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Revisiting the 2019 NFCE Rankings: Cowboys Defense

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Hogs Haven does a film rewind to the 2018 season to evaluate key players in the Cowboy defense

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the offseason, we evaluated the major players on NFCE teams in order to rank the teams in the division by position group.


Here’s a link to the entire “Ranking the NFC East” series


Since the Redskins are facing one of those division rivals this week, now might be a good time to revisit those player evaluations as a preview of the upcoming matchup. This article covers a few of the major players on the Cowboys’ defense we reviewed this past off-season.


Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys

Demarcus Lawrence (along with Ryan Kerrigan) has been one of the most productive edge rushers in the NFC East the last 2 years. I haven’t chosen to show a clip of a Demarcus Lawrence sack in the film study below, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t produced them. Although Lawrence’s early years were somewhat muted due to injury and usage, he really broke out in 2017 with 14.5 credited sacks. He followed up with another 10.5 sacks last year.

I really didn’t know much about Lawrence going into this film analysis other than his production. After watching a lot of Lawrence on film, I think he is another very good, but not quite elite edge rusher who is an interesting contrast to Ryan Kerrigan.

Kerrigan is more explosive and seems to have more power on his initial punch to knock a tackle back and get him off his base, whereas Lawrence has more fluidity to get past an OT around the edge and displays more counters if he doesn’t win on first contact. Lawrence is also very much an effort player who keeps trying to work his way into a play and be disruptive even if he isn’t able to get a sack or tackle. Overall, I think Kerrigan is a better athlete and shows more ability to bully lesser athletes and win on first contact, but Lawrence shows more ability to work past some of the best RTs in the NFL using effort and counters. As a 4-3 DE, Lawrence isn’t asked to play a role in coverage.


Demarcus Lawrence

Cowboys @ Redskins, Week 7 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube


Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, September 13, 2019

[4:23] This is an obvious passing play as it’s a Hail Mary at the end of the 1st half. It’s clear that the Redskins are essentially having Bibbs help double team Lawrence in order to seal the right side. I wanted to include this as an example of teams double-teaming Lawrence because there were several examples I saw through my film review of teams double-teaming Lawrence in long passing situations or finding other ways to game plan against him, and this is the mark of a great player.


Demarcus Lawrence

Cowboys vs Eagles, Week 14 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube


Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, September 13, 2019

[4:01] Lawrence is stonewalled by Lane Johnson, completely taken out of the play. I just wanted to include this to show that the best RTs in the NFL are still able to control Lawrence, though few RTs have the length and strength of Lane Johnson.


Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, September 13, 2019

[7:28] That being said, Lawrence uses a nice spin move here to get past Johnson, although he isn’t quite able to get to Wentz in time to affect the pass. Plays like this show his ability to keep working past an OT if he doesn’t win on first contact.


Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, September 13, 2019

[9:18] Lawrence isn’t able to get past Johnson, but shows good awareness and effort jumping up to try to block the pass. I saw a lot of effort plays like this one from Lawrence, he never stops trying to be disruptive and make a play on the ball.


Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys

LVE 1

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Vander Esch does a great job following Wentz’s eyes and playing the route by Ertz and Tate. Wentz shouldn’t have thrown this to Ertz, and Vander Esch takes advantage.


Ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Here Vander Esch reads the screen and uses his athleticism to get around Kelce and Brooks to stop this screen for a loss of 4 yards.

Vander Esch outperformed expectations from a lot of people this past year. Some said he was a reach in round 1, yet, despite not starting for 1/4 of the games, he still got 100 tackles, which shows how much help he is run support and how good his instincts are.


Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

Jaylon Smith recognizes the play quickly and uses his speed to close the gap and cut off Barkley for a loss of 3.


ignore...

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

On this play Smith is blitzing and utilizes the good stunt to get behind Joe Staley to come up with a sack fumble.


Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

This is another example of how fast Jaylon Smith is to the ball. He recognizes the play and breaks to the outside with Melvin Gordon. He’s able to use his hands and athleticism to beat the block attempt without losing much momentum in gaining ground on running back to stop him for no gain.

With Vander Esch and Smith the Cowboys have two great linebackers, and, considering that NFL defenses play a lot of sub packages, having two guys with this level of talent allows their coaches to feel better about stopping the run while defending the pass even in those packages. Jaylon isn’t as thick as Vander Esch, but he is the better athlete, and both have tremendous instincts, allowing them to make big plays all over the field for the Cowboys.


Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys

Byron Jones was a late 1st round pick by the Cowboys in the 2015 draft. A tremendous athlete who tested very well at the combine with a 44.5” vertical jump, 4.43s 40 yard dash, and measuring at 6’1” and 199 lbs, he was projected by some to be a top-15 selection, but likely fell due to medical concerns (shoulder surgery) and concerns about what position he would play. He started out playing safety in college before converting to play corner his final two years.

After drafting him, the Cowboys converted Jones back to safety. He struggled in his first 3 years in the NFL, playing well enough to start, but not living up to the expectations that come with being a 1st round pick.

That all changed in 2018 with the hiring of Kris Richard (former Seahawks DB coach and DC). Richard was hired by the Cowboys as a passing defense coordinator, and quickly decided to move Jones back to CB, where he thrived in his new role, locking down the left WR on most plays. Although Jones didn’t record a single interception in 2018, he had the 2nd most pass breakups among CBs in the NFL.

I ended up watching a lot more tape of Jones than I intended because he’s a difficult player to understand. He is a good cover corner who has the speed and acceleration to keep pace with most WRs in man coverage. In addition to that, he is a good tackler and is particularly good at punching the ball during a catch to force an incompletion.

However, he lacks the vision and field awareness to read a QB’s eyes and go to where a play will develop. Instead, he is a reactionary CB who is best suited to sticking to a WR and taking his queues from what is going on right in front of him. He is best used close to the line of scrimmage, and struggles more the further back from the line he gets. I suspect both his college and NFL teams tried playing him at safety first because of his range, but finally realized his lack of field awareness was uncoachable, making him much better suited to play boundary CB.

In addition, he is willing to make physical plays, but isn’t strong enough to consistently jam WRs and frequently gets blocked out of running plays. I also noticed a strange weakness in that he gets burned a lot by deep crossing routes (but not shallow crossing routes). I think he has trouble redirecting himself once he’s got momentum built up.

Byron Jones

Cowboys @ Seahawks, Week 3 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[0:14] Jones does a very good job sticking with a WR like glue on a very shallow crossing route. Although he doesn’t have the awareness to see the pass coming and deflect it, he’s in position to knock the ball away once it has been caught.


Ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[1:32] Jones attempts to jam the WR at the line, but it looks like the WR wins that fight and Jones backpedals to stay ahead of him. Although he’s looking downfield, Jones doesn’t see the pass in time to deflect it, though he is able to hit the ball hard enough after it’s caught to knock it loose and force the incompletion. This play shows several aspects of his play that I saw in other plays. As with the failed jam, Jones is willing to attempt physical plays, but he isn’t strong enough to win many of those matchups, and I frequently saw him get blocked out of plays. His failure to see the pass coming his way is representative of what I think is his general poor vision and ability to see what is going on away from his part of the field. His strong tackle and ability to punch out the ball is something I saw frequently as well.


Byron Jones

Cowboys @ Texans, Week 5 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[1:06] Jones matches up with DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins runs a deep crossing route, and Jones can’t change direction and accelerate fast enough to keep him covered, instead, trailing him after he breaks inwards. I noticed Byron Jones get beat fairly regularly on deep crossing routes like this, but not on shallow crossing routes. I think he has good enough acceleration and speed to stay with most WRs in a footrace. But when he’s already running in one direction, he has a lot of difficulty transitioning to a different direction, either because he lacks the agility or balance to redirect.


Ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[7:32] Hopkins sells a subtle fake inside, then runs outside and gives Jones a shove to blow past him. However, Jones does a good job turning and accelerating to keep pace. Although Jones never sees the pass coming his way, he reads Hopkins to jump at the right time and break up the pass with his back turned to the QB. Jones is much better when playing off the WR right in front of him rather than having to read and react to the QB’s eyes or the development of the play down the field. This play also showcases his leaping ability and athleticism.


Chidobe Awuzie, Dallas Cowboys

Chidobe Awuzie (pronounced: ah-wooz-yeh) was a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in the 2017 draft. At 6’0” and 202 lbs, and running a 4.43s 40 yard dash, he has all the measurables of a prototypical cover CB. His rookie year in the NFL was plagued by injury, causing him to see limited playing time, and producing at less than 100% when on the field. However, he came into 2018 healthy and only missed one game due to injury.

From watching video of Awuzie, I think he’s a developing cover corner who has the potential to be extremely good with continued development. I watched plays from 4 of his games for this review, and he improved very noticeably throughout the course of the season. He plays even faster than his 4.43 speed, and had no trouble keeping pace with speedsters like Marvin Jones Jr or Julio Jones. Unlike Byron Jones, he has good field awareness and play recognition and is an asset, whether hanging back in zone or moving close to the line in man coverage. He’s more physical than I expected, given his size, and is able to effectively jam WRs at the line and hand fight with them while running. He’s an effective tackler and slightly above average in run defense.

Playing opposite Byron Jones, it seemed like teams choose to pick on Awuzie early and often at the beginning of the season, and he frequently got beat. But when he got beat, it was usually because he recognized the play or saw the ball just a fraction of a second too late — things that he was able to improve upon as he got more experience under his belt. As the season wore on, it seemed like teams shifted their strategy away from picking on Awuzie to picking on Jones, or just avoiding both of them altogether. As evidence of this development, here are Awuzie’s stats over the beginning and end of the season:

First 8 games: 2 pass defenses, 0 interceptions

Last 8 games: 9 pass defenses, 1 interception

Chidobe Awuzie

Cowboys vs Lions, Week 4 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube

Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[3:39] Awuzie actually does a very good job of running with speedster WR Marvin Jones Jr., reading his body language and then looking back in time to make a play, but he just seems a hair late locating the ball in the air. The Lions picked on Awuzie numerous times in this game, and he always seemed in good position, but slightly late in his reaction.


Ignore this

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[7:28] Awuzie is draped all over WR Kenny Golladay on this play, and indeed the announcer initially thought he had broken up the pass. It’s only because of perfect ball placement and a very acrobatic catch by Golladay that he made the reception. Awuzie was again a bit late turning back and locating the ball though, which shows how thin the margin for error is in the NFL.


Chidobe Awuzie

Cowboys @ Falcons, Week 11 highlights | NFL 2018 on YouTube

[3:47] This play is a little hard to interpret from the highlight film because the camera doesn’t stay on Awuzie, but I’ll walk through it with some All-22 screen shots. Awuzie originally runs with Calvin Ridley from the line of scrimmage. As the play develops, he turns back and realizes the pass is going to Mohammed Sanu, who is running a crossing route from the other side of the field. He breaks off of Ridley and races to Sanu, almost getting there in time to break up the pass, but getting the tackle instead. I think this play (in week 11) shows an improved level of reaction time and field awareness compared to week 4 against the Lions. It also shows a level of field awareness and ability to help elsewhere on the field that Byron Jones lacks.


Everyone can ignore this (and more to follow). I just needed a place to publish some GIFs that I want to embed elsewhere.

Posted by Bill Horgan on Friday, July 5, 2019

[5:33] Awuzie gets a slight jam on Julio Jones at the line, then does an excellent job running with him on a deep route. Unlike the earlier similar play against Marvin Jones Jr, this time Awuzie doesn’t bother turning to locate the ball, focusing instead on reading Julio’s body language to time the pass, and tying up Julio’s hands moments before it gets there. This was an excellent defense by Awuzie. Not many CBs can keep pace with Julio Jones and beat him in a hand fight. Awuzie showed a lot of growth over the course of the season.


Having reviewed these players, how do you think the Cowboys defense stacks up to the Redskins offense? Has anything changed since the preseason to affect your confidence?

Poll

Who is the Cowboys’ best defensive player?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Demarcus Lawrence
    (62 votes)
  • 36%
    Leighton Vander Esch
    (56 votes)
  • 19%
    Jaylon Smith
    (30 votes)
  • 0%
    Byron Jones
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Chidobe Awuzie
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Other (explain below)
    (2 votes)
152 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which defense is more daunting?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Eagles
    (46 votes)
  • 71%
    Cowboys
    (113 votes)
159 votes total Vote Now

Poll

If you could force the Cowboys to trade one player (contract included) on defense to the Redskins for a late round pick, who would it be?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Demarcus Lawrence
    (26 votes)
  • 57%
    Leighton Vander Esch
    (87 votes)
  • 13%
    Jaylon Smith
    (21 votes)
  • 1%
    Byron Jones
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Chidobe Awuzie
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Xavier Woods
    (0 votes)
  • 8%
    No thanks, I’m good
    (13 votes)
152 votes total Vote Now