ARLINGTON, TX — It goes without saying that the Dallas Cowboys needed to bounce back when the New England Patriots marched in to AT&T Stadium on Sunday, but the fashion in which they delivered a 38-3 throttling of Bill Belichick's Bunch — handing arguably the best head coach in NFL history the worst loss of his entire career — was a sight to behold, and Leighton Vander Esch had a big part in setting the tone early on.
Early in the second quarter, with quarterback Mac Jones doing his best to try and eliminate the 10-3 lead being held by the Cowboys, defensive end Dante Fowler chased down Jones like a panther locked in on its prey, delivering a sack-fumble that was scooped up by Vander Esch.
The former Pro Bowl linebacker went on to score the first touchdown of his NFL career.
"This one was a long time coming," said Vander Esch. "It was an awesome moment — surreal for me. I'm just super thankful."
Once he and safety Juanyeh Thomas completed their sideline dance, which was partly interrupted by a fake extra point attempt that turned into Bryan Anger tossing a two-point conversion to defensive lineman Chauncey Golston, it was back to business for the defense.
In all, the Cowboys' defense would log two touchdowns on the afternoon, as cornerback DaRon Bland snagged a pick-six on Jones on 4th-and-2 just after halftime (his first of two INTs on the day), allowed only four third-down conversions on 13 attempts and only 253 yards of total offense in a suffocating effort that matched the effort they put forth in Week 1 and Week 2.
It was an effort that was noticeably absent in their lone loss of the season.
"You have to give credit to the way we prepared this week," Vander Esch said. "The opportunity that we had coming off of last week and, man, having the sour taste in our mouths, and just growing as a unit — being able to come out here and prepare like we did. We weren't happy with last week and we fought our butts off to never let that happen again."
After allowing 222 rushing yards by the Cardinals, the Cowboys' run defense clamped down and permitted only 53 rushing yards by the combo of Rhamondre Stevenson in combination with an emotionally-charged Ezekiel Elliott in his return to Arlington.
Vander Esch had seven combined tackles (a team-high) and several of them were in run support, as he effectively shot gaps to keep the Patriots from getting their ground attack going.
"I think it was lack of execution and guys not doing their job [last week]," he said. "We got back to that this week — guys doing their jobs and staying in their gaps and knowing that everything else would take care of itself. … Great momentum booster, getting back on track, but it's just one game early in the season and there are still things to clean up, and we'll do that [starting] tomorrow to move on as quickly as we can."
Up next comes an all-important litmus test against the San Francisco 49ers, but they could ill afford to look past Belichick and the Patriots, and so they did anything but. It was key for the Cowboys to re-establish themselves in Week 4.
"We've had this [Mamba] mentality game-by-game and even play-by-play," said the former first-round pick that is lovingly referred to as the Wolf Hunter. "It doesn't matter what we did in the play before, or in the game before. It's just being in that moment, putting your foot on the gas and not letting off."
To that point, Vander Esch and the Cowboys defense will not sit on this win.
"This is just another win early in the season," he said. "We've got to continue to climb these peaks throughout the season, and next week is a big one. That's [now] what we're focused on."