FRISCO, Texas – Last January, DeMarcus Lawrence underwent back surgery for the second year in a row after the injury limited him to only nine games in 2016.
This January, Lawrence has earned an invite to Orlando for his first career Pro Bowl appearance.
Sean Lee has another title for his teammate besides 'Pro Bowler':
Lee is often labeled the most valuable player on the Cowboys' defense, and the numbers don't lie. Dallas is 8-1 with him in the lineup this season and 0-5 without him.
But Lee believes Lawrence is the one who sets the tone for the defense up front – not just with sacks, where he ranks third in the NFL with 13.5 – but critical plays that don't always jump off the stat sheet.
"Not only rushing the passer," Lee said, "but when you turn the tape on you look at how he plays in the run game, the effort that he plays with. He has been unbelievable this year and deserves all the credit in the world."
Health has been the biggest key to Lawrence's breakout fourth season. In 2016, he missed the first four games due to suspension and could have opted for back surgery later in the season.
He felt he owed it to his teammates to keep playing.
"There really was not a long conversation," head coach Jason Garrett said. "It was, 'I've got this information, I'm playing.' He made that determination. He had all of the facts in front of him and he went to work every week and battled and scratched and clawed and had a very positive impact on the game and a very positive impact on his teammates."
The sacks are nice, but Lawrence has consistently pushed the pocket even when he hasn't brought down opposing quarterbacks. His 45 pressures (according to coaches' film) lead the defense. With two games left in the regular season, that's the highest total by a Cowboys pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware posted 45 pressures in 2009.
Coaches and teammates say Lawrence sets a standard with hustle plays in the run game, too. He leads the defense with four forced fumbles and ranks first among Cowboys linemen with six tackles for loss.
"You'll see him make plays on the other side of the field, running it down 20, 30 yards downfield," Lee said.
That production is based on a commitment to being a complete player in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's scheme.
"I take a lot of pride in it," Lawrence said. "This is not a one-dimensional system. Playing for Rod, you have to be able to do everything in all areas. I have to set the edge to the defense, make it easier so your linebackers don't have to run all the way across the field, and also rush the passer. I feel like it's very important to do everything the right way in order to win games."
The Cowboys (8-6) still have a chance at a wild-card spot if they can extend their three-game winning streak Sunday at home against fellow postseason hopeful Seattle (8-6). Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson presents a unique challenge for the defense as the NFL's second-leading touchdown passer (30) and second-leading rusher among quarterbacks (521 yards).
Lawrence, who has not missed a start this season, was held out of practice Wednesday with some back soreness, but Garrett said Thursday morning that he took part in the pre-practice walkthrough and was feeling better. (Update: Lawrence returned to practice on a limited basis.) They certainly need him for the remainder of this December playoff push.
"He just plays the game the right way," Garrett said.