Though there weren't any fans in the stands, the excitement for week one of the NFL could be heard loud and clear through social media platforms. Players, fans, media, and analysts alike were pumped for the start of the regular season and a bit of normalcy in the otherwise abnormal 2020 that we've been living in. For fans of the Dallas Cowboys, that excitement quickly dissipated as the Los Angeles Rams quickly carved through the Cowboys' defense on their way to an opening-drive touchdown.
Their seven-play 75-yard drive was reminiscent of the 2018 divisional playoff loss in a game where the Dallas defense had little answers for what Sean McVay was trying to do offensively.
It took a while for the Cowboys to settle in and begin to slow the Rams down, but the problems of the past began to reemerge as the Cowboys struggled to defend the Rams screen game and their play action passing game. Even with Leighton Vander Esch in the game, it was a struggle to get a stop. Once Vander Esch left with his clavicle injury, the struggles became more profound.
Make no mistake, 20 points should have been enough to get a win for an offense that is as talented as the Dallas Cowboys, so the loss isn't completely on the defense. They held the Cowboys in the game in the second half, holding the Rams to just seven points, and getting the games only turnover.
However, as the game wore on without Leighton Vander Esch, more issues at linebacker became evident. In particular, Jaylon Smith did not seem to have his legs under him or week one.
Now it's possible that with a shortened offseason, conditioning for Smith wasn't where it should have been, but there were several times that he looked slow to change direction and had a hard time keeping up with players like Jared Goff and Tyler Higbee when isolated.
With Leighton Vander Esch our for the foreseeable future and Jaylon Smith struggling yesterday, the Dallas Cowboys have little margin for error in the linebacker group. Joe Thomas steps in for Vander Esch, but it remains to be seen if he'll play the MIKE linebacker spot or if Jaylon will switch back to the spot he played last season.
There won't be any answers for the Cowboys in the free agent market, so they'll have to make due with what they have. The injury to Vander Esch May create opportunities for Justin March, Luke Gifford, and Francis Bernard to see increased playing time as well. The Cowboys need to be better at the second level of the field for the defense to be better. There weren't a lot of positive plays or takeaways from the linebacker group. Jaylon Smith, in particular needs to improve his play and step up and be the leader of this defense.
Jaylon Smith's and Leighton Vander Esch's histories with their respective injuries continues to be concerning. Though it's a clavicle injury for Vander Esch, its relative proximity to the next and the physical nature of the linebacker position doesn't lend to optimism regarding his future.
Jaylon Smith has fully recovered from the devastating knee injury he suffered several years ago, but his lateral mobility and change of direction ability appears to still be limited.
What was looking like a strength at the beginning of the 2018 season now looks to be a problem the Cowboys must overcome in the 2020 season. Even when Leighton Vander Esch comes back, there's no telling how long he'll be back. Even as good as the defense can be, the linebacker corp looks to be a problem.