Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Sean Lee of Dallas were the All-Pro leaders of their defenses at linebacker the previous time the Seahawks and Cowboys made the playoffs.
Little has changed for Wagner’s group in two years. Not much is the same in the middle of the Dallas defense going into the first postseason meeting between these teams since the 2006 season.
Wagner is still among the NFL leaders in tackles, according to SportRadar, and perhaps headed to his third straight All-Pro selection. Joining him among those leading tacklers? Not Lee, but Cowboys rookie Leighton Vander Esch .
And that’s only the half of it with Dallas (10-6), which will host the Seahawks (10-6) in a wild-card game Saturday night. Jaylon Smith is the other under-25 linebacker getting most of the attention , while Lee’s presence almost feels like an afterthought in another injury-plagued year for the two-time Pro Bowler.
“I think when you have two young guys who are playing are playing at a Pro Bowl caliber, in years past, missing the time, you’d probably be, ‘Hey I need to be back to help this team,'” Lee said. “When you have guys like that playing that well, you know you can take your time.”
The 28-year-old Wagner, drafted two years after Lee but four years younger, doesn’t sound like someone willing to wait around for anyone anytime soon. Asked if he was ever a sloppy tackler, Wagner started his reply with, “Sloppy tackler?”
“Maybe when I was an infant and I was barely walking,” said Wagner, the only player with fewer than five missed tackles (he has one) among those with at least 100 tackles this season, according to SportRadar. “Legs weren’t fully developed yet.”
It was never Lee’s style for that sort of brash answer, even in his prime.
But now the questions are about how many snaps he needs to feel comfortable in a playoff game after missing six of the last eight games in the regular season and nine overall with two hamstring injuries. Or about whether he will even have a prominent role now that he’s healthy.
“Sean Lee is someone who can have a huge impact on our team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Those other guys have played awfully well also, so we’ll work it out as the week goes on.”
In the past, there wasn’t anything to work out when Lee was ready to return from injury. While a knee injury sidelined him for all of the most recent season in which the Cowboys won a playoff game (2014), Lee was the best defensive player for the NFC’s top seed in 2016.
Dallas lost a divisional playoff to Green Bay at home to finish the only one of Lee’s nine seasons in which he didn’t miss a game because of injury, while the Seahawks fell in the same round to Atlanta.
Lee has missed nearly half the games since then because of hamstring issues, but is praised for how he has mentored Vander Esch and Smith, by far the team’s top two tacklers.
“You come into the meetings so excited because you see these young guys at the beginning of their career wanting to do everything to help this team,” Lee said. “And you see yourself in them when you were young. I try to help them, but they also help me with their energy.”
Smith was a rookie rehabbing a knee injury from his final game at Notre Dame when Dallas made the playoffs two years ago. Vander Esch still hadn’t started a game at Boise State, just a couple of years removed from walking on there after playing eight-man high school football in tiny Riggins, Idaho.
Now the Cowboys are just trying to find Lee playing time among those two.
“You go to one side of the field and one guy is flying over and making a tackle for loss and then you try the other side, and the other guy is making a tackle for loss,” Wagner said of his young counterparts. “Every time one of them makes a play, they’re the first one congratulating them and to me, that’s fun to watch.”
Don’t think the Cowboys haven’t noticed Wagner, particularly since they have just one touchdown combined the past three times they’ve faced his defense.
“Turn on the tape,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “He’s an elite linebacker, and he’s been that way for a long time. He’s the quarterback of their defense. He knows for the most part the offense’s formations and the things that they like to do out of that and that puts him ahead of the game.”
Source: The Associated Press