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Jaylon Smith’s Versatility Key to Dallas Cowboys Defensive Plans

Last week when speaking to the media, Leighton Vander Esch confirmed that he’d be making the move to the middle linebacker role in the defense while Jaylon Smith would transition to weakside linebacker. Those two positions are generally pretty similar, especially as defenses play an overwhelming majority of their snaps in nickel personnel groupings.

However, freeing Smith up from the roles and responsibilities of playing the MIKE linebacker spot allows him to do something that he’s really good at; rushing the passer.

In 2018, Jaylon Smith had 4 sacks and according to Pro Football Focus had the seventh-highest pass-rushing grade from an off-ball linebacker in the NFL. His 16 pressures ranked 13th in the league and his four sacks put him tied for ninth.

In 2019, his sack total dropped to 2.5 and he dropped to 33rd in pass-rush grade. His 12 total pressures put him at 28th in the NFL. Smith had seven fewer rushes in 2019 than he did in 2018. Not a big difference, however, that’s fewer opportunities for him to make a play on the quarterback.

One reason for the drop off in pass-rush productivity from 2018 to 2019 was the addition of Robert Quinn to the defensive line. Quinn’s pass-rushing ability allowed the Dallas Cowboys to rush with just four more frequently. Even if Smith was sent on the blitz, rushing with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn meant more competition for sacks and pressures than he had in 2018.

With the change from Rod Marinelli to Mike Nolan comes a shift in blitzing philosophy as well. Mike Nolan wants there to be an emphasis on pressure by sending players on the blitz. In a press conference in March, Mike McCarthy mentioned his desire to have a designated fifth rusher. The speculation has been that Jaylon Smith will be that designated fifth rusher.

Whether the Dallas Cowboys are in a four or three-man front, the goal is to send five or six rushers. Generally in a 3-4 alignment, the five players that rush are the three defensive linemen and the two outside linebackers. One of those players is almost certainly to be Aldon Smith. While DeMarcus Lawrence has been working to rush from a two-point stance (standing up), it would be a shift and he could help you some as a 3-4 defensive end, potentially leaving some pass-rushing snaps on the edge for Jaylon Smith opposite Aldon Smith.

New England’s linebackers are an excellent example of what Jaylon Smith could be in this defense. The Cowboys want to play multiple fronts and send lots of pressure. That sounds a lot like the Patriots’ defensive philosophy to me.

Among off-ball linebackers, Dont’a Hightower led the NFL in pass rush attempts with 258. 60 percent of the time when the offense passed, Hightower rushed the passer. Jamie Collins, who also plays for New England rushed the passer on 35.5% of the pass plays. Hightower had seven sacks and Collins had eight sacks in 2019. By comparison, Jaylon Smith only rushed the passer on 65 times when the offense dropped back to pass. That’s just 11% of his defensive pass plays.

Looking closer to home, Linebacker DeMario Davis of the New Orleans Saints spent 2019 under the tutelage of Mike Nolan who served as the Saints’ linebacker coach. In 2019, Davis rushed the passer 158 times and came away with four sacks. That’s nearly two and a half more rush attempts than Jaylon Smith.

Jaylon Smith could theoretically see as much as a 400% increase in the number of times he rushes the passer in 2020. And if that’s the case, he’ll have a career-high in sacks in 2020. If you figure Smith’s sack rate at Hightower’s pass rush number, Smith would have had 10 sacks in 2019. At DeMario Davis’ pass rush number, that’s six sacks.

It’s not so simple to take numbers from one player and apply them to another on a different team, however it shows you the potential that Jaylon Smith has as a pass rusher in 2020 if the Dallas Cowboys

Mike McCarthy has said from the outset that he plans to fit both his offensive and defensive schemes to what his players do best. Putting a greater emphasis on Jaylon Smith rushing the passer will pay tremendous dividends for the Dallas Cowboys. The transition to weakside linebacker will allow Smith to do more of what he does best, rush the passer.

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. I’m not convinced that Smith is more than an average pass rusher from a skill perspective. Seems to m that he lacks that special trait that the rally good one have. He’ll get some sacks by virtue of the increased volume of attempts and his speed alone, but to my eyes, he seems to only really apply pressure when somebody else is tying up the OL. He’s not one to apply pass rushing moves that leave OL reaching for air, etc. He’s a gap blitzer so I suspect his speed will serve him well, but first the OL must be engaged with other players. I’ve not seen Smith be successful with a bull rush or even dis-engage from a block and still apply pressure. I think where he’ll excel is on delayed blitzes where he should be able to see his line to the QB open up then hit that hole. And on the outside, he’l be tested in the screen game as well (though I think as long as he is reading plays well, he can excel there as well).

    • I couldn’t agree more. His ability to rush is based on his ability to time the snap and hit win a gap. But I think he does that extremely well and can be a five or six sack guy.

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