Cowboys Injury Report: Leighton Vander Esch adamant he’ll return for playoffs
By Jerry Trotta
The Dallas Cowboys don’t have the luxury of being able to rest their starters in Week 18, but that’s a sacrifice every fan (should) be willing to make given the team’s still in contention for the division title and the NFC’s top seed.
As presently constructed, Dallas has the personnel to make a deep run in January. However, their chances of doing so would increase tenfold if they got some key players back from injury for the first round (unless they get the No. 1 seed).
While Tony Pollard is expected back for Sunday’s finale against Washington — Mike McCarthy said Pollard would practice on Wednesday — the Cowboys still have a handful of impactful players on the mend, including Leighton Vander Esch.
Vander Esch addressed the media on Monday and gave a wildly encouraging update on his recovery from a shoulder stinger that’s shelved him for two weeks, as well as the end of the overtime loss in Jacksonville.
While the tackling machine isn’t expected to play vs the Commanders, he left very little doubt he’ll be on the field for the start of the playoffs.
Cowboys Injury Report: Leighton Vander Esch expected back for start of playoffs.
"“I’ll say it 100x, I feel good,” Vander Esch said, via Patrik Walker of Cowboys.com. “I’m just focused on helping the team this week, with this game and getting everybody locked in and ready — get our game plan going — [because] we gotta go win this game, too. We’re not taking any weight off of the gas pedal.”"
This is just fantastic news. By all accounts, Vander Esch is enjoying his best season since he burst onto the NFL scene as a rookie in 2018. Despite missing the last two games, he only trails Donovan Wilson for the team lead in tackles. He likely would’ve run away with the feat if not for the injury.
Tackles are regarded as a hollow start by analytics wizzes, but the Cowboys have needed every bit of Vander Esch’s output in that department. The 26-year-old’s calming (and imposing) presence defending the run are his calling cards, but his work in the intermediate passing game cannot be overstated, either.
Vander Esch’s return is by far the most important for Dallas, but space-eating lineman Johnathan Hankins isn’t far behind. Hankins is a savant plugging holes against the run, and Stephen Jones told 105.3 The Fan that he (and center Tyler Biadasz) are right with Vander Esch in being on track to return for the playoffs.
You don’t say? Outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, Vander Esch and Hankins are the Cowboys’ most impactful run defenders.
To put Hankins’ importance into context, Dallas is allowing 4.53 rushing yards per carry without him on the field. With him, though, the number drops to 3.67 YPC. That’s nearly a .90 difference per attempt. You know the age-old adage about the NFL being a game of inches and fine margins? Look no further.
This is exactly the news the Cowboys needed entering the final week of the regular season. The NFL is a battle of attrition, and Dallas’ injury report is about as uplifting as it could be with one game left on the 2022 schedule.