Bill Belichick is getting ready for another All-Pro caliber linebacker in Sean Lee. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
FOXBORO — Two weeks ago, Bill Belichick lauded the skill and tenacity of veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny before the Patriots went out and chewed up the Jacksonville Jaguars for 51 points in a blowout win at Gillette Stadium.
In that game, it was clear early on that while Belichick certainly respected Posluszny he wasn’t afraid to go right at him. On the first drive of the game, there was Rob Gronkowski not once but twice running at or past Posluszny for the first 53 yards of the game. The first time, Gronk caught a 10-yarder from Tom Brady over the middle and the linebacker caught him. The second time, no such luck as Gronkowski went for 43 yards.
This is what Belichick said of Posluszny before that game: “[His] interception against Carolina was a real athletic play. A lot of players wouldn’t have even made that play. He went up, stretched high for the ball ‘ he looked like a receiver catching it. He’s got good length, he’s got very good instincts in the running game and the passing game, and just overall, his timing of blitzes with the quarterback cadence, being able to get his momentum running up into the line of scrimmage, things like that. Smart player, productive in the run, productive in the passing game, obviously controls their defense and their communication as it applies, as they need to do that. And he’s had a great career. He’s a good player.
“Posluszny, in particular, is very instinctive. He’ll play one play one way and the next play a little bit differently based on the situation, based on the personnel. He’s just a smart player, very productive.”
Now, fast forward two weeks to the Dallas Cowboys and 29-year-old Sean Lee. The linebacker, like Posluszny, came from “Linbacker U” a.k.a. Penn State. Lee is also an invaluable anchor in the middle of a much deeper defense in Dallas, with names like Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain returning this weekend.
What makes Lee so remarkable is what he’s had to overcome. In OTAs in 2014, Lee tore his ACL for the third time in his career immediately prior to being blocked to the ground by rookie offensive lineman Zack Martin. In 2008, he had a similar injury in a similar activity at Penn State.
Now, heading into the game against the Patriots, there’s another health issue. While making a tackle on Ben Watson last Sunday night in New Orleans, Lee strained his neck and suffered a concussion. He left and did not return. He did not practice Wednesday, though team executive vice president Stephen Jones indicated this week the team was hopeful to have him ready for this weekend.
Lee was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his Week 2 performance, which included 14 tackles and an interception, in the Cowboys’ 20-10 victory in Philadelphia.
“Really, Sean is probably one of the most instinctive linebackers in the league, maybe as instinctive as probably anybody I could think of,” Belichick raved. “He’s got a great nose for the ball, has a good anticipation in both the running game and the passing game, shows up in the right place at the right time, just really knows what’s happening a lot of times before it occurs. The interception he had against Philadelphia is one of the best plays you’ll see, trying to just turn around, find the guy, go to him, make the interception, but he’s made those plays throughout his career. He’s got 12 career interceptions. That’s a lot for a linebacker, especially given the number of games he’s played.”
Then Belichick shared something else about Lee. The Patriots coach has known the Western Pennsylvania native a lot longer than just from his days at Penn State.
“He’s a kid that came up and visited us when I was in Cleveland, [he was in] Pittsburgh, I remember him when he was just a little guy,” Belichick said. “He’s a heck of a football player, really smart, really instinctive and very productive. He’s a Pittsburgh guy ‘ friend of a friend kind of thing. He came out to practices a couple times. He wasn’t the star that he is now.
“It seems like he makes 10 tackles every game. I mean, I don’t know what the numbers are, but he’s in on a lot of plays and he’s got his hands on a lot of balls.”
Lee had three tackles Sunday night before leaving the game. He leads the Cowboys with 36 tackles in the three-plus games he’s played. If he’s active on Sunday, the Patriots figure to be ready again.