Ed Note: Heavy GIFs coming....patience.
Over the first 11 games of the season the Cowboys linebackers, aside from Sean Lee, had combined for two sacks, one pass deflection, and very few impact plays. In fact, no linebacker except for Lee had even accounted for as many tackles as Barry Church after 11 games despite the fact that Church missed four weeks with a broken arm. Of course the fact that Anthony Hitchens, Justin Durant, and Damien Wilson split playing time plays a role in that, but when considering that Lee has barely missed a single defensive snap all season illustrates the lack in trust the coaching staff has in any of the linebackers behind Lee. If there was another true three-down difference maker on the roster who could be trusted to hold up against the run and pass you would see that player on the field for at least 80% or so of the snaps, although with the aforementioned three you generally only see them playing about 40%-50% of the snaps, if that in Wilson’s case.
With all of that said, Thursday night against the Vikings was undoubtedly the most impressive performance of the season from this unit, and not just thanks to Sean Lee. Anthony Hitchens had perhaps his best game as a Cowboy while Damien Wilson continued to show flashes that indicate that he is progressing into becoming at least a dependable role player.
Let’s start with Wilson, who on the first drive of the game did a great job of reading a run play, not getting out of position, and shooting the gap once he saw the play develop:
You can see Wilson in the middle of the screen blow by the pulling right guard (#63), who seems indecisive about who to block between Hitchens and Wilson, and bring down Matt Asiata for a loss. Wilson does a good job of maintaining his gap integrity and not over-pursuing the play here.
That’s not the only impressive play from Wilson on the night though. Here is a tackle for loss on third down from Sean Lee, an excellent play in it’s own right, but watch Wilson again in the middle of the screen in zone coverage:
He does a really nice job here of bumping Stefon Diggs as he tries to run away from Orlando Scandrick on a drag route. This disrupts the route right in Sam Bradford’s view and likely played a role in him checking it down to Asiata. Wilson then does a nice job of rallying to the ball behind Lee.
But now let’s get to the star of the show Thursday night, Anthony Hitchens. First off, he had a great play for an interception taken away from him thanks to a hands-to-the-face penalty by Orlando Scandrick which had no bearing on the play:
Even though this play didn’t count Hitchens does a great job of reading the play, sprinting full speed towards the sideline and extending to pluck the ball out of the air.
A very impressive play, but let’s move on to plays that did count, such as this sack in the fourth quarter on the first Vikings drive after the Cowboys had taken the lead:
This was a first and 10, right after the Vikings had converted on a third and 1. From left to right you can see that Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, and David Irving crash hard to the right in an effort to get the Vikings offensive line to go with them, while Damien Wilson occupies the tight end on the left side of the defensive formation. This opens up a lane for Hitchens to loop through, as he beats the right tackle (#78) and gets to Bradford nearly untouched for the sack. For a little fun watch Demarcus Lawrence on the right side of the screen drop into man coverage against Kyle Rudolph, although you can be sure that there was plenty of zone coverage behind him from Byron Jones, Lee, and Church.
Here is a play from the very next drive where Hitchens shows off some versatility as he drops into man coverage against Rudolph:
You can see Lee go out to cover Jerick McKinnon who is running a route out of the backfield, leaving Hitchens in the middle of the field with Rudolph, who is one of the better tight ends in the league. Hitchens does a nice job of staying patient and not biting on Rudolph who is attempting to push him across the field by selling the in-breaking route before cutting back outside. He stays right on Rudloph’s hip, knocking the pass away and nearly coming up with the interception.
Oh, and if you were wondering what Sean Lee was up to on the night:
Still being Sean Lee.
Now, it must be noted that the Vikings offensive line, running game, and offense in general are at the very bottom of the league, so this performance must be viewed in that context, but it is still encouraging nonetheless. As bad as the Cowboys pass rush off the edge has been this season, I could make an argument that another three-down, impact player at linebacker is just as much of a need in the 2017 offseason. Sure, Lee has been great and seems destined for another Pro Bowl, but he will be 31 next year and we all know his injury history. Jaylon Smith is a complete unknown, albeit with nearly unlimited potential, but he is a clear injury risk. Aside from that the rest of the unit is made up of JAG’s (Just A Guy), to borrow a Bill Parcells term. Perhaps if Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, who seems to be improving by the week, can make more plays like these that won’t be the case anymore.