Coming into the Week 1 matchup with the New York Giants, the Cowboys had numerous issues and questions about their defensive line. Without Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, new additions George Selvie and Nick Hayden would have to hold up as starters on an injury depleted defensive line with little known depth. Both earned their Stars on Sunday night.
With Spencer seemingly ready for an early return in Week 2 and George Selvie providing some flashes during the preseason, the much bigger question mark was how Hayden would hold up as the 1tech with Ratliff on the PUP list and unavailable for the foreseeable future. While I do not want to discount Selvie's performance from the Week 1 game, where he provided consistent pressure and a few big plays, I was even more excited to see the potential of Nick Hayden under the tutelage of Marinelli.
Hayden's biggest play of the night was a solid tackle on David Wilson, where he fought off a block to make the tackle and not only used his leverage and momentum to ensure a judo throw-down tackle, but was clearly wrestling away the football throughout the process of the take down. It was a phenomenal play and a hard-fought and well-earned fumble, not some mistake from a fumble prone player.
But before that point, I was already greatly impressed with Hayden's Week 1 performance and the hope it provided for the future of the Cowboys defensive line...with or without Ratliff in the second half of the season.
There was one big play that may go unnoticed in a game with so many turnovers. In the first quarter, after two turnovers, the Giants are relieved to find themselves behind only 3 -0 and start their drive with a 13 yard rush by David Wilson. With a 1st and 10 on the 50 yard line, the Giants look to him again in hopes of sparking a scoring drive. They call a very clever run design that could have been a disaster for Dallas.
The Giants line up with only one receiver wide left and Wilson alone deep in the back field; meanwhile, they are showing a "strong unit" bunch formation on the right side with two tight ends and a fullback. The Cowboys respond by shifting the linebackers to the strong side and bringing safety Will Allen down to the line of scrimmage. With 20/20 hindsight, the Giants now have a strong advantage on this run play having fooled the Cowboys defense and gaining an advantage on the play side.
At the snap, Kiffin must have been worried. He has called for a stunt where Ware and Cohen crash into the line and Hayden stunts around to take on the edge. But with the LBs and a Safety playing for a strong side play, the Giants have pulled three blockers and are running a pitch wide to the weak side. Already the Giants have a strategic advantage.
The Giants have sent their LT to the second level to seal out the linebackers and pulled their RG, TE, and FB as lead blockers to the weak side. While Selvie makes a great play to split his blocker and a chip from the in-line TE, Ware has been caught on the inside of the play due to the stunt call and Hayden looks caught up in the wash. Things look grim for the Cowboys, but their athletic linebackers - and apparently athletic 1tech - manage to save what first appears to be a disastrous situation.
While Ware and Selvie do a phenomenal job in their assignments and trying to be disruptive 5 yards in the backfield, the pitch has provided Wilson with an easy path to get around the corner. But then the tides turn. Not only does Hayden manage to get away from the logjam that seemed to threaten the stunt, he has already read the play and placed Wilson in his sights...but if the Giants could run the play as they had originally intended, he would not be able to make a play. Instead, Lee and Carter do a phenomenal job avoiding the LT and the lead block from the pulling FB and getting to the outside of the play despite being fooled into lining up closer to the strong side and far away from the playside sideline.
Because TE #83 is expecting the pitch to take the run out wide, he leaves the free DT and goes for his assignment to lead block after the RB gets around the edge. What Myers doesn't know is that Carter and Lee have forced Wilson to cut the play up the seam, where he apparently didn't notice Selvie taking position or because he thought he could easily juke a DT in open space. But he was wrong...
With a little help from his friends, Selvie gets the chance to break down and make a solid open field tackle on a shifty and fast running back. This play could have been terrible for the Cowboys, where they were at a strategic disadvantage with the Giants ready to seize momentum after surviving two turnovers. Instead, the defense does a great job to work past the difficult situation and Hayden made a great tackle. What at first seemed like a big gain for the Giants ended up forcing a second and ten, and helping set up the third and ten interception by Will Allen.
Now, despite the importance of the play, I was at first just impressed with Hayden's display of athleticism, play recognition, and open-field tackle. But where he really stood out in his ability as a 1tech DT came at an even more important time in the game. And while he got no statistical reward for an incredible job on the Cowboys goal line stand after the Giants returned the interception to the one yard line, he showed he could have a bright future as a NT for Marinelli's rushmen.
On first and goal from the one yard line, you want your nose tackle to get as low as possible and create a push from the middle of the trenches. However, you usually don't expect them to manage to make a tackle for a loss. While it seems the NFL awarded the credit to Wilber and Durant for the stuff, Hayden made an incredible play.
At first, it seemed Hayden simply did a good job getting penetration on a goal line stand, but was about to be taken out of the play. In truth, this is usually all coaches expect from the NT in such situations. Get lower than the center and push the pile back before getting buried by it. What I saw next shocked me.
The FB Hynoski saw Lee crashing the A gap to the left of center, and is desperately trying to make it there despite Hayden having pushed the center back into his path. But he never makes it to Sean Lee.
In an incredible display of lower body strength, balance, and leverage, Hayden manages to change his momentum to get behind and around the center to actually be the first guy to hit the RB backwards. He has managed to throw the center back (again) who landed on Hynoski at the bottom of the pile. I can't emphasize it enough; this is a very impressive goal line play by a 1tech DT. And just to show you how he managed to make it there, Selvie again gains his momentum from a situation that seems like he is about to get buried in the pile, and again gains leverage.
But Hayden wasn't about to rest simply because of a great play that would not earn him a rightfully deserved tackle for a loss. Instead, he decides to show us (again) what a dominant DT should do to a center on a goal line stand. Get lower, and drive the pile back as far as you can.
Hayden has taken the center and driven him back several yards. The Giants are running a playaction pass and have apparently decided to let the RB pick up the SDE. Selvie has gotten into the backfield untouched, and he is only a yard ahead of Hayden who has carried the center with him. Again, this is all you really expect from your NT in a goal line stand, drive the center as far back as you can before you get buried in the pile, but once again, Hayden shows you how quickly he can regain his balance and leverage.
While Selvie easily manages to avoid the RB and get the sack, look at Hayden. He has again managed to avoid being buried and instead gets on his feet and continues to drive the center back - now five yards from the line of scrimmage.
At this point I thought Marinelli would give a guy a breather, figuring Hayden is spent after those two impressive goal line displays, and with the Giants now facing a very long third and goal situation. Instead, perhaps testing to see if the new NT will get one of the infamous loaf awards, Hayden lined up on third down and faced a double team on the pass play. And no, he did not loaf. He actually drove the double team back a couple of yards.
And these were not his only good plays. Hayden often created pressure up the middle and would have likely had a sack if he wasn't held regularly be an overwhelmed giants OL. In future games, I expect him to at least get an officiating crew to call a holding penalty as a result in these situations. Suffice it to say, I was very impressed with the potential Hayden showed during the Week 1 win over the Giants, and I think Cowboys Nation can rest a bit easier knowing the staff managed to find a guy like Nick Hayden to replace Ratliff for the immediate - and perhaps not too distant - future.