When you think of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, what do you think of? Your first thought probably takes you to DeMarcus Ware and how he has consistently been among the most destructive pass rushers in the league. You might then consider the exotic scheme Rob Ryan runs and whether it got the best out of his players last year. After that it seems logical to turn your attention to a secondary that has added numerous players, or an emerging middle linebacker like Sean Lee who impressed so often in 2011.
It’s probably sometime before you might think about a former 2010 seventh-round pick drafted out of William & Mary. A guy who has only managed 292 snaps on defense (including plays wiped out by penalty). A player with just three career sacks to his name.
But that guy has shown–in what limited opportunity he has had–that he can play. That’s why Sean Lissemore is our Dallas Cowboys Secret Superstar.
From Big Fish to Big Pond
William & Mary isn’t going to be confused with any of the college football powerhouses. Indeed, since 1943 it’s only had 67 players drafted–most notably Darren Sharper who would go onto make the All-Decade team for the 2000′s and win a Super Bowl. It doesn’t have a great history of having multiple players selected in the same draft so it was something of a success story for the program to have two go in 2010 after Derek Cox had been selected in Round 3 a year earlier.
The first player selected was Adrian Tracy in in the sixth round (by the Giants) and then, with the 234th overall selection, the intriguing Lissemore who had caught teams’ eyes leading up to the draft (including visiting with the New York Giants). The Cowboys made him their man, but with a stacked defensive line rotation, it seemed like he’d do well just to make a roster that already had players like Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen, and Jason Hatcher to name but a few.
His chances weren’t helped with a strained groin, but he struggled through and made the roster. He even earned himself some playing time as a rookie when in Week 8 he got on the field for nine snaps, registering a sack and two defensive stops. Incredibly productive, but he wouldn’t see any more action for the rest of the year because of a high ankle sprain that cost him six weeks and eventually landed him on injured reserve. As a seventh-round pick with just nine snaps to his name, he’d have to prove himself all over again to a new defensive coaching staff.
Making an Impact
Prove himself he did, because while some may have seen him on the roster bubble, he would go on to play in every single game of the 2011 season. It started slowly with just 16 snaps combined in his first two games, but after that he’d see double digits in every game with five appearances of at least 20 snaps. It left him playing 283 plays all told and while that was a relatively small number, it gave him more than enough opportunity to show what he could do.
When all was said and done Lissemore has earned a +13.8 grade, good enough for third overall on the Dallas defense, with the highest individual run grade. This didn’t come with one standout performance, but with a series of consistent performance where he showed an ability to get off blocks and make plays against the run. A fierce competitor with a knack for finding the ball carrier, he picked up 14 defensive stops on 107 plays in run defense, as good as any 3-4 defensive end who played over 100 run D snaps.
It wasn’t just that these came against sub-standard offensive linemen. Our top-ranked guard in 2011 Evan Mathis was beaten for a couple of tackles, while talents like Daryn Colledge and Trent Williams found the Cowboy hard to contend with one-on-one. It came as no surprise to us when Cowboys defensive line coach Brian Baker called Lissemore the defense’s most productive player per play in 2011. He lamented not playing him more as he went back over the tape, and it’s something that suggests that, if healthy, he’ll be in for a bigger role with the upcoming season.
The stats certainly indicate this but what the young defensive tackle brings to the table can’t just be quantified with box stats. He’s a player who doesn’t let offensive linemen open up running lanes and one who has flashed the ability to be more than just an early-down defender. While you can watch him pick up a tackle for a loss on a player like Mike Pouncey (Week 12, Q4 9:10 to go) and think “Wow”, it’s the consistency of making plays where he drives linemen back and re-directs runners that make him someone who could prove pretty special. Davin Joseph, one of the league’s priciest guards, felt this firsthand as Lissemore manhandled him 4:35 to go in the 2nd quarter of the Cowboys over the Bucs in Week 15.
As big a compliment as you can give his efforts is that he made so many plays you thought he was on the field more than he actually was.
Sky is the Limit
So what does Sean Lissemore have to do to become more than just a Secret Superstar? The simple answer is ‘more of the same’. The only thing that held him back in 2011 was how much he was on the field. That said, when he did see his most extensive action (45 snaps versus the Giants in Week 14) he didn’t step up his performance, instead producing one of his more mundane efforts (+0.3). So for Lissemore to really take that next step, he needs to carry through that production while maintaining a larger role. If he can there’s no reason why he couldn’t be pushing for a starting spot at some point in 2012.
Until he’s able to do that, he’ll likely remain something of a secret, but no less a superstar for how effective he is on a per-play basis.