Jaylon Smith finally looked like a Pro Bowl linebacker again in the Cowboys' victory over the New York Giants. But with the G-Men easily being one of the league's worst teams so far in 2020, the question remains what Jaylon can do against some real competition. An opportunity to quell the criticism is coming in the form of Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football.
It's not that Arizona is an NFL juggernaut or anything, being only 3-2 on the year and having bad losses to the Lions and Panthers. But it's Murray's dynamic running ability from the quarterback position that puts a spotlight on Jaylon, who will no doubt be a key figure in helping contain Kyler and trying to slow down the Cardinals offense.
Stopping a dual-threat QB requires good reads and reactions, which were a struggle for Smith for the first four weeks of 2020. He seemed consistently lagging or lost on plays and nothing close to the impact player we've enjoyed the last two seasons.
Last week gave us a different and much-improved Jaylon Smith. He was all over the field and finally in the right places, leading the team with 14 tackles and three of those for losses.
But Daniel Jones isn't going to burn you with his legs, which gives linebackers a little more freedom to get aggressive in their attacking the other players on offense. Given the Giants' obvious struggles right now offensively without Saquon Barkley, it was a perfect situation for Smith to loosen up and play with more confidence.
Meanwhile, Kyler Murray's legs are on fire right now. After five weeks he leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards (296) and touchdowns (5),
The Cowboys are going to need Jaylon to be even better this week for their beleaguered defense to have a shot at keeping Murray in check.
Another interesting factor for the Cowboys is how the team responds to losing Dak Prescott. It could cause doubt and despair for some but light a fire under others.
Jaylon Smith has always seemed like a guy who responds to low-hanging motivational fruit. Prescott's injury is an easy rallying cry for the entire team, and especially those players who are already looked to as the leaders.
Smith no doubt already felt that pressure with Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee missing, being the only linebacker of notable consequence currently playing. And he's been a workhorse this season as he hasn't missed a single defensive snap so far in all five games.
But there were times in Weeks 1-4 when Jaylon's play was clearly a liability for the Cowboys. If he allows the challenge of stopping Kyler Murray to get in his head, that same hesitance and poor decision making could be a recipe for disaster this Monday night.
The hope is that Smith's early-season struggles were mostly due to adjusting to a new scheme under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan. Jaylon was vocal a few weeks ago that the defensive changes were too complex and making it harder to execute on the field.
The Cowboys had the luxury of keeping things simpler last week against a bad Giants offense. The Cardinals won't make things so easy, and especially with the dangerous wrinkle of Murray's running skills.
Dallas has been waiting for their defense to step up all year and need it more than ever now that Prescott is gone. Andy Dalton may be able to get some good things done but he's not going to produce at the same volumes that Dak did.
That puts the onus on Jaylon Smith and few other key defensive players to take their game to another level. If they don't, then Kyler Murray and the Cardinals could embarrass this team badly in prime time.