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Evident in Loss, the Dallas Cowboys Have Linebacker Problems

Stopping the run has been an issue in 2020, but also for much of the last few seasons. The Baltimore Ravens ran all over the Dallas Cowboys last night on Tuesday Night Football. Not surprising, the Ravens came in as one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. And the Dallas Cowboys were one of the worst teams in the NFL defending the run.

It all came to a head on Tuesday night as Lamar Jackson and the three-headed trio of J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Mark Ingram laid waste to the Cowboys front seven en route to rushing for 294 yards on 37 attempts.

While there are certainly issues on the Dallas interior, those issues don’t completely explain the poor play from the linebacker position. Jaylon Smith has been the target for much criticism this season, but he shouldn’t be alone. Leighton Vander Esch has struggled mightily in his return from injury. The duo has struggled reading hand offs at the mesh point or dealing with misdirection. And that’s something that’s gone on for years.

Going back to the Los Angeles Rams game in the 2018 Divisional Round, that’s exactly how they beat the Cowboys; misdirection.

Their two starters at linebacker, two of the biggest investments on the defense have struggled to be consistent playmakers in this defense or even simply adequate run defenders. Smith and Vander Esch once looked to be one of the premiere young linebacker tandems in the NFL back in 2018 until they were exposed in that playoff matchup to the Rams.

It’s now been three years and the book is out on the Cowboys. Run the football, use some misdirection, and you’ll beat the Cowboys. They don’t have the players to consistently win in the running game, especially at the linebacker level.

On Tuesday night, both Smith and Vander Esch struggled to get off of blocks, even when it was simply a fullback. Unless they’re able to run free, which isn’t happening with much regularity as teams run straight at the Cowboys defense, the two aren’t able to make many plays. Yes, they have a lot of tackles, but those tackles are generally after efficient gains by the running back.

The Dallas Cowboys will have a lot of questions to answer on the defensive side of the football. Linebacker is something they have to figure out and I don’t think the answers are simply finding better players to put around them.

Though it’s unlikely to happen, the Cowboys may need to admit that Vander Esch was a miss as a first round draft pick in 2018 and Jaylon Smith got paid too soon. Until they’re able to find some better play at the position, those two will continue to be a liability on the football field. The simplest path to victory for any opponent right now is to run right at the Dallas Cowboys. We’ve seen it all year and with four games left in the regular season, it’s very likely we’ll see more big rushing days.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. Last year or so, this linebacking core was one of new up and coming groups, now they look like crap. Is it them or is it that crappy Nolan scheme…….me thinks it a scheme problem

  2. Agree John, and this is not news that many did not see coming for a long time. Time to STOP neglecting and trying too fill the D-line with “over the hill” FAs, UDFA, practice squad cast offs, ETC. We need to DRAFT TOP LINE DTs. Also INSTINCTIVE LBs that can SHED and TACKLE. I liked the J Smith story but it seems he is not getting the job done. Likewise with LVE, too inconsistent. Maybe part of the poor LB play has to do with the D-lline not hold up at the point, also.

    But now right, obviously this team is in great need of DEFENSIVE upgrades. The draft should be HEAVY on the FRONT SEVEN. IMHO, our Safety position is in worse shape than CB position. Like Diggs, and J Lewis is underrated and should be signed. As this year has progressed, I am more convinced that LB should be our top priority, and LB Micah Parsons is considered best DEFESIVE PLAYER IN DRAFT. Should be a no brainer

  3. The whole defense is a dumpster fire. Too many holes to fix in one year through the draft. It will take multiple years to repair and by then who knows if the offense will still be a strength. With Dak set to soak up way too much of the salary cap this team is doomed to many more years of the purgatory of mediocrity. It would help if we had coaches that could adapt their style to the players they have and teach and motivate. The HC and DC both seem to lack these important skills.

  4. I’ve never seen a worse linebacker group!!! There confused before the play….. during the play and then smile after the play like it’s cute that someone just made them look silly!!! But as much the defense Sucks….. It’s the Culture of the Cowboys that’s the real issue!!! The Cowboys want to produce STARS not football players!!! So I don’t care who they bring in or draft…….and soon as you get in grained in the culture you may become a STAR but you definitely will stop being a Football Player!!! And any real Cowboys fan can name 15 players that came to the team one way and then turned into a Bum!!!!!! Most of the players that leave all tell the same story about the Culture…… It’s the Cowboys Resort…… Not the Cowboys Football Camp!!! Until that changes……they will continue to pay player to play better. As opposed to raising the expectation of playing football and not becoming celebrities. I can go in and on….. But what good would it do???? Watching that game and players literally give up in the middle of the play was DISGUSTING!!!!

  5. It’s the scheme!!! Look at the history of mike Nolan as DC…has always been one of the worst defenses bring back Kris Rischard!!!

  6. Todd, I agree with you about Prescott “soaking up way too much” money, and potentially “doom”(ing) our team to “mediocrity” for years.

    We already lost GOOD DEFENSIVE FA players, at least in part, because of his outrageous contract demands. M Collins, B Jones, R Quinn, J Heath, etc.

    On top of that, he REJECTED MANY GENEROUS contract offers, which IMO, IS A SLAP IN THE FACE TO ALL COWBOY FANS. Does this guy want to be a Cowboy or not.

    If we really want to “rebuild” THEN let’s really REBUILD, and maybe start with ridding ourselves of Prescott and his neverending contract drama by trading him for as many draft picks as possible and then drafting a QB.

    I would be OK with one of the top three. Start from scratch, and with these extra picks, hopefully build our defense back to respectability.

    Or keep doing what we’re doing???

    More money would be available for FA acquisitions, and to retain our own players, and for UDFA, etc.

  7. At this point with the draft coming up I think we need to consider 4 players either Penei Sewell if he drops, Patrick Surtain or Caleb Farley for a CB or Micah Parsons at LB.

  8. Justin, I’m good with Parsons if we don’t dump Prescott. If Prescott is traded than of course we take a QB with first pick. At this juncture don’t see a CB or OT with the horrible condition of our run defense and assuming Parsons is available. Why not take the best defensive player in the draft that also fills a huge need? Is Surtain or Farley going to stop the run?

  9. Justin- My exact thoughts. I want Sewell because he’s as close as a can’t miss prospect that you’ll see in a draft and yes we all know we need defense but Tyron Smith is done(unfortunately) and by drafting Sewell, he would be an upgrade over Smith at this stage and he would play to the strength of the team, which of course is the offense and most importantly he would help protect the big investment in Dak(assuming they extend him, which I think they have to). The bad news is that the Bengals will probably take Sewell at #3 overall, assuming that they don’t beat our Cowboys this Sunday, which I doubt. If Sewell is off the board, I would trade down just a little bit and then take one of those three of Surtain, Farley or Parsons. I know he could be a stud and each case is different but I’m a little nervous about them drafting a LB that high, the last two first round LBs in LVE and all the way back to B.Carpenter haven’t been so great. Personally, I’d take Surtain II if they go defense to pair with his old college teammate.

  10. Its the players. Stop going bargain basement for DT. Stop minimizing the importance of this position. Stuffing the run and pushing the pocket back into quarterbacks face is vital. Nobody is coaching the linebackers. I even see Sean Lee taking missteps, getting caught in the wash. So its not just LV and JS. Its also the scheme of the last and current regime. Reactionary defense doesn’t work. They are not adapting to new NFL. You have to run blitz on every down, on the way to the quarterbacks. You also need hard-nosed cornerbacks, willing to tackle and jam receivers, at the line of scrimmage.

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