James D. Smith/AP

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  • Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, two of the best linebackers in the game right now, are the faces of the technically sound but agressive defense in Dallas.
By Conor Orr
November 12, 2018

Forgetting for a moment how decimated the Eagles are by injuries at critical positions, the 27–20 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football was a save-the-season moment for the Cowboys just as the current staff was reaching their patience threshold with the ownership.

The complaints about this year’s Dallas team are well-founded. Despite a wave of creative offensive thought hitting the league and transforming the game as we know it, the Cowboys have remained steadfast in their belief that a pace-setting run game can produce all the favorable matchups they need through the air. They are currently 26th in points per game despite a 40-point performance a month ago against the Jaguars. RB Ezekiel Elliott, the lifeblood of this offense, was seen multiple times gasping for breath, or flat-out chugging along Sunday night as he tried to yank the weight of Jason Garrett’s system behind him.

For Dallas (4-5), their defense remains the only complementary factor. The only thing that is noticeably “new” or “better” about this team from a year ago, or even their memorable 2016 season. With their offense lacking in foresight and diversity, the defense is finding ways to close out games and shut down explosive players. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are two of the best linebackers in football right now.

The benefit of this tandem was seen at the game’s most critical point: On a third-and-two with 1:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, Vander Esch—as the lone safety net on a stunt/blitz combination—evaded a pair of blockers to take down the elusive Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood in the backfield. They were there to shut down a fourth-down attempt early in the second quarter when Smith breezed through his gap to down Josh Adams behind the line. They were there to throw off QB Carson Wentz’s progression on a routine first-and-10 pass to TE Zach Ertz, resulting in Vander Esch’s first career interception.

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On that play, the Cowboys were using a 290-pound (at least) lineman to cut off Wentz’s access to Golden Tate. Smith, meanwhile, cheated into the lane of Wentz’s first read, forcing him to spin his head back toward Ertz, where Vander Esch was waiting to make the pick.

Talk to coordinators about the way to stop a thriving offense rooted in conflicting opposing defenses, and they’ll describe something close to what Dallas displayed on Sunday night. Their front is athletic and versatile. They’re unpredictable and can impact protections from multiple fronts and with multiple blitzes. They are technically sound but, when appropriate, freewheeling and aggressive. 

In a way, they embody the imagination that so many Cowboys fans wish was poured into Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper.

There is no telling whether the Cowboys are truly alive, even in this muddled divisional log jam where no one seems to be winning pretty. They still have to play the Saints, the surging Colts and the Falcons in Atlanta, plus another date with first-place Washington. In theory, Philadelphia will be much healthier by the time they travel to Dallas for a rematch in early December. But if they stay afloat, they will have to hope that defense can still win championships—that it's not too late to counter the offensive explosiveness their own team lacks right now. 

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