Phillips: Lee's Pro Bowl Snub Is More Motivation For An Underrated Defense

FRISCO, Texas – Guessing that by now, Sean Lee has stopped film study long enough to learn of his Pro Bowl snub.

Only kidding. Sort of.

In all seriousness, I can imagine the news is highly disappointing to the Cowboys' indefatigable defensive captain. His first career Pro Bowl appearance this past January carried a lot of personal significance coming off an ACL injury that wiped out his entire 2014 season.

This year, Lee should have been among the five linebackers, period – regardless of the outside or inside linebacker designation – selected to the NFC squad. Only Seattle's Bobby Wagner, an NFC starter, has more tackles in the league than Lee's 140, according to NFL.com. Lee has 168 team-credited tackles and hasn't missed a defensive snap in 14 games.

His 18-tackle game Dec. 11 in primetime against the New York Giants (a Cowboys-record 22 tackles, according to coaches' film) should have sealed a second straight spot in the annual all-star game.

Let me offer a silver lining or two.

The Cowboys, at 12-2, will be among five playoff teams competing to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI. If they're successful, none of the five Cowboys' Pro Bowlers (Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin) will be in Orlando. Lee and the entire team will be preparing for the biggest game of their lives.

And there's this thought: perhaps Lee's snub will offer a fresh source of motivation for an underrated Cowboys defense heading into the final two games of the regular season and the postseason.

No Pro Bowlers from that side of the ball, though disappointing, underscores how the defense has exceeded expectations and defied criticism all season long: as an understated but pretty efficient unit.

Believe me, they've heard the talk since training camp. No lineman has ever produced double-digit sacks in a season. Not enough big plays from the secondary. A franchise-low 11 takeaways a year ago. In fact, Lee is the only player with a Pro Bowl appearance.

This year, Rod Marinelli's defense won't wow you with statistical marvels. Tyrone Crawford's 4.5 sacks and Barry Church's two interceptions lead the group. Dallas is 13th in total defense, allowing 345.6 yards per game. They're tied for 16th with 18 takeaways.

Style points don't really matter, though. The most important measurement is how many points you allow.

The Cowboys are tied for fourth in scoring defense, allowing 18.4 points per game. And, despite their bend-but-please-don't-break label, that average has dropped to 15 points over the last three games.  

That has been the biggest triumph for Marinelli's defense this season: getting off the field in critical situations and holding offenses to zero and three points instead of seven.

Oh, here's another stat that deserves attention: the Cowboys have the NFL's leading rusher, Elliott, but their defense is the only unit in the league that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in a single game this season. Sean Lee has plenty to do with that.

Maybe the defense uses his exclusion from the Pro Bowl roster as fuel. If their defensive captain can't make it, maybe they still haven't gotten enough respect and recognition for their contributions to the league's best record.

Maybe they'll just have to continue earning respect in December and January.

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