Cowboys at Saints: Dallas linebacker corps key to victory

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

If the Dallas Cowboys are going to pull out a victory in New Orleans on Sunday night, they’ll likely need a big performance from their talented linebacker corps.

Despite a more pressing need at wide receiver last offseason, the Dallas Cowboys opted to use their first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft on Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. And although the Cowboys were forced to address their need at receiver in a midseason trade for Amari Cooper that cost them their first-rounder in 2019, the Vander Esch selection is still heralded as an outright success.

The reason? Vander Esch was asked to start 11 games as a rookie due to a hamstring injury suffered by two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Sean Lee. The first-year defender racked up 140 combined tackles in 2018, earning himself a trip to the Pro Bowl in the process.

Combined with former 2016 second-round selection Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch is considered part of the most talented linebacker corps in the entire NFL. And they’re young too. Smith is only 24-years old and recently signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension. Vander Esch is a year younger and has racked up 21 tackles, two pass defends, and a forced fumble in the first three games of his second season in Dallas.

The Cowboys are currently undefeated and they’re taking their 3-0 record into The Big Easy to face off against the 2-1 New Orleans Saints Sunday night. Although the Saints are without quarterback Drew Brees due to a thumb injury, they do have a more than capable backup in former first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater.

But the other major weapon New Orleans possesses is running back Alvin Kamara. A third-round selection in 2017 out of Tennessee, Kamara took the NFL by storm in his first year, recording 728 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 6.1 per carry. The dual-threat back also posted 81 receptions for 826 yards and five more scores, earning himself NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, a Second-Team All-Pro nod, and his first Pro Bowl nomination.

Kamara’s production only increased in his second season, posting nearly 1,600 yards of total offensive production and an amazing 18 touchdowns leading to his second Pro Bowl bid. Even without Brees under center, the Saints have the weapons to compete at a high-level. For the Cowboys, stopping Kamara will be a key to victory. And Dallas’ talented linebacker corps will be tested.

Last week, Seattle Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner racked up a combined 19 tackles against the Saints. Fellow Seahawk linebacker K.J. Wright had 12 tackles himself. And despite their combined efforts, New Orleans still won and Kamara still went off. The Saints’ third-year running back recorded 16 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown on the ground versus Seattle. Plus Kamara had a team-leading nine receptions for 92 yards and another score through the air.

Next. The top 10 Cowboys to never win a Super Bowl. dark

When the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints met last season in a Week 13 matchup at AT&T Stadium, America’s Team was up to the challenge. With Drew Brees under center, the Dallas defense limited the Saints to just 10 points and kept Alvin Kamara to only 36 rushing yards and 36 receiving yards. The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch combined for 19 total tackles in the close 13-10 win over New Orleans last year.