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Tale of the tape: Jaylon Smith continues to play at an extremely high level for the Cowboys

With all the attention on Leighton Vander Esch, don’t forget about the play of Jaylon Smith.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The linebacker position for the Dallas Cowboys has been talked about a ton in the 2018 season. Whether it was the drafting of Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. or the story surrounding Sean Lee and his future with the team, the linebacker position in Dallas has been far from a boring position.

Adding to that story is the play of third-year linebacker, Jaylon Smith. Smith has posted an impressive stat line so far in 2018. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Smith has 117 combined tackles (13th in the NFL), six tackles for loss, four sacks, six quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and four passes defended. Smith has been all over the field for the Cowboys this season and he had one of his best showings of the year last weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Week 16’s win over the Bucs, Jaylon had 10 tackles (five solo), two passes defended, and one fumble recovery which he took back 69 yards for a touchdown.

When viewing the All-22 tape of the game, it was hard not notice the 6-foot-2, 245-lb linebacker wreaking havoc on the Buccaneers. Here’s a look at some of his most impressive plays from week 16.

Showing off the explosiveness/command of the field

Poor Adam Humphries. There were multiple occasions on Sunday when Winston dumped it down to Humphries when the Cowboys were in zone-coverage. Jaylon Smith made him pay on almost all of thse occasions. It’s hard not to notice just how explosive Smith looks on this play. Whether it’s the amount of ground he covers, or just how violent the hit was, the one word that defines Jaylon Smith right now is explosive.

Here’s an almost identical play that Jaylon Smith does the same exact thing on. Drop, explode, and hit. This time, he’s able to knock the ball loose and get credited with a PBU (pass broken up). While it’s still not certain Smith has returned to 100%, he is starting to look more and more like the player we saw at Notre Dame a few years ago. That is the exact plan the Dallas Cowboys had in mind when drafting him in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

If you had to rank Jaylon Smith traits coming out of Notre Dame, defending the pass was probably near the bottom of the list. Not because he wasn’t good at it, but because he was so good at defending the run and rushing the passer. Smith has developed into a really nice coverage linebacker this year. Whether it’s covering tight ends, running backs or receivers, Smith has done an excellent job of limiting big plays and defending the pass. He does just that here. On third and 16, Winston looks for Adam Humphries in the middle of the field which could have been a gain of 14 yards if Smith doesn’t knock the football away. Instead, it’s an incomplete pass and the Buccaneers have to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down. This PBU could have been a four-point play if the Bucs would have completed this pass and elected to go for it on fourth and two.

Defending the run

Smith has made plays all season long moving laterally or coming up and stuffing the running back in the hole. He did both of those things on Sunday against the Buccaneers. Here he does an excellent job of avoiding the LT, who is attempting to get to the second-level, and plugging the hole so that Peyton Barber has nowhere to go with the football. If Jaylon Smith was unable to shoot the gap, and instead gets tangled up with the LT, Barber is likely hitting the hole at full speed and meeting Byron Jones in a one-on-one matchup.

This is a shout out to the linebacker position as a whole. Both Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith deserve a ton of credit on this play. Both guys do an excellent job of diagnosing the play-fake, sprinting to the football, and bringing down DeSean Jackson in the open field for only a short gain. We’ll never know for sure, but Jackson had some blockers out in front, and likely could have scored on this play if Smith and/or Vander Esch get blocked/can’t finish the tackle on the speedy Jackson.

Being a playmaker

Due to the importance of the game, and the lack of big plays/turnovers from the defense in 2018, this may go down as one of the greatest plays of the season in my book. With as much as the offense has struggled in 2018, scoring a touchdown on defense is huge. This was the first time this season the Cowboys defense was able to put points on the board for the team and it came in a playoff-clinching game. First off, what an excellent play from Randy Gregory to keep fighting towards the quarterback. Second, hats off to Jaylon Smith for picking this ball up cleanly, and going 69 yards, untouched, for the touchdown. Without a clean recovery, it’s unlikely Smith takes this all the way to the house. Given how far Jaylon has come with his injuries, it was an emotional moment for him being able to make a play in such a big game for his team.

While last week was a very good week for the 23-year-old linebacker, Smith has played well all season, which has been a big reason why the Cowboys defense has been so successful. While Leighton Vander Esch has taken a lot of the spotlight (deservedly so), Cowboys Nation should not ignore the play of Jaylon Smith. If this team wants to do anything in the playoffs, they will need him to continue to play at the level he’s played at all year.

Clear. Eye. View.

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