PHILADELPHIA – Credit the Cowboys for having a plan, but even the best-laid plans aren't supposed to look this good.
After all, it's not a coincidence that Leighton Vander Esch was in this position. The Cowboys drafted their young linebacker for just such a situation, when Sean Lee was once again laid low by injury.
As recently as last season, the effects of losing Lee have been on full display, and it hasn't been pretty. But even with the decision to select him No. 19 overall in the draft, few could have seen this coming – except for maybe Leighton Vander Esch himself.
"I have high expectations for myself, and I'm going to put myself in positions to be successful as soon as I need to be. This is just how it's happened," Vander Esch said following the Cowboys' 27-20 win against the Eagles.
To be perfectly clear: this has not come from nowhere. Vander Esch had been enjoying a fantastic rookie season to this point, leading the team with 74 tackles despite making just three starts.
This was another level, though. With Lee once again absent due to injury, Vander Esch authored a game that was eerily reminiscent of his veteran mentor, racking up 13 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and an interception.
The interception actually kicked things off early, as Vander Esch stepped in front of Carson Wentz's third throw of the night, returning the ball 28 yards to help set up the Cowboys' first field goal of the night.
"It felt weird with the ball. It's been a while," he said with a smile.
Look across the stat sheet, though, and you can't miss his influence. Vander Esch worked the middle of the field relentlessly, making tackle after tackle against Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor.
He seemed to get better as the game wore on, making five tackles in the fourth quarter. And then, fittingly, his finest moment came in crunch time – and looked eerily similar to something Lee would do.
Facing a 3rd-and-2 at the Dallas 30-yard line, the Eagles tried to set up an outside screen to Corey Clement, with Wentz tossing him the ball with two blockers set up near the right sideline.
Vander Esch was clearly prepared, however, and set himself up outside the tackle box, knifing perfectly between the blockers to make a tackle for a five-yard loss. The play set up a 4th-and-7 that the Eagles could not convert.
"I knew they were going to try something nifty, I guess you could say," Vander Esch said. "They had tried that screen, so I knew that was coming. I just put myself in position to make sure I was outside."
Added Jaylon Smith: "He's the best tackler on the team."
That works as a convenient segue, though, because Smith can't be too far behind. The Cowboys' other dynamic young linebacker made quite a play himself early in the second quarter, when he sniffed out and obliterated a 4th-and-1 run by Josh Adams, forcing a turnover on downs.
It was a key play that prompted Smith to showcase his patented Swipe celebration, as well as throw up the "X" in honor of former teammate Dez Bryant, who tore his Achilles on Friday.
"For him to experience what happened, a lot of people were saluting him today," Smith said. "I had to be one of those guys. I hope he saw it."
These were the highlights of a full-on youth movement on the Dallas defense. In addition to Smith and Vander Esch, second-year player Xavier Woods had three key pass breakups. Second-year starter Chidobe Awuzie saved a touchdown with one of his two pass breakups on the night, and 25-year-old Randy Gregory logged his third career sack.
"We've got a bunch of young guys stepping up, and it's amazing to see," said Tyrone Crawford. "It's amazing for this football team and the future of this football team."
That's the crazy part for the Cowboys. Draft picks like Vander Esch are often made with the future in mind. But if they can help save the season in the present, then so much the better.
"We're a young team, so I think the big thing is being able to bounce back and take pride in that," Vander Esch said. "I knew and had full confidence in everybody that we were going to do that."