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As much as Cowboys missed Sean Lee's production, they needed his presence even more

FRISCO, Texas -- Sean Lee had his first practice in nearly a month on Wednesday. To say the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker was excited would be an understatement.

"I think he might’ve tackled a couple of guys," fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "He’s ready to be back. He’s moving around. If you watched him [Wednesday], you would’ve thought he’s been there the whole time. He’s rolling again and I’m excited to play with him again."

Lee missed most of the past four games with a strained hamstring he suffered in the first quarter of the Nov. 12 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. With the Cowboys playing three games within 12 days, there was hardly a chance Lee would have been able to play against the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers or Washington Redskins, no matter how far the Cowboys’ season fell into peril.

He also missed two games earlier in the season with a hamstring strain and if not for the team's Oct. 15 bye, he would have missed three games then, too.

The Cowboys clearly missed Lee. In the five games he didn't start, the defense allowed more rushing yards (680) than in the seven he did start (614), including just the one full series he played against the Falcons. They have allowed 23.8 points per game without Lee, taking away the touchdowns given up on turnovers by Dallas' offense, and 18.3 points per game with him.

As important as Lee’s production is to the defense, the Cowboys missed his presence.

“His leadership, his ability to communicate, get everybody aligned, handle the different situations that come up in a game -- whether it’s a unique personnel group or unique formation -- he’s a very good communicator and does a good job of getting everybody where they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to do,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a really respected leader by how he plays, how he prepares, and ultimately the production that he has. But also because of the kind of guy he is.”

Without Lee, the Cowboys had to reconfigure their linebacker spots. Hitchens moved to weakside linebacker. Justin Durant started at middle linebacker for two games, but he suffered a concussion on Thanksgiving against the Chargers. Jaylon Smith started at middle linebacker against Washington, but the Cowboys were more mindful of his snaps than during Lee’s first absence.

Having Lee back allows the Cowboys to get into a set rotation -- if they want -- at linebacker.

“His smarts for the game, him seeing stuff, reading stuff, him calling stuff out there, tackles, everything that comes with being a linebacker, you can’t go wrong,” Hitchens said. “It’s all going to be positive with him in there. So we’re looking forward to it.”

Yes, Hitchens said Lee calls out plays. He paid the price once for not listening to him. It happened last year against the Detroit Lions when Lee told him to slide over before the snap. Hitchens didn’t and the Lions had an easy run for a touchdown.

“He sees stuff throughout the game,” Hitchens said. “Once we get in the games, some linemen will be light on their hands, a little deeper back in the backfield. He just picks up on things like that. From that day forward, I tell you what: I’ve listened every time he said where the ball is going. And he said if he’s ever wrong, he’ll take the blame in the meeting room.”