IRVING, Texas – He leads the league in tackles, but Sean Lee doesn't consider himself a great linebacker.
The prototype of a hard-nosed, old-school linebacker, Lee may not make every stop look flashy, but by the end of the game, he always seems to be ahead of the pack. Sunday against Seattle, the NFL listed him at 14 combined tackles, while the Cowboys tallied him at 21 based on coaches' film.
Still, Lee said he doesn't consider himself elite. While numbers may dispute that, he has an idea what he has to do to reach the level he strives for at his position – if he's not already there.
"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.
His description sounds an awful lot like himself. After Golden Tate delivered a devastating block on Lee in the fourth quarter that earned the Seahawks receiver a fine from the league, Lee returned to the field to make two tackles later in the drive.
But Lee said he's still got work to do to reach the status of Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher – two linebackers he singled out as players he reveres.
"That's something I've really tried to pride myself in," Lee said. "Obviously, I don't see myself as a great linebacker, but I'm trying to work and emulate guys who are great."
His admiration and veneration for the league's best linebackers carry back to the 1970s, before Lee was even born, when Jack Ham donned a Steelers uniform and was named to eight straight Pro Bowls.
Lee followed the same path as Ham, who began as an All-America linebacker at Penn State. The man who plays a style like an old school linebacker holds a deep reverence for the former All-Pro.
"That was a big deal for me, trying to be like Jack Ham, going to Penn State, trying to emulate a guy like that who's a Hall of Famer and won four Super Bowls," Lee said.
Lee said he also feels a duty to the Cowboys to uphold the rich history of linebackers who have made their way through Dallas.
Head coach Jason Garrett said Lee is already preserving the tradition with his physical style in just his second full season as a starter.
"What you want from your linebackers is an ability to shed and make tackles, and he's able to do that," Garrett said. "He's also a very good pass defender. He's a good athlete. He can make plays on the ball. He's a leader of our defense."
Coaches and players talk about Lee like he's a 10-year veteran. Garrett said the leadership Lee displays at the age of 26 is unparalleled. Everything Lee does, he wants it done well. He's constantly in the film room or studying the game, which Garrett said translates to Sundays.
When he steps on the field, there's not a player who's more concentrated. Garrett said he's always asked if Lee is a vocal leader – the guy running up and down the sidelines and screaming.
"It's more about intensity," Garrett said. "It's like the old-time Mike linebackers, some of those great names in NFL history. You almost feel like they have a little bit of a screw loose they're so intense."
Lee would describe his appetite for the game differently.
"I don't think I have a screw loose," Lee said. "I have a passion for the game. I love playing football."