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After further review: Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are hurting the Cowboys defense

The defense is not playing well, and they’re getting no help from two of their biggest stars.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight game, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves on the losing end of a 20+ blowout. A week ago, they got embarrassed on Monday Night Football in a 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and on Sunday they suffered a 25-3 defeat at the hands of their longtime divisional rivals, the Washington Football Team.

It’s now clear that the Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the league. In years past, this team has let fans down by losing games, but there haven’t been performances like we’re seeing regularly now. The wheels have officially come of the 2020 season.

There are many things that are wrong with this team. The offense has went from explosive to non-existent, and the reason behind that is no mystery. The team is clearly missing the playmaking ability of their star quarterback Dak Prescott. And when you combine his absence with an offensive line almost entirely full of backups (and backups to backups in some cases), it’s easy to understand why they’re sputtering. We can only hope that better health next season will put the offense back to the level of greatness they were at before.

As for the defense, that’s a different story. The Cowboys defense is currently the worst in the league in points allowed and rushing yards given up. Yes, they have had their own share of injuries, but this group has enough resources to be playing better than what we have been witnessing on the football field. And while there are several players guilty of underperforming, the focus of today’s piece will highlight the struggles at the linebacker position. It feels bad to keep harping on Jaylon Smith and now Leighton Vander Esch, but this tandem has been completely ineffective, and unless something changes all of a sudden, there is no reason to expect this defense to show any improvement as the season moves on.

Jaylon Smith in coverage is a mistake

It’s hard understanding the coaching wizardry that thinks it’s a good idea of having Smith cover receiving backs. He did a good job a couple weeks ago against the Giants Dion Lewis, but in those instances he just lurked and waited for Lewis to release from backfield. Smith closed fast and shut down the play right away. That’s fine. He can do that.

What he can’t do is follow these quick running backs around in the secondary. Smith just doesn’t posses the lateral agility to change directions, and this makes him a sitting duck in coverage. On this play, he recognizes his assignment and moves to the outside to line himself up against against J.D. McKissic. Five yards down the field, McKissic cuts to the outside. Smith stumbles while changing direction, leaving clear separation between the two. Truth be told, this play is over before it even started, as this is a clear indication that the coaching staff doesn’t know how to use their players correctly.

Hopefully, the Cowboys recognize this is not the winning ticket in defending these quick receiving backs as they have some tough pass-catching backs coming up on their schedule, starting on Sunday night with Boston Scott.

The farther out in the secondary you go, the worst Smith becomes. On this play, he’s covering tight end Logan Thomas, but he gets a late start after stepping too far forward anticipating a run. Thomas just blows right by him, and this could’ve been a huge play had Washington’s tight end ran a deeper route rather than just cutting outside. Jaylon does a good job catching up to him, but it’s too little too late as he doesn’t have any chance to turn his body around to make a play on the ball. Instead, he tries his best to avoid the receiver and keep his hands up, but just the slightest amount of contact will draw the flag every time.

Even when Smith has everything dialed in, his quickness fails him. On this play, he’s on Thomas from the get go, but his inability to close fast leaves him in a vulnerable state. He shoots at the wrong angle thinking he has a shot to break up the pass, but is late arriving. All he can do then is make a last-second attempt to make a tackle, but even that doesn’t work out well for him.

Smith just doesn’t have the speed

Any time there is any sort of indecisiveness in the direction Smith needs to go, there’s a good chance he’s going to be late. On this play, you can really see his poor footwork puts him in a hole before even starting his chase. Washington did a fantastic job keeping the Cowboys defense guessing with guys coming across the line of scrimmage in all directions. If Smith doesn’t get out of the block right away, he’s already lost the race. There is nothing fancy about this run by Antonio Gibson, yet he runs nearly ten yards before being touched because Smith just doesn’t have to speed to get there.

Smith falls for the fake out

We’ve all played fetch with our dog, only to give them that little fake out to see how committed they are going after that ball. It never gets old (for us anyway, maybe our dog secretly resents us). Sometimes if feels like Smith gets duped in the same manner. It’s almost as he doesn’t trust his own ability to get there fast enough to where he has to take a gamble and make a guess. On this play, he’s completely fooled as he goes to his left to chase after McKissic, leaving a giant hole for Gibson to find the end zone.

Leighton Vander Esch gets sealed off too much

Let’s look at this very same play, only this time we’ll focus on Leighton Vander Esch. Whether it’s from his own over pursuit or just a fantastic job of Washington positioning their blockers. LVE was screened out of the action a lot on Sunday. On this play he moves to his left anticipating a run to the outside, only to have Gibson cut inside. By this point, the right guard has positioned himself perfectly to seal off Vander Esch from making the play.

On this play, Washington does another fantastic job with the blocking. They actually use right tackle Morgan Moses to attack the second level to seal off Vander Esch. To prevent DeMarcus Lawrence from bolting inside for a tackle for a loss, they run their tight end back across the line of scrimmage to block him. This allows McKissic just enough space to sneak through for a 17-yard gain.

Taking the wrong angle can be costly

The difference between a tackle for a loss and giving up a big gain can be decided by a split-second decision. Leaning the wrong way or taking the wrong angle is all it takes to get washed out of the play. This happened plenty of times with LVE on Sunday. On this play, Vander Esch tries to go inside, but that puts him behind the eight ball in getting after the ball carrier. He tries to sift through traffic, but the wrong angle takes him out of the play.

And don’t get me started on Jaylon Smith. He can’t make up his mind which direction he wants to go, and that stutter step is all it takes to completely render him useless on this play.

Just too slow

It was frustrating to see the defense appear to have Washington for a stop on third down, only for them to escape and convert. On this play, Vander Esch had a clear shot at Kyle Allen, but as the quarterback turns to the outside, he’s somehow able to outrun the linebacker. LVE makes one last attempt going for his legs, but Allen gets loose and runs for the first down.

And try not to get distracted by Tank dropping back in coverage, because when you’re a 3-4 linebacker, that’s part of your job. It’s just crazy how these coaches are choosing to use their players.