After barely escaping with a win against one of the NFL’s worst teams, the Houston Texans, the Dallas Cowboys can breathe (an exasperated) sigh of relief. For most of the contest, the ball seemed to take a fortuitous bounce in favor of the Texans. But a few Cowboys stood out in the game, and there’s one that helped rescued the day on several occasions. The recipient of this week’s game ball and Sunday’s Superman is Leighton Vander Esch.
If you haven’t noticed, Vander Esch is having a resurgent year under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Cowboys have developed a reputation for being susceptible to teams that run the football well. This is why it was vitally important that Vander Esch played the excellent game that he did on Sunday.
Entering the game against the Texans, the Cowboys had to place an emphasis on limiting Houston’s running game. Namely, rookie running back Dameon Pierce. Pierce has been the one consistent thing on the Texans’ offense and the Cowboys knew that he had to be stopped. However, what Dallas didn’t know entering the matchup was that Houston would incorporate backup quarterback Jeff Driskel to add an extra component to their running game.
While it presented a slight challenge, Leighton Vander Esch wasn’t fooled. He played with his hair on fire and it was a throwback performance to his rookie season in which he earned Pro Bowl honors. Vander Esch had a great game versus the Texans and was everywhere on the field.
The lone wolf
Vander Esch led the team in tackles by a wide margin with fourteen and nine of them were of the solo variety. The closest person to that count was DaRon Bland with six. Not only did Vander Esch fill the stat sheet, but he was also impactful.
For as difficult as Pierce is to handle, he was largely controlled by Vander Esch and the Dallas defense. Pierce was held to only 78 yards on 22 carries for an average of 3.5 yards per opportunity. That’s due in large part to Pierce being met at the line of scrimmage by Leighton Vander Esch. Pierce did suffer an injury so his opportunities were cut short toward the end of the game.
For added context, even as a rookie, Pierce is known throughout the league for his elusiveness and getting yards after contact. There were four times in Sunday’s game where Vander Esch made a one-on-one tackle on Pierce. Those instances resulted in a total of 13 yards rushing including one for no gain.
Also, although it was assisted by Sam Williams, the tackle for loss Vander Esch made on Rex Burkhead was huge. The Texans were on the verge of scoring late in the fourth quarter to take a two-score lead. This stop for a loss forced Houston back to the Dallas 5-yard line and second and goal. Three plays later, Houston turns the ball over on downs and the Cowboys go on an epic drive to steal the win.
The Cowboys didn’t leave the game without some injuries to their defense, as Jonathan Hankins left with an injury that could complicate things for their run defense. But Vander Esch is trying to recapture his old form and this is the type of performance the team needs from him going forward.