Ed. Note: Animated GIFs on the way, have patience if the page load is slow.
Despite the much deserved hand-wringing over the defensive line it is quite possible that the linebackers have been the weak link of the Cowboys defense over the first two games. The unit again struggled to get off blocks against the run and were beaten in coverage across the middle of the field by the Redskins tight ends. The coaching staff’s position on this group is clear as Sean Lee again played every defensive snap while Justin Durant and Anthony Hitchens rotated in next to him with Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar sprinkled in for a few plays here and there. However, Durant and Hitchens both played less than 50% of the overall defensive snaps and often times Sean Lee was the only linebacker on the field.
Durant again looked to be the best linebacker on the team not named Sean Lee and it looks like the coaching staff is slowly starting to increase his workload, while decreasing that of Hitchens. Last week against the Giants Hitchens played 55% of the defensive snaps, as opposed to only 30% for Durant, although that was primarily due to the fact that Hitchens started and played the majority of the first half, struggled, and then was benched in favor of Durant a few drives into the second half. Against the Redskins the ratios started to flip with Durant playing 43% of the snaps to only 34% for Hitchens. It was also Durant who was on the field in the most critical moments, and despite struggling for vast stretches of the game, he came up with huge back-to-back plays to end the Redskins last credible drive of the game.
Before we get to that, let’s first take a look at where the Cowboys linebackers struggled on Sunday.
First, we must note that the Redskins running game was one of the worst in the league last season and struggled against the Steelers in Week 1. Despite that, Matt Jones gained 61 yards on just 13 carries Sunday for a very health 4.7 YPC. While the defensive line clearly deserves some of the blame, much of the fault must be placed at the feet of the linebackers for consistently failing to get off blocks.
Below is the Matt Jones touchdown run in the second quarter. As you can see, Durant is completely taken out of the play while Lee loses leverage, overruns the play and creates a huge cutback lane that gives Jones a clear path to the end zone. Durant is actually blocked so far out of the play that he cuts down the angle that Barry Church is taking to the ball carrier. Maliek Collins and Benson Mayowa both get decent penetration on the play, pushing their linemen several yards into the backfield and forcing Jones to run parallel to the line of scrimmage about four yards in the backfield before cutting up field, but Lee and Durant are nowhere near making the play.
This happened several times throughout the game as you can see on this next play where Durant can’t fight through the traffic while Lee is driven fully out of the play. Again, several defensive linemen get penetration, forcing the Redskins linemen into the backfield, but the linebackers are not there to clean up the play. Sure, you can blame the linemen for not getting off their blocks to finish the play but their penetration gave Jones very little room to find a crease and it is the job of the linebackers to meet the back in the hole. Instead it was Barry Church and Morris Claiborne making the stop several yards downfield.
Not only did they struggle against the run, but also the pass. Outside of the blown coverage on the 57-yard reception by Josh Doctson the majority of the damage done by the Redskins through the air was to their tight ends over the middle. To be fair, Jordan Reed is one of the best at his position and you expect to give up some plays to him, such as the 25-yard reception in the first quarter as he ran by a flat-footed Anthony Hitchens, but there is no excuse for leaving replacement-level players like Vernon Davis and Niles Paul wide open in the middle of the field for chunk gains as they did here:
On the above play both Lee and Durant are so focused on covering Jordan Reed that they don’t get enough depth on their drops, allowing Davis to run right by them into a wide open space for an easy catch and run. It must be noted that earlier in the game Lee made a fantastic play on a pass to Reed that he nearly intercepted, but far too often the middle of the field was left wide open for the Redskins to take advantage of.
Despite their struggles it was encouraging to see both Durant and Lee execute perfectly down the stretch. With about two minutes remaining they worked together beautifully to stop a run for no gain on third and one:
Here Durant makes an absolutely amazing play by standing up the left guard, forcing the back inside, shedding the block, and joining Lee in making the tackle for no gain.
On the next play, now fourth and one, Durant makes another fantastic play by reading the eyes of the quarterback and undercutting the slant, which was mostly open thanks to a pick play ran by DeSean Jackson. The only thing missing here was finishing the play with the interception and what would have been a game-sealing pick-six.
At the end of the day the Cowboys linebackers came up big when it mattered most but you can’t be comfortable with this unit as a whole. What makes the situation even more concerning is that Sean Lee (who is suddenly 30) looks to be playing without his usual speed and burst, perhaps due to a sore knee, while 31-year-old Justin Durant also has a long, unfortunate injury history. Anthony Hitchens looks like he has regressed from his rookie year while Andrew Gachkar and Kyle Wilber are nothing but replacement-level, special teams players who rarely see more than about 15 defensive snaps per game. With Damien Wilson failing to get on the field outside of special teams, all the Cowboys can hope for at this point is a speedy recovery for Mark Nzeocha from his mysterious Achilles injury with a seemingly unknown timetable for return.
While most Cowboys fans have spent their time fretting over the state of the defensive line, the state of the linebackers may be just as worrisome, if not more so when you consider that one of the best defensive linemen on the roster in Demarcus Lawrence is set to return in just three weeks. It’s too early to start talking draft but it wouldn’t be surprising if linebacker was just as high on the priority list as the defensive line come next April.
Oh, and Jaylon Smith, please get better soon.