Sean Lee's study habits are paying off

IRVING, Texas -- Sean Lee must have an understanding girlfriend.

During the week, he will arrive at the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility at 6:45 a.m. He does not pack up for home until 12 hours later. After dinner, but before he calls it a night, he will study some more.

"Out of season's great," Lee said. "There's plenty of time. In season, she understands."

In only his second season, Lee's maniacal ways have become legendary. He borders on the obsessive, although his locker is hardly the sign of a neat freak. As a rookie, he would beat himself up over every small misstep, expecting perfection. This season, he has become the signal-caller of the Cowboys' defense.

The defensive coaches have credited Lee with 72 tackles in the first six games. Keith Brooking is second with 31 tackles, according to the coaches. Lee also leads the team with three interceptions and is second on the team with five pass deflections. He has recovered two fumbles and made four tackles for loss.

"Sean Lee's playing pretty well, no question about that," coach Jason Garrett said.

Such brevity leads you to wonder whether the coach does not want the young linebacker to get a big head just six games into the season.

"Sometimes we use understatements to make a point," Garrett joked.

Brooking was a little more effusive when he was questioned about his increased work on special teams.

"We've got a guy playing linebacker better than anybody I've ever seen in a very, very long time," Brooking said.

When Lee picked off Tom Brady two weeks ago, he became only the second linebacker to intercept Brady and Peyton Manning. Donnie Edwards is the other. Lee was credited with 19 tackles against New England, including 15 solo stops, which is second most in team history and the most since Dexter Coakley had 15 against Seattle on Oct. 20, 2002.

His preparedness has led some to compare Lee to another Dallas middle linebacker, Dat Nguyen, whom Bill Parcells once labeled a "football playing dude."

"I've heard about him," Lee said. "Some guys said he could call out most plays before they happened. I remember watching him and his toughness and how much intensity he brought to the game. He was a leader. For me, I've still got a lot to learn before I'll ever be like that and call out plays like that. I'm not calling out plays."

The study habits started at Penn State, following guys such as Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny, and only increased after he watched Bradie James and Brooking last season as a rookie.

"Not many nights when I'm walking down these halls late, late at night [and] he is not in there watching tape," Garrett said. "He cares a great deal about it. I think he's a natural football player. He's very instinctive. He sees things and reacts, and is able to make plays both in the run game and the pass game. The more snaps he gets, he's only going to get better and better and better. We love how he's going about it."

But it's more than just how he goes about it. There is athleticism and skill that often gets overlooked when a player is said to be instinctive and hard working, much like Jason Witten.

Lee weaved through 31 yards of traffic for a touchdown after intercepting Manning last season in Indianapolis. He had a 37-yard return against the New York Jets in the season opener that set up a touchdown.

"I'd like to say I was a good running back but I know I'll be made fun of by the guys," Lee said.

Lee ran for 1,240 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. He was a three-year starter at point guard, and averaged 21.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He was named to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Fabulous 22 football team and Fabulous Five basketball team.

"Actually until I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to play basketball in college," Lee said. "I just wasn't quick enough. The guy I played against in basketball when I knew I couldn't play Division I was Darrelle Revis. We'd play at Duquesne with our AAU teams, and he'd wreck me. That was a Division I basketball player. I wasn't at that level."

Revis has turned into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks for the New York Jets.

Lee is turning into one of the NFL's best young inside linebackers, and he is not about to change his routine.

"I know how long it takes me to be ready for a game and feel comfortable," Lee said. "For me, a guy who has to know the defense and make the calls, I want to make sure I know as much as possible. If you're a middle linebacker making the calls, you have to know your stuff. I want the defense to have confidence in me. That's why I study so much."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.