When training camp began last month, inside linebacker Sean Lee wasn't even a sure thing to start for the Dallas Cowboys. But after three eye-popping games as their starter, the Cowboys announced Wednesday, Lee has been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month. Lee is the first Cowboys player to win this award since it was established in 1986.
The numbers that accompanied the release of this announcement are impressive. The Cowboys have credited Lee with a team-leading 36 tackles through three games. He also has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a tackle for a loss and three pass breakups. He's been a revelation at inside linebacker, reducing veteran Keith Brooking to something like an afterthought and symbolizing the effect new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had on the team.
I had thought that the Cowboys would struggle on defense early in the season as they worked to learn Ryan's complex new scheme -- that the Dallas defense, while talented, would be better in November than it was in September. But the Cowboys have been a very good defensive team so far -- particularly in the second halves of their past two games -- and Lee and the seamless way he seems to fit in with what Ryan is teaching are a big reason why.
Ryan's defense relies on ever-shifting looks and deception. A player like Lee is given an assignment -- be it cover the tight end, spy the running back, rush the passer, play a certain zone, whatever -- but is allowed freedom to determine how he wants to accomplish that assignment. He can line up wherever he wants, for instance, assuming he can get to where he needs to be in time to do his job. The player becomes part of the deception, doing his part to confuse the offense before the snap. And a player like Lee, who plays with speed and intensity and has the ability to put himself around the ball seemingly at all times, can thrive in that kind of a scheme.
Lee isn't the only one thriving. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and safety Abram Elam, who played for Ryan last year in Cleveland, also have shined. Linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins, two talented players who regressed last year after strong 2009 campaigns, have rebounded. And DeMarcus Ware, likely the best player Ryan has ever had on one of his defenses, remains an unparalleled pass-rushing force. But Lee has been the battery, the spark plug, the main cog in the Cowboys' defensive machine so far this year, patrolling the middle of the field with unrelenting energy and disrupting offenses at every turn. A well-deserved award, to be sure.