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Film Room: Breaking down Eli Ankou’s Cowboys debut

It was a small sample size, but the results are promising for Mr. Ankou.

Cleveland Browns v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Cowboys may be in the midst of what many consider a lost season, but it didn’t lead to them making any bold moves one way or the other at the trade deadline. However, Dallas did deal a seventh-round pick for Eli Ankou, a big, 325-pound nose tackle from the Texans. After going undrafted out of UCLA in 2017, Ankou spent time between the practice squad and roster with the Texans from 2017 to 2019, and had very brief stints with both the Colts and Texans this year before Dallas scooped him up.

Ankou had exactly 398 defensive snaps to his name throughout his brief career, and none of them were in the 2020 season; he did very little in those snaps as well, recording just 26 total tackles, two for loss, and 1.5 sacks. But Dallas saw enough in those snaps to justify giving up a draft pick for him. With his size, Ankou seems like an obvious candidate for the role Dontari Poe was supposed to fill, and Mike Nolan hinted at as much when the transaction was made:

After clearing the COVID-19 protocols, Ankou was able to make his debut with the Cowboys against the Steelers and show what he’s got. Ankou only played 11 snaps in the game, which was likely due to a mix of it being his first game with the team and the strong performance of Neville Gallimore in that game. But Ankou, who played exclusively on early downs (8/11 snaps were first-down plays), showed some juice that should lead to more snaps going forward.

On this play, Pittsburgh’s offense had just gotten the ball back from a Dallas punt early in the second quarter. On first and ten, Ankou (#95) is lined up in a 3-technique against the right guard with Aldon Smith in a two-point stance next to him.

On the snap, Ankou crashes to his right and the guard moves laterally to pick him up. Once Ankou makes contact with the guard, he does a good job of converting speed to power and backs the guard right up.

Ben Roethlisberger ends up getting the ball out quick, and loose coverage from Anthony Brown gives up an easy 14-yard pickup to Chase Claypool. But if Roethlisberger held that ball for a second longer, Ankou would’ve backed the guard right into the quarterback and, at the very least, disrupted the throwing motion. This was a good pass rush rep for Ankou.

But Ankou isn’t a pass rushing tackle, by any stretch. He’ll give you good reps there, but he’ll also put up reps like this next play, which happened two plays after the one above.

Prior to the snap, it looks nearly identical to the play diagrammed above. Ankou is the 3-technique with Smith outside in a two-point stance, and Justin Hamilton is the 1-technique. The linebackers are set up differently, but the line is very much showing the same look.

Once again, Ankou crashes to his right, but it looks like Hamilton is stunting across the line of scrimmage towards the right tackle. The issue is that Ankou and Hamilton don’t seem to be on the same page, and they end up getting congested right in the middle of the line of scrimmage.

As Hamilton cuts across laterally, he ends up clipping Ankou’s legs a bit and the big tackle is dropped to the ground. It’s not entirely clear if this is more on Ankou or Hamilton, but this is definitely not a good pass rush rep. Perhaps more playing time will get Ankou comfortable enough with Hamilton and others to avoid these kinds of collisions, but with this being his first game you’ll see that happen occasionally.

Here’s another rep where Ankou showed some of his potential as a pass rusher. The Cowboys clearly want to use Ankou as more of a run defender, hence his lack of snaps on third downs in this game, but Pittsburgh’s high frequency of pass plays on first down meant a lot of pass rushing opportunities for Ankou. In fact, all 11 of his snaps came on pass plays, though that’s hardly what Dallas wanted to use him for.

On this series, with the Steelers running a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, the Cowboys used Ankou and Antwaun Woods as their two defensive tackles on this first and ten close to their own 20-yard line. Up until this series, Ankou had only been deployed with Hamilton. As before, though, Ankou is the 3-technique and playing next to Smith.

He once again crashes towards the middle of the line, but this time the right tackle and right guard are both preoccupied with Smith, leaving Ankou a one-on-one matchup with eight-time Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey. That makes what happens next all the more impressive.

Ankou delivers a powerful strike to Pouncey that knocks him a couple feet backwards, as you can see here. Both Smith and Randy Gregory are getting double-teamed as Woods stunts towards the opposite end, but Ankou’s effective punch gets Pouncey off balance. Given how good Pouncey is, this is considered a big win. We’ll never know what Ankou would’ve done to build on this advantage he created, as Roethlisberger got the ball out immediately after this screenshot. But it showed how Ankou can utilize his size and strength effectively against blockers, both against the run (theoretically at least) and pass.

One other thing that stood out while watching him play in his few moments on the field was his motor. Each and every time that Roethlisberger threw the ball, Ankou immediately turned his head and started running to the ball. It was never a big deal considering that other defenders were much closer and made the tackle well before Ankou could arrive, but the coaches will definitely notice Ankou’s relentless drive towards the football.

That’s about as much as we were able to extract from his limited sample size, but all indications are that Ankou should be in line for even more snaps when the Cowboys travel to Minnesota this week. Given that the Vikings, led by Dalvin Cook, currently have the second-highest run rate and third-highest success rate on run plays in the NFL, getting Ankou on the field to help the run defense will be big.

For now, the word on Ankou is very little, but promising. Nolan was absolutely right in describing him as big and strong, and he showed that against the Steelers. He’s certainly an improvement over what Poe had been providing, and if Ankou can build on this showing then the Cowboys may get some return on that seventh-round pick.

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