FRISCO, Texas – In perhaps the biggest play of the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, Leighton Vander Esch trusted his instincts and his eyes. That’s not always easy for a rookie.
“I knew they were going to try something kind of nifty, I guess you could say,” the Cowboys rookie linebacker said. “They tried that screen and I kind of knew it was coming, so I just put myself in position, make sure I was outside to turn it back in and just made the play.”
The Eagles were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Coming out of the two-minute warning, Philadelphia was at the Dallas 30-yard line and attacked the Cowboys’ defense with a screen pass that had given them fits more than a few times during the season.
At the snap, the Cowboys rushed five, bringing middle linebacker Jaylon Smith on a blitz, but Vander Esch’s eyes never left running back Corey Clement. As Clement delayed his release, Vander Esch mirrored the running back knowing two offensive linemen would be heading his way.
As quarterback Carson Wentz pivoted to his right, opening up to make the pass to Clement, Vander Esch took a quick peek at right guard Brandon Brooks and center Jason Kelce. With the pass in the air, Vander Esch planted his foot and burst toward Clement. His speed left Brooks lunging and unable to get a clean block.
Vander Esch closed down nearly six yards with just two steps, tripping up Clement for a 5-yard loss. The Eagles’ fourth-down attempt ended a yard short of a first down, giving the Cowboys the ball back and helping them to a critical 27-20 win.
“He has a feel for plays, there’s no question about that,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “He has the athleticism to go get the football, his quickness and speed are outstanding, his instincts are outstanding but he’s still a young player.”
Vander Esch was credited by the Cowboys’ coaches with 19 tackles against the Eagles, the most by a rookie since the team started tracking those stats in 1983. In fact, Vander Esch has the top two tackles counts by a rookie. His 18 tackles against the Houston Texans tied Anthony Hitchens for the previous high by a rookie.
Vander Esch also had the first interception of his career against the Eagles, picking off a first-quarter pass from Wentz that led to a Dallas field goal.
Despite playing only 399 of 578 defensive snaps in nine games -- and just four starts -- the coaches have Vander Esch down for 96 tackles, and he almost assuredly will break the team record for tackles in a season by a rookie, set by Dexter Coakley, who had 136 in 1997.
“He’s the best tackler on the team,” Smith said of Vander Esch. “He’s a helluva guy. He’s a sponge, soaking everything in. He learns so much from [Sean Lee] and myself, and he’s going to be around for a long time.”
The number of tackles he has made is impressive -- so too are the few tackles he has missed. Unofficially, it is at three. He had two missed tackles in the Cowboys’ loss to the Tennessee Titans in the second half.
“He’s really good with his angles,” Cowboys linebackers coach Ben Bloom said. “He’s fast. His length, you can say, 'He’s tall and he can’t break down,' but he break downs well for a tall guy. His sheer arm length allows him to have a wide tackling range. I think there’s a lot of factors, but it starts with his speed and his angles and his ability to close distance.”
A year ago at this time, Vander Esch was something of an unknown at Boise State. He was in his first year as a starter, although he had played a lot of snaps during his sophomore season. He was not far removed from eight-man football at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho.
Now he is one of the reasons why the Cowboys can breathe a little easier without Lee.
When Lee missed five games last year with hamstring injuries, the defense imploded. The Cowboys gave up nearly 100 total yards, 45 rushing yards and 8 more points per game in contests without Lee. The Cowboys lost four of the five games.
In the four games Lee has missed this season, the Cowboys are allowing roughly 70 more yards per game, but fewer rushing yards (80 to 110) and fewer points (17.5 to 20.2) per game. This year, the Cowboys are 3-1 without Lee.
“We all know what happened in the past when Sean was out,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We didn’t do too well. But [Vander Esch is] stepping up, and that play he made at the end of the fourth quarter was big time.”
When the Cowboys selected Vander Esch in the first round in April, some people were upset and puzzled. Derwin James fell close to the Cowboys’ pick, No. 19 overall, but the team never made a bid to move up to take the safety. Receivers DJ Moore and Calvin Ridley were available when the Cowboys picked, but Vander Esch was their guy all along.
“I don’t care how prepared you are, how smart you are, how instinctive you are, there are going to be some situations you’re going to be in that you’re not ready for and you have to learn from them and keep going. I think Leighton has done a good job of that,” Garrett said. “I think he’s getting better and better week by week.
"Playing linebacker is a challenging position. There are a lot of different conflicts you have to deal with. You have to be a very good run defender. You also have to deal with play-action pass, the naked game, all the different things that go with playing that position. It’s not easy, but he goes about it the right way.”