- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

IRVING, TEXAS (AP) - Sean Lee was everywhere in the Dallas Cowboys‘ opener.

One play, he’d be crashing through the line to harass the Jets’ quarterback and running backs.

On the next, he’d be dropping into coverage, doing it in such a sneaky way that he intercepted a pass and returned it just shy of the goal line.

And when it was time for special teams, he was usually out there, too.

It was the kind of high-octane, high-performance outing the Cowboys expected when they drafted Lee last year, and a great way for him to start his second season. It also was pretty exhausting.

“I was gassed a lot during the game,” Lee said Thursday. “But it’s one of those things where the atmosphere was so much fun, the game was close, I wasn’t going to try to come out.”

Now that Lee has cracked the starting lineup, he could be sticking around for years to come. In the latest example of this season being the start of a youth movement, his ironman outing in the opener left veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking splitting time at the other inside linebacker spot.

Brooking missed much of training camp with an injury, giving Lee the opportunity he needed. Coaches thought he was ready to handle more responsibility and he clearly showed them he could.

“We talk about the passion, emotion and enthusiasm of our team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think he embodied that and represented that well for 60 minutes, on defense and in the kicking game.”

Days later, Lee is still embodying everything Garrett wants. Asked about the message he sent with his play against the Jets, Lee said: “It doesn’t mean anything; we lost.”

“You want to have a good game and win at the same time,” he said. “For me, I look at the tape and see things I can do better. You try to stay even keel. I know there were some good things I did, but at the same time you want to improve on it and you want to win.”

The Cowboys took Lee in the second round of last year’s draft out of Penn State because they saw a guy who loved football and loved playing it the right way. Other teams saw it all, too, but he was still available at the 55th pick because of questions about his knees.

Dallas traded up to get him there, but considered it a steal from the start. According to the club’s draft board, he was worth taking in the middle of the first round.

Lee’s intensity and ability prompted comparisons to Brooking from the start. Even Brooking saw it. The rest of the NFL got a glimpse in December, when he snagged two interceptions off Peyton Manning, returning one for a touchdown and the other setting up a game-winning field goal in overtime.

“I’ve said all along the sky’s the limit for Sean,” Brooking said this week. “He’s very instinctive. I think just the more reps he gets, the more familiar with the defense he gets, you’re just going to see him continue to progress. He’s extremely intelligent, he works his tail off. So, yeah. He’s going to be a heck of a football player.”

The only thing Brooking doesn’t like about the kid is that he’s taking away his job.

Brooking estimated that he played about 25 snaps Sunday, the fewest he could remember in a game when he was healthy. His only action came in relief of James.

“(Lee) deserves his chance. He’s proved that he can do it,” Brooking said. “I accept my role regardless. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be out on the field more. … Regardless of who’s out there, it’s a luxury that we have the three inside linebackers we have right now in that rotation. Regardless of who’s out there, we feel pretty darn good about what’s going to take place.”

Brooking will keep working as if he’s the starter, and Lee plans to keep watching the veteran, asking questions and learning all he can from him.

“His approach to the game, his demeanor, the way he practices every day, how he plays things, how he sees things _ he really is a true linebacker in every facet,” Lee said. “He’s the pinnacle of what I want to be.”

Again, that’s more of what Garrett loves to see and hear.

“He has tremendous intensity in everything he does,” Garrett said. “You watch him in a meeting, you watch him in a walkthrough, you watch him on the practice field, you watch him playing the game _ there is one way to go about it. The best players I have been around have that attitude and have that way about them, so we have seen that right from the start.”

Notes: WR Dez Bryant (thigh) didn’t practice for a second straight day, but is expected to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. … CBs Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick won’t play against the 49ers. Newman (groin) hasn’t practiced since early August, but Garrett had been hopeful he would be cleared this week. The Cowboys need him, too, because Scandrick (ankle) could be out several weeks and Mike Jenkins battled through various injuries last week. … LG Bill Nagy didn’t practice because of a neck problem, making it likely that recently signed veteran Derrick Dockery will start Sunday.

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