Middle linebacker has long been one of the key positions on a defense. You have to be strong up the middle to have a good defense. That falls on the middle linebacker. It's also the postion that usually calls the plays. You need a good one to have good games, and good seasons.
The Cowboys have had injury-issues at the spot, starting with losing Sean Lee early in OTAs. Then came along surprise replacement Rolando McClain, who has the Cowboys thinking long-term with him based on his excellent play. Once he got injured for the Jaguars game, Dallas turned to fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens as the next man up, and what a game the rookie turned in. He participated in some of the highlight plays of the game, but it was his solid contributions on the everyday plays that really singled him out. Whether this is a sign of things to come from Hitchens, or just a game of his life against a fairly poor Jaguars offense remains to be seen, but it's possible the Cowboys struck gold when taking Hitchens in this year's draft.
Let's go to the tape.
Play 1 - The Fundamentals
There's our guy Hitchens (yellow circle) on what turns out to be a very basic run play. This play has no flash to it, but Hitchens repeated his performance on this play throughout the game, and it is fundamental plays like this shutting down a running game that leads to winning football from a defense.
As they play progresses, Hitchens (yellow circle) stays patient. He doesn't commit to a gap, keeps his eyes on the ball carrier (red circle) and is mirroring his movements along the line (blue line) as the back tries to find a hole to run through. Hitchens was excellent throughout the game doing this, not over-committing early, mirroring the back then closing down and making the tackle.
He's quick to close the gap once he reads the back's move, here hitting him just a yard beyond the line of scrimmage (yellow circle) This results in a short gain for the Jags. Hitchens had four or so other plays that were just like this.
Play 2 - Making Them Miss
Here we have Hitchens again manning the middle (yellow circle) In the previous play break-down I noted Hitchens shows patience and waits for the running back to commit. Now, he shows another quality for a good run-stuffer, he avoids or gets off of blocks.
As the play progresses, it looks like Hitchens (yellow circle) is going to be the last guy to make the play. He has two Jacksonville guards (red circle) barreling at him. But Hitchens slices in between them toward the runner.
Here he is (yellow circle) meeting the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. One guard (red arrow) is peeling back to try and block him, the other guard (red arrow) is blocking Carter. Hitchens was killing the Jags ground game (with an assist from Carter).
Play 3 - Pass Coverage
With McClain out of the game, Hitchens and Bruce Carter played almost all of the nickel snaps. That meant Hitchens needed to cover pass receivers as well as closing the run down. He was surprisingly good at this, the only real flaw was not dropping deep enough in his zones when no one is underneath, but otherwise, he was very good. Here he's lined up as blitzer (yellow circle) along with Carter (red circle). Cecil Shorts is the guy lined up outside in the bunch formation (blue circle).
Hitchens and Carter are faking the blitz, Hitchens drops back quickly into his zone, setting up right at the first down marker (yellow circle). This is a third down play. Shorts is driving toward the middle, but will reverse field to an out right at the sticks (red arrow)
The pass is a little offline and Shorts can't reel it in. But Hitchens is there to make sure he doesn't catch it (yellow circle), and he's ready to stop him before the sticks if he had caught it. This is a linebacker zoning up on a wide receiver, that's a good job from Hitchens.
Play 4 - Rushing The Passer
I estimate they sent Hitchens on three to four blitzes throughout the game. On a couple of them he got pressure, like this one. There's Hitchens (yellow circle) starting his blitz run. Orlando Scandrick (red circle) is also blitzing from that side. J.J. Wilcox is creeping up (blue arrow) to take the slot receiver (blue line).
The Jags running back picks up Scandrick (red circle) while Hitchens comes around the outside (yellow arrow) but the Jags tackle is sliding over to try and block him.
Hitchens is able to use his quickness to slide off the block and close in on Blake Bortles (yellow circle), forcing Bortles to avoid his hand and not allowing him to drive through on the throw. Because of that, the ball fell short of the receiver and offline. Win for the Cowboys even though they didn't get a sack.
Play 5 - The Play Before The Play
Everybody remembers Hitchens big stop on fourth down, the Jags left him unblocked and he met the RB in the hole and won the tackling battle. But that play wouldn't even have happened had Hitchens (yellow circle) not made a play on the third and one (red box) that came right before it.
The Jags are running a basic dive play. The right side of the Cowboys line gets good penetration. Meanwhile, Hitchens (yellow arrow) is having to deal with a Jaguars guard firing out to the second-level for a block (red arrow).
Hitchens sheds the guard and heads into the hole (yellow arrow), and with the help of Jack Crawford he stops the running back's momentum short of the sticks (red circle), bringing up the fourth and one that he also stuffs.
Play 7 - The Mistake
Hitchens wasn't perfect on the night. He had a couple of plays in open space when he didn't break down under control and overran the tackle. He was also part of the problem on the Jags early touchdown run. The Cowboys are lined up heavy to the right side, end Anthony Spencer is inside the tackle (red arrow), and he crashes down to the middle on the play. Hitchens (yellow circle) and Kyle Wilber (blue circle) are responsible for the outside on the left.
Hitchens shows no patience and immediately takes an inside path to the end of the line, but he gets picked up by the tackle (yellow circle) while Wilber gets kicked-out by the fullback (green circle), this leaves a huge gap to run through. The Jags get a guard to the second-level to cut off Carter (red arrow), and the receivers take out the defensive backs (blue arrows). This leads to a 30+ yard touchdown run.
Anthony Hitchens had a great night in London. His patience, vision and sure-tackling were very good in the run game. He is competent in pass coverage and will become better as he gets a better feel for it at the pro level. He also hustles, he ran down Cecil Shorts on a pass play to save a touchdown. On the very next play he helped to set the edge with Jermey Mincey that sent Denard Robinson cutting back to the middle. George Selvie blindsided the back causing a fumble. Hitchens presence was felt everywhere. He only had three or four real mistakes in the game.
If Hitchens continues to progress and play like this against the better teams in the NFL, then the Cowboys have a gem from the fourth-round.