Bruce Carter and Sean Lee Can Be 2012's Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2012

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 01:   D.J. Ware #28 of the New York Giants runs with the ball against  Sean Lee #50 and  Bruce Carter #54 of the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on January 1, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys inside linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee have the potential to be the 2012 NFL season's version of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

In 2011, Bowman and Willis were the best inside linebacker tandem in the league, and their partnership turned a solid San Francisco 49ers defense into an elite and fearsome unit. Carter and Lee can do the same for Rob Ryan in Dallas, if last night's season-opening 24-17 win over the New York Giants is anything to go by.

The pair played a key role in wrecking any chance Big Blue had at establishing a credible ground game to take some of the burden off Eli Manning. Lee in particular was a standout, posting 10 solo tackles, two assists and forcing a vital first-quarter fumble from Giants top draft pick David Wilson.

Lee is arguably the NFL's best-kept secret. How else can it be explained that the dynamic 26-year-old is not regularly mentioned in conversations regarding the game's best linebackers?

Yes, he has only started one full season and is in just his third year as a pro, but that hasn't stopped Lee from establishing himself as a consistent playmaker at the heart of the Dallas defense.

He is smart, instinctive and athletic, and he has a knack for creating big plays. The ex-Penn State ace is also a punishing hitter, reads pass concepts very well and times his blitzes to perfection. What else could you want in a modern linebacker?

Lee has never looked back since announcing himself by intercepting two Peyton Manning passes and returning one for a touchdown to spark an upset win in Week 13 of the 2010 season. His intelligence and versatility are now the key components that help make Ryan's multiple schemes possible.

As good as Lee was last night, fellow youngster Bruce Carter turned heads with a solid outing. The former North Carolina star chipped in with five combined tackles and showcased the elite-level agility and speed that tempted the Cowboys to select him in the second round of the 2011 draft.

The Cowboys took a chance on Carter despite a lengthy injury history and were prepared to let him miss time as a rookie. Judging by last night's performance, their patience paid off.

Despite lacking prototypical size for the inside of a 3-4 front, Carter's exceptional sideline-to-sideline quickness makes him a force. He benefits from a massive defensive line and its ability to string plays out wide.

His pursuit instincts and closing speed are remarkable, and no running back ought to feel safe bouncing a play to the edges with Carter around. There are still rough parts to his game, and he did get lost in traffic a couple of times attempting to cover ex-Cowboy Martellus Bennett.

However, the raw physical attributes are certainly there, and they should get him out of trouble more often than not. Granted, a comparison to Bowman and Willis is a lofty one and obviously a little premature after just one game.

While it's also true that most of the attention on the Dallas defense will focus on cornerback tandem Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, there is enough evidence to suggest Carter and Lee can be the double act that really turns the Cowboys defense around.