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From Weakness To Strength: The Cowboys 2015 Linebacking Corps

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It was expected to be one of the reasons Dallas would have a terrible defense this season, but under Matt Eberflus, the linebackers have stepped up big time.

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Celebrating one good play among many.
Celebrating one good play among many.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There are some arguments being made (including this one) that Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys deserves consideration as the Coach of the Year for leading his team to the NFC East title despite the low expectations for the team. Both Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli have been praised, deservedly so, for their contributions this season. And no one should forget the offensive line that Bill Callahan has forged into arguably the best in the NFL.

But perhaps the most impressive job done by anyone on the Dallas coaching staff has been that done by Matt Eberflus, the linebackers coach. While Callahan has created a true monster with the offensive line, he did have three recent first-round picks as raw material. Eberflus had far less to work with on paper, and yet as the playoffs draw near, his group is playing at a surprisingly high level, and have become a real strength of the overachieving defense.

It certainly did not look like this could possibly happen coming into the season. Sean Lee, unquestionably the best defender on the team following the departure of DeMarcus Ware, was lost for the year to a freak injury at the very start of the OTAs. Then DeVonte Holloman was forced into a very premature retirement by injury during the preseason. And midway through the year, Justin Durant, who was playing perhaps the best football of his career, was lost to IR. That left Dallas with a rather suspect group.

  • Rolando McClain had been coaxed out of his second retirement after the player whose college performance earned him a first-round selection had cratered on the team where so many go to disappear, the Oakland Raiders.
  • Anthony Hitchens is a rookie fourth-round draft pick whose selection was explained as a special teams contributor who could back up Lee, before the OTAs hit.
  • Bruce Carter had been somewhat disappointing, showing some flashes but not playing consistently.
  • Kyle Wilber had been shuffled between linebacker and defensive end, trying to find a position he could contribute.
  • Cameron Lawrence and Keith Smith are UDFAs who mostly see time on special teams.

McClain of course hit the field with a bang, literally. He immediately established himself as the hardest-hitting player on the defense, and showed that the talent he displayed at Alabama was no mirage, flying to the ball and becoming the co-leader in tackles with safety Barry Church (per Pro Football Focus' stats), in spite of fighting injuries that led to him missing two games so far.

As surprising as his comeback is, the way Hitchens has stepped up is perhaps even more so. He adapted rapidly to the pro game, and also showed great versatility, playing all three positions as called upon. As might be expected, he has been playing better as he gets more games under his belt, which has worked out very nicely. Clearly the best situation for Dallas is when he is playing the WILL position with McClain at SAM, but no matter where he is lined up, he is a real asset. He is third on the team in tackles.

Bruce Carter has been playing better as the season progresses as well. Although he is not getting nearly as many snaps, being used mostly as the SAM, which takes him off the field when the Cowboys go nickel (really the base defense in today's pass-heavy NFL), he is making contributions and far fewer mistakes. His best game of the season was probably the win over the Philadelphia Eagles, where he had six tackles and the interception that sealed the win for the Cowboys.

Kyle Wilber has been used as an injury fill in and for spot duty, but he has been used effectively as a blitzer. He has two quarterback sacks, a hit, and two hurries (again from PFF). Given his limited snaps, that is a good level of effectiveness, and speaks to his experience as a defensive end.

Those four have carried most of the workload since Durant went out, and are doing so very well as the regular season winds down. They face another test against Washington, a team they didn't do very well against in the loss on Monday Night Football. But that was two months ago, and the steady improvement, plus a firm determination by the entire organization to finish strong, should mean a different outcome for the season finale.

With what he had to work with, Eberflus has done a simply superb job. He has his players making plays against both the run and the pass. They are a key part of the defensive turnaround that has been such a large part of the story of the Cowboys in 2014. And that story still has some chapters to go.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB