Sturm: Examining the Vander Esch-Smith position swap - Is it the right call for Dallas?

Iamtdg

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By Bob Sturm 2h ago

Surely, this has been the slowest early August in recent Dallas Cowboys history when it comes down to anything news-worthy. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about

Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith appear to be switching specific linebacker roles in the Cowboys defense for 2020. Now, of course, we are doing an enormous amount of guesswork on what that means, given that we aren’t positive what the defense is going to look like. Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli are no longer at the Star, and Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula are now running things. I don’t assume they particularly care what the roles were for everyone in 2019, because they weren’t around, and it wasn’t like the defense was dominant at all. The only argument for keeping the scheme intact would be if you thought it was already top-notch. But if it was top-notch, there is a great chance Richard and Marinelli would still be here anyway. Perhaps Robert Quinn and Byron Jones would still be here, too. Who can say?

So, without clarity on what the scheme would be and with no incentive for the new coaching staff to share information with us on the outside, you must know we would be doing some guessing with a full training camp. Even when we are right there, unless you are looking for something specific (and even know it, were you to see it), training camp practices don’t teach observers too much when it comes to intricate designs. It is just a blur of giant humans running around and into each other.

With that in mind, what did Leighton Vander Esch have to say to reporters?

Media: I know you’re still playing linebacker, obviously, but have you noticed any, I guess, striking differences in what Mike is asking you all to do in this scheme of opposed to the what the last staff did?

LVE: I think it’s mainly just disguising and just knowing and simplifying things and making sure you’re you know what you’re looking at your keys. It’s really detailed, and I think we just keep adding things to our arsenal that we’re gonna be able to throw out there on the field come game day, but just the variety and just being able to play fast.

Media: Are you preparing to play Mike Linebacker? And how’s that going for you?

LVE: Yeah, I mean, you can call it Mike. You can call it Will. In today’s age playing football, Mike and Will are pretty much identical. But yeah, I mean, I guess if you want to call me the Mike, call me the Mike. Jaylon obviously is playing the Will. He might get pulled out of the box a little bit more, and the Mike stays in the box, more but as far as techniques and how you play, they’re the same thing.

Now, let’s start with the fact that Vander Esch may or may not be telling the full truth. Often when you discuss things with players, they quickly can sniff out if you have any idea what you are talking about when it comes to Xs and Os. I don’t blame them because honestly, most media have no idea. That’s not ideal, but a million things aren’t ideal these days.

Anyway, the nuances between Mike (middle) and Will (weakside) linebackers are definitely there, but are they miles different from the variations between strongside and weakside defensive ends, free and strong safeties, or outside and inside wideouts? The fact is all of this matters, but the average fan can enjoy the game without seeing all of those intricate details, and players are not here to educate the audience. They are here to answer their 10 minutes of questions and go get lunch.

Basically, Mike and Will are the two full-time linebackers in any modern defense. We used to have 4-3 defenses and 3-4 defenses, but teams are in nickel on 70 percent of snaps now, which means that most downs show almost every defense in some variation of a 4-2 defense. Yes, that changes in running situations that are short-yardage or goal-line, but for the most part, seven out of 10 plays and almost 50 of every game’s 65 offensive snaps only need two linebackers on the field. In fact, we are seeing more and more that could even mean teams are switching to dime and running either a 4-1-6 or a 3-2-6 and getting very small. Green Bay played six defensive backs for 51 percent of their snaps this past year, which basically means they have moved a safety into one of the two remaining linebacker spots. It might be noted that teams playing a lot of dime to deal with all of the 11 personnel (3 WRs) or even 10 personnel (4 WRs, 0 TEs) are now being killed by offenses that quickly use play-action zone runs and big personnel like San Francisco (see the NFC Championship Game).

The game is ever-evolving, and it will continue to in 2020. Innovation is never complete. Every action requires a reaction and another reaction and on and on.

To Vander Esch’s point, the Mike linebacker stays in the box more and the Will linebacker travels plenty with RBs and slots and TEs and even QBs. It is best to have the linebacker with the best athletic traits be the Will, as he is often uncovered and therefore can run things down in space more easily. The Mike may have to shed more blockers on his way to the ball, but often has a shorter route to the ball as well.

The Will linebacker is closer to the line of scrimmage sometimes, as he would theoretically be opposite the opposing tight end as an overhand defender off the defensive end. The Mike LB is often lined up over the center.

Want to get confused? Here are two pictures from 2019. Identify the Mike!



“55 is the Mike!”

Ok, let’s try another one.



“55 is definitely the Mike!”

I think you probably went two for two.

So, now, I am about to tell you that Vander Esch was primarily the Will last year and Smith was primarily the Mike. But, as you can see, that was not always the case.

In a nutshell, Vander Esch had the duty of chasing running backs into space and chasing down plays on the perimeter more, while Jaylon would patrol the middle of the defense, spy and blitz the QB and also fall vertically on pass routes that were his job (“Over” routes in Cover 3). Now, if I were to be so bold, I believe they are changing roles a bit.

Why?

Perhaps it is to protect the health of LVE. Perhaps it is because Jaylon is looking better and better at running and changing directions (something he could not do in 2017 at all), and they actually want to rush him more as part of a newly robust blitzing defense.

Or perhaps Leighton had a very poor year and they are trying to fix two things with one move.


The Boise State linebacker played about 60 percent of his available snaps and missed roughly the same amount of tackles in 2019 (12) as he did in 2018 (13). As you know, he barely played at all in the final two months of the season. This is all very disconcerting.

Vander Esch had these issues, of course, primarily against Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, Aaron Jones and Dalvin Cook. But that is the league. You are paid the big bucks to deal with the best players on the planet, and in this league, everyone has a guy who can make you miss in a phone booth. I assume between health and performance that concerns of their 23-year-old former first-round pick already diminishing might have the Cowboys in a spot of panic. So let’s find a spot where he can flourish. If his body is already giving him problems, that isn’t great. It is also why I preach that we should avoid positions high in the first round that, on average, do not have long average careers. Running backs and linebackers have the shortest because of the high-speed, car-accident-like collisions they live with every Sunday.

Let’s briefly discuss the ramifications of this position swap:
  • I absolutely believe Smith is a much better pass-rusher than Vander Esch and has demonstrated at Notre Dame that he can even rush off the edge. If you add that to his interior blitzing here and his delays, I think we can feel strongly that the idea is to use him as a fifth rusher or as a player who can engage in a zone blitz that brings him in and drops an opposite DE into a zone in an attempt to confuse. This, of course, is far from the clear and obvious pass rushes of the last several years that had the Cowboys ranked 30th in the last three years in blitz rate. If there is a word that is getting used a lot, it is “disguise,” and there are almost no disguises to be had if Jaylon is your only blitzer when he is the Mike. But it adds some potential for disruption if you can use him as a movable piece who is often not rushing, but when he does, it can come as a complete ambush as opposed to a scheduled appearance.
  • We can finally truly compare Vander Esch to his template, Brian Urlacher. All of those years in Chicago with Urlacher and Lance Briggs, Urlacher proved far better as a run stuffer and a vertical pass defender where he could flip his hips and get down the field to cover. This required mobility and fluidity, but certainly fewer short-area changes of direction. This might be the best fit for LVE, but if I had to guess, they are both better as middle linebackers even if the idea that Jaylon could suddenly deal with Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook in the flat without having his ankles broken, like Vander Esch last year, seems optimistic, especially given how tough it was to turn and change directions in a hurry just two seasons ago.
  • I admit Jaylon was better in 2018 than he was in 2019, as well, but quietly, he became one of the best tackling linebackers in the business. As far as stopping the run, three linebackers had a better year than Jaylon of those with at least 50 stops: Luke Kuechly (now retired), Bobby Wagner and Demario Davis. That is such a good list. Of those with 50 run stops and 50 pass stops, he was easily the best tackler. Jordan Hicks and Blake Martinez were both as productive, but with many more missed tackles. Jaylon is absolutely elite at stopping plays, despite a few highly visible missteps. I am not saying he is Bobby Wagner, and he may never be, but he is much closer to the top than the bottom. This might make you question whether they should mess with him at all.
  • You have to assume this adjustment is partly based on pessimism that LVE is going to get better in his current role, but his preferred spot is either SAM LB, which never plays, or MIKE, which Dallas just paid Jaylon Smith above market-value to occupy for years and years to come. In other words, they have a first-rounder and a premium contract that might both be best suited to play the exact same spot, which also might not be the most important LB spot on the team (generally considered to be the Will). So they are left with two middle linebackers who both have massive health concerns at young ages to figure out if either can play in their second-best position because they both can’t play their most ideal spot.
  • None of this even touches the value of Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe providing significant cover at DT for the first time in years to help “keep guards off your Mike LB” on inside and outside zone runs. This ability to keep your linebackers free from bigs getting to the second level of blocking with ease, as we have seen too often, should make the seek-and-destroy modes of Jaylon and LVE far more effective. That is the theory, anyway. We shall see how that materializes.Regardless, there are my thoughts on what I consider to be the biggest tactical design news of the new regime to date. It isn’t much, but it is something. And by Friday, we hope to have more.
 

mcnuttz

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I contend that LVE was hurt in the 1st game, so giving him a pass for last year.
 

boozeman

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Whatever position requires the least amount of diagnostics is where Smith needs to be.
 

Simpleton

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What LVE said was right, with how the game is played nowadays the "MIKE" vs. "WILL" vs. "SAM" stuff doesn't really matter so much anymore because half the time teams are in nickel/dime and the 2 LB's you have on the field are more or less playing the same position.

I think the weakside could help Jaylon by getting him in space a bit more because where he struggles most is in traffic and having to make quick/sudden change of direction type movements. He excels when he has a runway and can just fly at people in space without having to work around blockers.

Theoretically putting LVE in the middle would have him working through traffic more while Jaylon on the weakside could have more space to just sprint at ballcarriers, but ultimately I don't think their responsibilities will be significantly different.

What I think will make the most difference is having a coaching staff that holds Jaylon responsible and doesn't tolerate his lackadaisical bullshit followed by a stupid celebration after making a tackle 12 yards downfield on 2nd and 8.
 
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