Crazy stat underlines Leighton Vander Esch’s importance to Cowboys defense
By Jerry Trotta
The Dallas Cowboys won ugly against the Titans on Thursday night football. While Tennessee was without Ryan Tannehill, who’s out for the season with an ankle injury, Dallas has its own injury concerns. Perhaps none of those are more worrisome than Leighton Vander Esch’s shoulder stinger.
Vander Esch suffered the injury in the Week 15 loss to Jacksonville. The initial signs were ominous, as Vander Esch was swiftly ruled out with a neck injury. Given the linebacker’s history with neck issues — neck surgery upended his 2019 season — panic couldn’t help but settle in among Cowboys fans.
A team desperate for positive injury news following the season-enders to cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown, and right tackle Terence Steele, Dallas got exactly that with Vander Esch.
Dan Quinn described the update as a “big deal” for the Cowboys defense. The defensive coordinator is spot on, as the Cowboys’ were gashed against the run vs the Jaguars after Vander Esche was forced from the game.
Just how indispensable is LVE to the defense? Get a load of these stats from The Athletic’s Nate Tice that illustrate Dallas’ success against the run when the former Pro Bowler is on the field, compared to when he’s off the field.
Stats prove Leighton Vander Esch is invaluable to the Cowboys defense.
These stats are glaring, but do they really surprise anyone? Vander Esch has been rock-solid all season after a resurgent 2021 following two injury-shortened seasons in 2020 and 2021, but it’s about time to call him a top-five most important player on the defense.
Rank them however you like. Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jayron Kearse likely top the list, but Vander Esch is right there with Donovan Wilson in that second tier of most important defenders this year.
Vander Esch’s ability to defend the run at a high level has papered over the deficiencies of rookie Damone Clark and vet Anthony Barr. It’s also allowed the linebackers to play more freely — both love to double as pass-rushers — and they’ve struggled playing with more discipline.
As the above video shows, the second level of Dallas’ defense was abused against the run by Jaguars. It didn’t help matters that space-eater Johnathan Hankins (pectoral strain) didn’t play. Without Vander Esch’s instincts and Hankins’ ability to plug holes in the middle and occupy two linemen, Dallas suffered the consequences.
Of course, no defense should fall apart to the extreme the Cowboys’ did without Vander Esch and Hankins. Dan Quinn’s unit has more than enough firepower to win games, but these stats paint a telling picture of just how important Vander Esch is.
While other players might rank higher in terms of talent and overall impact, Vander Esch is the straw that stirs Dallas’ drink on defense.