The Dallas Cowboys have a good defense. Many of us were wondering if this day would ever come, but after six weeks of football the Cowboys defense has proven themselves to be one of the stronger groups in the league. They currently lead the entire NFC in fewest yards given up as well as fewest points allowed. There are a lot of reasons this team is playing well on defense. A defensive line rotation consisting of DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory, Antwaun Woods, and Taco Charlton make for a strong group of soldiers in the the trenches for the Dallas D.
The secondary is holding up well too despite not consisting of big name playmakers. Instead, it’s laced with many inexperienced players. The player with the most snaps in his young career is fourth-year defensive back Byron Jones, but even he is relatively raw as he just recently moved to cornerback this season. And what a great move that was as Pro Football Focus has graded Jones out as the best cornerback through the first six weeks of football.
Byron Jones has been the NFL's best cornerback through six weeks. pic.twitter.com/GciLKwWLx9— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 17, 2018
But the biggest surprise for the Cowboys defense comes at the linebacker position, where the team has been without All Pro Sean Lee for the last three games. Coming into this season, the Cowboys as a team were 1-7 over the last three years without Lee. It was as if the group fell apart without their field general. They weren’t able to stop the run and opponents took full advantage. For example, the Cowboys had a stretch last season where the offense had five-straight games scoring 28+ points. The Cowboys only won three of those games. The two games they lost were the two where Lee was out and the opposing team racked up 168 and 160 rushing yards against them. No Lee usually meant - no win.
But not anymore.
Over the last three years, the Cowboys have used a couple premium draft picks to add Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to the squad and despite the early criticism - both of those decisions are turning out to be genius moves. Both Smith and Vander Esch have been playing well this season. In fact, both are ranked in the top 10 for linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.
It brings such a great feeling to see Jaylon Smith playing at the level we were all hoping for when the team gambled on him in the 2016 NFL Draft. He is explosive and has come up big for the team already. Not only is he tied for the team lead in tackles with 50, but he’s second to only Lawrence in sacks (3.0). He’s also making more and more swipe-worthy plays. Last week, he showed off his speed by chasing down Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on a crucial fourth-down play. Then later in the fourth quarter, Smith hit Watson as he was throwing the ball causing it to float into the arms of Xavier Woods. Against the Jaguars, Smith had a strip fumble that was recovered by Jourdan Lewis near the sideline. While all of these plays may not show up in the stat book as such, that’s essentially three turnovers he’s responsible for.
Not only is Smith a physical specimen, but his football IQ is off the charts. With Lee out, Smith is now the leader of this defense. He can be seen running the huddle, communicating with everyone, and even correcting players when they are not lined up correctly.
His leaderships has been extremely valuable to his rookie partner in crime. Even though this is Vander Esch’s first year in the league, he’s already showcasing the strengths that made him a first-round pick. LVE keeps his hips open, keeping his center of gravity low, which allows him to change direction on a dime. He flies to the ball and uses those long arms to snatch ball carriers. Nobody has been able to get past him. And he has the athleticism and length to be a force in coverage.
The play of these two is being recognized around the league and their head coach doesn’t hesitate to praise these guys. Jason Garrett would talk about the progress of his two young linebackers:
“Each of those guys are playing more snaps, they’re more experienced, they’re seeing these different situations and they’re becoming more confident football players. So much of that when you play linebacker is communicating, getting guys lined up, doing all the stuff before the snap, and then attacking plays once the ball is snapped.”
Lee returned to practice, but there is absolutely no reason to rush him back. Let him get the extra rest with the bye week following the Redskins game, because right now - the Blues Brothers got it covered.