ATLANTA – It’s been five years since a Cowboys linebacker got an interception in back-to-back games.
“It was right place at the right time,” rookie Leighton Vander Esch said modestly after Sunday’s crucial 22-19 win over the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To a certain degree, yes. Vander Esch picked off a pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan after it bounced off the hands of Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley.
But preparation is a major reason the the Cowboys’ 2018 first-round pick hardly looks like a rookie 10 games into the season.
The reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week takes a business-like approach to his job, and results have followed.
“He’s a really hard-working guy, takes it really serious,” veteran safety Jeff Heath said. “You can tell it means a lot to him.
Starting again at linebacker for injured captain Sean Lee (hamstring strain), Vander Esch finished second on defense with eight combined tackles against Atlanta. He sat out one play after getting the wind knocked out of him while tackling Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
Vander Esch entered the game with a team-best 96 tackles. He’s now just the sixth Cowboys rookie in franchise history to reach 100 stops.
And the last Cowboys linebacker to record an interception in consecutive games? Lee in 2013.
“That was a crucial turnover right there,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “A stop by the defense allowing us to take a two-score lead.”
Vander Esch’s pick led to the Cowboys’ second touchdown of the game, a 23-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott that pushed the lead to 19-9 early in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t the only time he showed a combination of agility and anticipation.
In the first quarter, Vander Esch shed a block by 309-pound guard Jake Matthews to bring down wide receiver Marvin Hall. In the fourth quarter, his pass breakup against tight end Austin Hooper near the goal line forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal.
Is the 22-year-old surprising himself this early in his career? Ahead of where he thought he’d be at this point in his rookie season?“
To be honest, no,” Vander Esch said. “I just come in and prepare every single week like it’s the same. I know that those chances are going to come and you’ve got to capitalize on everything.
“I want to be that guy that they can trust to make plays and to do my job, just like everybody else, and don’t look upon me as a rookie that doesn’t know how to play ball. I want to be that guy that they can trust.”
The rookie is doing just that.
“He already has the character, and now he’s making the plays on the field and growing as a player,” Heath said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”