Know your Eagles Enemy: What is the Limit for the Cowboys’ Linebacking Corps?

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In this instalment of Know your Eagles Enemy, we’re keeping with the defensive side of the ball. Over the span of this week, we’ll get to the bottom of the Dallas defence and try to figure out if they’re legit or a liability. Today we’re taking a look into the linebacking group in the lone star state. Let’s get started.

Linebackers

The modern Cowboys line-backing corps was always somewhat of a one man show, and that was before they lost Anthony Hitchens in free agency this off-season. Dallas fans will argue that they are a top tier defence when Sean Lee is healthy until they are blue in the face. Lee is unarguably the head, heart and soul of the Dallas defence. However, it’s more likely than not that Lee will miss some time in 2018, almost as if it’s carefully written into every season’s script by a Hollywood screenwriter. Sean Lee playing a full season of NFL football is equivalent to me playing a full season of NFL football – it hasn’t happened.

According to Sport Injury Predictor, Lee has suffered 12 injuries in his 7 year professional career. As it feels a bit unsympathetic to speculate how many games he will miss in 2018, let’s take a look at his impact when he is on the field. There is no debate that Sean Lee is a fantastic run defender – according to Pro Football Focus he was the best run defending linebacker in the league in 2017 with a 13.2% stop rate. While his impact won’t always show up on the stat sheet, he is the unquestioned leader of Big D. Nonetheless, the generic spiel from ‘Boys fanatics is that their team’s run defence is automatically and undoubtedly better with Sean Lee in the lineup. Here are the stats:

Dallas Cowboys Sean Lee Games Played Rush Yards Against (Rank)
2014 0 1,650 (8th)
2015 14 1,934 (22nd)
2016 15 1,336 (1st)
2017 11 1,664 (8th)

Taking into account the fact that teams were constantly playing from behind in 2016, it appears as if there is no actual correlation between Sean Lee’s absences and Dallas’ rank. In a season where Lee never touched the field, their run defence fared almost exactly the same as it did last season. However, it would be silly to neglect the difference Lee makes to the defence. Fans would point to the fact that the ‘Boys were 1-4 without Sean Lee last season and their defence allowed significantly more yards in those games – almost double the rushing yards, to be fair. I

would direct them to that fact that they played: the league’s best offence and running back in the LA Rams; Aaron Rodgers; the third best offence (first at the time) and best rushing attack, your Philadelphia Eagles; a surprisingly good LA Chargers offence (4th in yards); and the Redskins, who they held to 14 points. So, at the risk of sounding informal: no duh. To avoid a spat with Dallas fans, I’m half kidding. Sean Lee makes plays and the league takes note. He especially makes plays against division rivals. In nine games against NFC East opponents over the past two years Lee has logged 104 tackles and an interception.

Despite his unique ability as a run stopper, Sean Lee has noticeably declined in pass coverage, with his play speed and pass stop rate falling every year. Per Football Outsiders, Lee’s pass stop rate saw a decline of 19% — 58% to 39% — from 2015 to 2016 (stats for 2017 are not yet available). That being said, despite facing some of the NFL’s premier tight ends in 2017, Dallas only allowed 75 receptions for 747 yards on 110 targets to opposing TEs. That is two more yards and two more receptions on one less target than the Eagles defence. This is almost certainly due to the fact that the Cowboys have a base nickel defence and will generally cover TEs with a slot corner or safety Byron Jones. Where Big D has struggled is in covering receivers out of the backfield. Dallas allowed 97 receptions and 800 yards on 122 targets to running backs last season, good for 28th in the league. They are hoping this will be remedied by one of their young, athletic, up-and-coming linebackers.

Primarily, the ‘Boys will look to 3rd year ‘backer Jaylon Smith for help in pass coverage. Coming off a devastating knee injury he suffered in college, Smith hasn’t gotten the opportunity to fully display what he’s capable of. While he managed 81 tackles last season, he was not quite the explosive disrupting force he was at Notre Dame. At 6’2” 223 pounds, Smith laboriously relies on his athleticism to make plays. The guy looks as if he was chiselled from granite, apparently dropping another 3.5% of his body fat in the off-season.  He’s long and rangy, quick and fluid with good hips, great hands, and hits with malice as you’ll see in the videos below.

https://youtu.be/dVPQ9PUtcl0?t=28

While it must be taken with a grain of salt, as he is not in pads, Jaylon’s fluidity is on full display.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu37RlvqNkY

Concerns with Jaylon stem from anything he can’t make up for with sheer speed and athleticism. So far in his NFL career he has had trouble with missed tackles, shedding blocks and has a tendency to wait to diagnose plays. He often relies too heavily on his athleticism. He struggles to set an edge when he is beat to the spot, and will generally lose battles with lineman if they are able to lock hands on him. Unlike his time at college, Smith can out-hustle, but will struggle to out-muscle NFL opponents.

Accordingly, the Cowboys habitually used him last year as a situational passing down specialist. However, they turned to him in the absence of Anthony Hitchens and Sean Lee, demonstrating the forced faith they have in the young play-maker. It’s telling that the games that Smith has been given the most snaps were the ones most out of reach, with the exception of week four against the LA Rams. Adding weight and muscle in the off-season may prove to be enough to win him the starting job alongside Lee, but unless he is able to learn in a hurry, Jaylon could see his playing time reduced with the addition of Leighton Vander-Esch in the draft. Even still, Smith has the tools to be a fantastic passing down specialist, and has already shown the ability to make a difference in coverage.

Game Score Jaylon Smith Snap Count (%)
2017 Week 2 vs DEN (L) 42-17 68 (88.3%)
2017 Week 4 vs LAR* (L) 35-30 69 (100%)
2017 Week 10 vs ATL (L) 27-7 50 (76%)
2017 Week 13 vs WAS (W) 38-14 44 (73.3%)

* Both Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured.

Speaking of LVE, Dallas’ first round pick was tagged as a possible – if hopeful – selection for the Eagles at 32. Therefore, Philly fans that follow the draft may be familiar with the former Boise State linebacker. After being touted as a second round pick, he shot up draft boards after an incredible combine. Vander-Esch is a big ‘backer (6’4” 256 lbs) with surprising speed (4.65 second 40 yard dash time at the NFL Combine) and a knack for making plays on the football.  He is very instinctive and will diagnose quickly and drive to the ball with purpose, and in a hurry. Something Cowboys fans will be happy to hear, LVE does not have a history of injury. However, he was flagged for injury concerns by other teams heading into the 2018 draft, and has been sidelined during OTAs due to an injured ankle. He was a one year starter at Boise State, and is liable to make bad judgements and will have to work on his technique. This is especially evident when he takes on blockers. He customarily fails to use his hands, instead taking on blocks with his shoulder, and he does not pack the punch you’d expect out of a 260 pound guy. In the videos below you’ll see an almost farcical amount of examples. He routinely gets caught in traffic, and is easily handled by lineman. Ironically, LVE has long, strong arms and a heavy frame, should he learn how to use them to his advantage. Both his ability to take on blockers, and his troubles with misdiagnosing should improve with experience. In space, he is a nightmare. His speed will remind Dallas fans of Sean Lee, and, in fact, he ran a faster 40 time than his Cowboy compatriot. He also rarely misses tackles. Often cited for his above-average IQ and football character in pre-draft interviews, Vander-Esch should learn quickly. He seems unlikely to bust, but NFL types are always wary of one year starters. His film versus Virginia, while lengthy, gives great examples of both the good and bad aspects of his game. You’ll see countless examples of him attempting to take on a block with his shoulder, starting about a minute in to the video.

https://youtu.be/H0Bn4JQ2mqs?t=81

Dallas will also be hoping for a quality contribution from their off-season acquisition Joe Thomas Jr., who came over from Green Bay. Thomas is a 27 year old career special-teamer, looking to make a jump on a new team. He was undrafted in 2014, but carved out a space for himself and had a high of 70 tackles in 2016 with the Packers. Average, but serviceable in coverage, Thomas is mostly known as a hitter  and boy can he thump. The video below shows the 227 pounder knock the decal off Ka’Deem Carey’s helmet. Whether he is able to crack the lineup or not, Thomas will provide assistance to special teams and a boost on rushing downs to a team that desperately needs to be better on third and short.  

The rest of the line-backing corps is made up of returning depth players like Damien Wilson, and new recruits that have bounced around the league: Justin March-Lillard, Tre’von Johnson, and Eric Perkins. If nothing else, this group is young and has plenty of room to grow as a unit.

Best Case: Sean Lee plays his first full professional season. Dallas’ youth movement revitalises the run defence, swarming to the football and making tackles in the backfield. Jaylon Smith finally starts to look like his former self. He’s added weight, made major strides in his rush defence, and proves almost unbeatable in pass coverage. His coming out party is against Christian McCaffrey in the first game of the season, where he sticks to the elusive RB like glue. He proves his worth again against Alvin Kamara and the Saints. Leighton Vander-Esch is as advertised, and coaches are quickly able to wean out bad habits. He is a clear candidate for DROY. Joe Thomas Jr. is the type of special teamer to set a tone for both sides of the ball and provides quality snaps on third and short. He transfers his ability to punch above his weight class to Smith. The defence as a whole is a top 5 run defence, making statements against the Jaguars and Titans early in the season. Dallas’ LBs don’t just look good, they look dominant.

Worst Case: Sean Lee misses close to ten games. In the games that he does play, it is clear that he has lost a step in coverage. The youth group struggles in his absence. Leighton Vander-Esch continues to misdiagnose and struggles mightily against NFL-calibre blockers. Jaylon Smith does not regain his college form, and the team still can’t cover running backs in the passing game. Maliek Collins is overwhelmed early at 1-tech, and the linebackers are forced to step up in the run game. Joe Thomas Jr. remains a special teamer, and is picked on in coverage when he does see the field. Dallas desperately searches for veteran additions to right the ship and ends up handing out an ill-advised and expensive contract to NaVorro Bowman mid-way through the season. Christian McCaffrey embarrasses the young LBs, and Leonard Fournette runs them over early in the season. They never truly recover.

Regardless, week one versus Carolina will be a great test for this group.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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