Mike Nolan has been pretty tight-lipped about the Cowboys' defensive approach in 2020. But the recent reshuffling of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith might've given us a peek at how the defense could evolve this season.
The role reversal for each Pro Bowler not only adds a dimension to the Cowboys' defense, it gives Nolan an opportunity to wreak havoc on opponents and create more takeaways this season. After taking a little time to study the All-22 coaches' footage from the past few seasons, here's how the moves could impact the Cowboys' defense going forward:
The move to MIKE could make LVE a superstar in the Cowboys' new scheme.
The third-year pro has shown flashes of game-changing potential as a young defender, but the move to the middle could make him a Top 10 player in the league. The 6-foot-4, 256-pounder has a unique combination of size, speed and athleticism for the position with a set of instincts, awareness, and playmaking skills that are rare for the position. Vander Esch's ability to track down runners as a sideline-to-sideline pursuer while shadowing tight ends and wide receivers down the seam in coverage sets him apart from others.
In what could be a hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme that keeps the MIKE in the box on nearly every down, LVE will get a chance to fully display his dynamic set of skills as the designated playmaker on the defense. Playing behind Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy, he will get a chance to run unobstructed to the ball on running plays. He should rack up plenty of tackles as a "run-and-chase" defender within the box, especially playing behind a set of bigger defensive tackles with the size and strength to occupy multiple blockers on the interior.
In coverage, LVE's size, length, and leaping ability (39.5-inch vertical jump) make him an imposing player in the middle of the field. He will deflect passes directed down the seam or force quarterbacks to make elevated throws into tighter windows. With the Cowboys expected to play more zone coverage with more eyes on the quarterback and ball, the team could see their turnover totals rise with defenders snagging interceptions off tips and overthrows forced by No. 55's presence.
LVE earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2018 due to his immediate impact on the Cowboys' defense as a "see ball, get ball" defender. He could earn All-Pro honors as the centerpiece to a retooled Cowboys' defense in 2020.
Smith's versatility and pass rush skills are showcased better at WILL linebacker.
Nolan and his staff are reshuffling the deck to put each player in the best position to succeed. Smith's move to WILL linebacker will enable to the veteran to become a bigger factor as a run defender and pass rusher in 2020.
Sure, Smith accounted for 100-plus tackles in each of the past two seasons as the Cowboys' MIKE linebacker. But moving to outside linebacker could result in more splash plays for the one-time Pro Bowler. Smith has amassed 6.5 sacks and four forced fumbles since 2018, but those numbers could improve with more opportunities to get after the passer as an extra rusher from a variety of fronts (three-man, four-man, and nickel).
Smith's experience as a MIKE will also help him thrive as a box defender in the team's nickel package. He will align in the box against "11" personnel and help LVE control the tackle-to-tackle area on one-back runs. Smith's speed, physicality and instincts pose problems for runners on searching for creases on inside or outside runs.
In coverage, the Cowboys could assign Smith to beat up tight end at the line of scrimmage to neutralize their effectiveness. Considering the talented pass catchers within the division (Zach Ertz and Evan Engram), the move to WILL could enable Nolan to assign a bully to the opponent's No. 1 pass catcher.
Don't be surprised to see LVE and Smith shine in a Double A-gap pressure package.
It is easy to see the individual benefits from reshuffling the linebacker corps, but the strategy could help the Cowboys utilize a Double A-gap blitz package that's problematic for opponents.
Senior defensive assistant George Edwards is well-versed in the tactic after spending years working for Mike Zimmer as his defensive coordinator with the Vikings. The Double A-gap blitz and bluff strategy was a huge part of their game plan for years. And the team's success harassing quarterbacks and producing turnovers with the tactic could make it a staple in the Cowboys' playbook.
As an offensive play-caller, Mike McCarthy is familiar with the challenges of facing a variety of A-gap pressures from talented linebackers from his time with the Green Bay Packers. He could nudge Nolan to employ the strategy frequently with a pair of athletic linebackers with the potential to destroy blocking schemes through a variety of gut pressures that enable them to blow through both center-guard gaps.
Remember, Nolan has openly discussed utilizing a mix of coverages to keep quarterbacks on their toes. The Cowboys could feature man or zone coverage behind the Double A-gap pressures or drop into a traditional zone with a four-man rush. With LVE and Smith capable of wreaking havoc as rushers, the deceptive pressure strategy could play a major role in the defense's resurgence in 2020.