Maher’s kick floats across AT&T stadium, through the uprights to make the Dallas Cowboys 2-8. Yes, 2-8. As Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News writes,
“the Cowboys are 1-7 over the last three seasons in games Lee has missed because of injury. Since 2015, the Cowboys defense has allowed an average of 19.7 points and 324.6 yards per game when Lee has played and 27.5 points and 380.6 yards per game when he’s been out”.
Historically a Lee injury was a death sentence for the Cowboys, other than short stunts by former linebackers Rolando McClain or Anthony Hitchens, Dallas has had zero answers when Lee has an injury.
As we get further and further removed from the draft, the unenthusiastic takes of Leighton Vander Esch coming out of Boise State seem to have vanished. With prototypical size and athleticism that allows him to pursue sideline to sideline, the measurables were exciting. With the inability to routinely take on blocks and shed from them, the tape was displeasing to some. LVE’s bubble directs him to being a WLB, and a potentially really good one.
In four games, Vander Esch is second on the team in total tackles at 26 (22 solo). As Sunday was his first start for the Cowboys, LVE also tied second on the team against the Lions with five. It should be expected that his volume of chances to do this are there, however LVE, Damien Wilson, and Joe Thomas have unlocked the myth of the LB rotation in this defense. A fantasy that Cowboys fans could never believe to be true, Vander Esch is possibly replacing the legend that is Sean Lee, who has roamed across all NFL lands wreaking any havoc he desired.
Something Lee has done very well and makes him elite is being able to dictate where the ball is going from reading the QB’s eyes, then making the play. Check out Vander Esch with the open field close out and tackle on Golden Tate.
#55 leighton Vander Esch showing strength and closing speed. A DB missed this exact route and it led to a touchdown earlier in the game. Nice job by the first round pick pic.twitter.com/jAYayAxtJR
— Jo-Jo-Jo🇵🇭🏴☠️✭ (@demipinoy) October 1, 2018
Remember, strength was a key issue in scouting LVE, but he made up for it here against a bigger body by taking on the block, then tripping the runner for the stop.
Talk about an old-school 90s type of play. I bet Lions FB Nick Bellore (6-1/250) isn't used to seeing many backers bigger than him, but Vander Esch not only brings the AA, but also the rare size to plug holes (6-4/256) too. Awesome job filling & making the tackle from the rookie: pic.twitter.com/mlNF9jUstp
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 2, 2018
Then this was just a phenomenal play, and partially the reason his game has been better than Jaylon’s on the season thus far. Work out then, Vander Esch.
Major steps are being taken in Vander Esch’s game quickly as the snap count increases. Will this allow the Cowboys training staff to not even rush Lee back if they planned too? The challenge ahead next week against the Houston Texans calls for the secondary mostly, but they possess a young, mobile QB in Deshaun Watson that can make plays with his legs. In addition, though Lamar Miller has been all but expected since joining the Texans, he’s a veteran that knows the game and performed well at times. With a lingering hamstring issue for Lee, expect Vander Esch to start yet again, gliding around NRG stadium come Sunday night.
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