By Schuyler Dixon
The Associated Press
OXNARD, Calif. — Sean Lee dismisses talk of how good the Dallas defense could be if he and Bruce Carter started together at linebacker for a full season.
It hasn’t happened yet. So until it does — and until the Cowboys get back to the playoffs — Lee’s not listening.
“Until you win a Super Bowl, until you’ve got it on tape week to week, it means nothing,” Lee said. “That’s all hype. If we lean on that hype, we’re never going to be good.”
The Cowboys are counting on this playmaking pair to be good.
Dallas won three straight games last season when both were sidelined by season-ending injuries — Lee with a badly damaged toe in the sixth game at Carolina and Carter with a dislocated elbow on Thanksgiving against Washington.
But the defense ultimately faltered without them. The Cowboys couldn’t stop Drew Brees’ passing game and got run over by Washington rookie Alfred Morris in a pair of season-ending losses that kept them out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
Carter and Lee aren’t watching anymore, though.
They’re at the center of a defensive makeover that started soon after the season, when the Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with Monte Kiffin so they could return to the more linebacker-friendly 4-3 defense after nearly a decade in the 3-4.
“When you’re playing the 4-3 defense, those ... (linebackers) are protected a little bit more,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They gotta get to the football and make plays.”
Both have shown they can. Lee has a knack for interceptions, something that was sorely missing last season on a defense that tied a franchise low with seven. Lee has that many in 35 career games, a high number for a linebacker.
Carter could have led the Cowboys in tackles last season if he hadn’t been injured. His strength is speed, and he’ll get his best chance to show it in the new scheme because one of the weakside linebacker’s biggest jobs is running down plays away from him.
“I think guys are doing it well,” Carter said. “Coaches kind of introduced us a little slow just to get guys the whole grasp of the whole scheme. Now we’re out here just flying around, getting to the ball.”
Carter and Lee joined the Cowboys a year apart and followed similar paths.
Both were second-round draft picks who played quite a bit as rookies but never started. Both earned starting jobs going into their second seasons. When Lee injured his toe last year, Carter took over the defensive play-calling on the field.
Even though he missed the final five games, Carter’s first season as a starter did plenty to help him prepare for a leading role.
“A whole lot more comfortable,” he said. “The more years you play, the more experience you gain, it just makes the game a lot slower for you. Especially for me, a guy coming off an injury.”
Lee has missed at least one game in each of his three seasons after an injury-filled career at Penn State.
Last year’s injury — when he got his foot stuck awkwardly in a pile — came after he had a career-high 21 tackles against Seattle and just a week after he tripled his career best in quarterback pressures with six.
Lee uses the word “urgency” a lot. He shows it in practice, too, chasing running backs and receivers and swiping at the ball long after the whistle blows and griping at referees over where the ball should be spotted in short-yardage work.
He doesn’t disagree that it’s on him and Carter to lead the way.
“We have to get better, and we have to get better fast,” Lee said. “If we want this defense to be good, there are a lot of parts that need to play well. But me and Bruce need to step our game up.”
Lee says Carter shares his view that the talk means nothing. That’s not news to linebackers coach Matt Eberflus.
“They work hand-in-hand,” Eberflus said. “They’re like two peas in a pod.”
Notes: The Cowboys signed a pair of offensive linemen in TCU’s Jeff Olson and UTEP’s James Nelson after a couple of training setbacks at guard. Kevin Kowalski is out at least two weeks with a knee bruise, and Nate Livings is dealing with knee soreness after missing the first week of camp with a foot problem. ... CB Morris Claiborne returned Thursday after missing Tuesday’s workouts with a migraine. He missed a minicamp practice in June with the same issue.
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