The Dallas Cowboys dominated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. Their 31-14 win sets them up with a date with the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. While QB Dak Prescott and the offense was on fire the whole game, Dan Quinn’s defense was stifling. The Cowboys defense held Bucs QB Tom Brady scoreless in the first half of a playoff game for the first time since 2001.
The return of LB Leighton Vander Esch was instrumental in the defense’s performance against the Buccaneers offense. After missing the previous three games due to a stinger, he led the team with nine combined tackles, and was all over the field throughout the game. Wherever the running back was, Vander Esch was there to meet him with a tackle. He was not just great in the run game, but he also showed his value in coverage, nearly intercepting QB Tom Brady on multiple occasions.
Leighton Vander Esch was playing out of his mind in coverage last night - running the pole in Cover 2, great communication vs stacks/bunches, strong low zone coverage, strong tackling. He was key to the #Cowboys defense last night— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 17, 2023
The best trait regarding Vander Esch has become his leadership. The difference in the efficiency of the defense when he is playing as opposed to when he is not playing is as clear as night and day. He has become like former Cowboys LB Sean Lee, being a positive impact for every player around him. If Vander Esch is unable to get his teammates in position to make the play, he has shown the ability to read the offense and make the play himself.
DAL has a bit of a miscommunication defending the trips bunch (Wilson/Mukuamu both go with 84) but Leighton Vander Esch put on his cape to defend 2 TB WRs before the PBU.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 17, 2023
The fact that LVE picked up Godwin but then fell off to defend Julio is incredible awareness #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/hyuDPM8VpB
Leighton Vander Esch communicates before every snap. He helps teammates line up. He sometimes calls out plays before they happen. As playoffs begin, the Cowboys LB is making a timely return. “He’s probably one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around."https://t.co/7FqdBbwORQ— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 11, 2023
Vander Esch signed a one-year contract worth $2 million in the previous offseason. It seemed like the organization was almost ready to move on from him as he had not lived up to his promising rookie year year in 2018 while battling injuries. Some were hopeful that LB Jabril Cox would take that next step and take over the starting role at linebacker. That has not come into fruition as Cox was a healthy scratch in Monday night’s playoff game.
With Vander Esch heading into the upcoming offseason as an unrestricted free agent, it has become imperative that the team is able to bring him back long-term. He is the glue that holds the defense together, and at just 26 years old, he is worth committing money to long term.
While he may not jump off the television screen with dazzling plays like RB Tony Pollard or even S Donovan Wilson, one could argue that Vander Esch is the most valuable upcoming free agent in Dallas.
Superstar Micah Parsons showed his appreciation for Vander Esch in a tweet on Tuesday, voicing his desire for the team to pay him.
That’s a fact! the disrespect he gets is outta control!! He deserves every penny! https://t.co/YgIj8jvDj8— Micah Parsons (@MicahhParsons11) January 17, 2023
Leighton Vander Esch has had a career of ups and downs in Dallas. He had a tremendous rookie season, which was followed by some seasons of less-appealing play due to injuries. He has shown his impact on the Dallas defense, and has proven that he is one of the more valuable players on the team. The front office should be confident in giving him a long-term extension in the offseason to keep him in Dallas for the foreseeable future.