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.