics, but the NFL officially gave Lee credit for 14 total tackles.
Lee was the leading tackler in the NFL before Carolina's James Anderson moved into the lead last night, but I am sure Lee will take the lead back after another great performance this Sunday.
As for tying Lee Roy Jordan for the franchise tackle record, Lee didn't think about it during the game.
"I’m just going out there playing, just play to play trying to make a play, reading my keys and running to the football," Lee said. "When you get in the game and you’re just playing, you don’t know. You don’t keep track of stuff like that."
Apparently Lee still doesn't consider himself a great linebacker. While I love the modesty, he does need to realize how good he has been since he entered the NFL. He is on a path to stardom, but Lee insists that he hasn't reached an elite level yet.
"The great middle linebackers that I want to emulate, that I’m trying to get to that level, are the guys who play with an unbelievable passion, who are extremely active, who find a way to get to the football no matter what, who want to be on the field no matter what," Lee said.
Whether he wants to admit it or not, it is comforting to know that Lee isn't developing a big ego. He is one of the hardest workers on this team, and he will do anything to win. After he took that crackback block from Golden Tate, Lee attempted to get his team fired up. Lee was seen fist bumping DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the defense, attempting to get them back on track emotionally.
Only after embracing his teammates did Lee go to the sideline and get himself checked out for a concussion. After he was cleared, Lee was right back in the game after only missing six snaps on defense.
The linebacker next to Lee is also beginning to make his presence felt in the Dallas defense. Second-year player Bruce Carter basically enjoyed a redshirt season in 2011, but now he is in the starting lineup. Carter is second on the Cowboys with 15 tackles. During the pre-season he looked a little hesitant, but now he is reading and reacting quickly. The improvement in his decision making is allowing Carter to make more plays on the football.
Carter was recently asked about how frustrating and difficult it must have been to be a spectator during his rookie season.
"It was definitely tough, especially not being able to play (defense) and coming in so late," Carter told FOXSports.com on Wednesday at team headquarters. "You just want to keep working, take mental reps and try and stay as focused as you can so when that time comes you'll be ready."
The athleticism of Lee and Carter give the Cowboys one of the best linebacker tandems in the game. The best in the game has to be the combination of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco, but Lee and Carter may be the second best pairing in the league. You know that Jerry Jones sits in bed at night and dreams that his linebackers will one day emulate what he is seeing in San Francisco.
"This is my dream,” Jones said. “It’s not exactly the prototype for the makeup of the two guys you’d want in the middle – you might want more of a thumper, a big guy, to go along with Sean Lee. But if we can keep both those guys out there, adjust our defense, we might be going toward Bowman and Willis area like they have in San Francisco.”
When you have athletic inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, it takes away the middle of the field in the passing game. We all know how much of a problem it was last year when James or Brooking got into the game. Teams picked on them, making it their priority to eat us up in the middle of the field.
Now when Lee and Carter on the field, teams cannot attack us like that anymore. When Dan Connor gets into the game, that's a whole other story, but at least our starters have a clear strength in coverage.
Another area that Lee and Carter thrive at is coming up and making plays in the run game. The way that the 3-4 defense is designed, the linebackers will make most of the tackles, while the defensive lineman take up the space and occupy the blockers. Lee and Carter are doing a great job of flying into the backfield and shaking off any blockers that get in their way.
I would love to see them step up their game as pass rushers, but I can't expect greatness out of them just yet, or can I? It's only been two games, but the "Bruce Lee" combination looks like it's going to have a huge year. So BTB, where does the combo stack up next to the rest of the NFL?