The Cowboys drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round to take over for Sean Lee one day. They didn’t want it to happen this week against the Lions.
Leighton Vander Esch epitomizes what NFL teams look for in a modern middle linebacker. He’s got the speed to cover skill players in space and he’s not afraid to hit people in the hole. That doesn’t mean the Cowboys wanted him to be their starter during Week 4.
Vander Esch is being pressed into duty because of Sean Lee’s latest injury. The veteran linebacker will miss the Cowboys game against the Lions with a left hamstring injury. He’s probably going to miss somewhere between two and four weeks of action. That means Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will assume larger roles for the Cowboys defense.
Smith has the physicality to do a great job defending the run, but that won’t be a huge priority on Sunday against the Lions. Kerryon Johnson broke the 100-yard mark on the ground for Detroit last week, but that was the first time a running back in Motown had achieved that feat since 2013. It’s highly unlikely the Lions are going to do it two weeks in a row.
Instead, Matt Patricia’s offense will try to put pressure on the Cowboys defense through the air. That’s going to lead to a lot of playing time for Vander Esch. Expect to see him locked in a lot of one-on-one matchups with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage.
Against some teams, the Cowboys might be able to support their linebackers with some safety help. The Lions’ talent at wide receiver makes that impossible. The trio of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay might be the best group of starters in the NFL. The Dallas secondary will have their hands full trying to keep those guys under control.
That’s going to place a ton of pressure on Vander Esch to stop Detroit’s offense from carving them up on underneath routes. Luke Willson isn’t an explosive tight end, but he’s capable of producing solid gains in the middle of the field. His size will present Vander Esch with a serious challenge.
Theo Riddick might be an even bigger concern. He’s a running back who specializes in making plays in the passing game. The Cowboys don’t have any real option to guard him other than trusting Vander Esch to handle him one-on-one. That’s a responsibility for a rookie who’s still finding his feet in the NFL.
In the end, the NFL is an unforgiving place. Vander Esch is going to have to sink or swim on Sunday. His play against the Lions’ versatile passing attack will go a long way towards determining whether or not the Cowboys can win the game.