When the Dallas Cowboys drafted Jaylon Smith in the second round in 2016, they had visions of what his debut would look like. They knew it would take some time, but the hope was that Smith would become an impact player at the middle linebacker spot for a long time. In the Cowboys’ 2017 season opener against the rival New York Giants on Sunday night, the team and its fans got their first regular season glimpse of Smith in a Cowboy uniform.
Smith played 35 snaps in his debut and finished second on the team with seven total tackles, plus a forced fumble. Smith and WILL linebacker Sean Lee give the Cowboys a linebacking duo that will be the envy of many NFL teams.
Let’s take a look at Smith’s big night.
On this play, Smith displays several of the traits that made him such a special player at Notre Dame. He sorts through his keys quickly, reacting to the initial run fake and the pulling guard as well as the tight end on the arc block. However, he doesn’t over-pursue, which would have left him vulnerable to a bootleg and play-action pass. Still positioned well in the middle of the field, he processes the backfield action and explodes to the outside.
For most linebackers, running underneath a block on an outside run like this one would be a death sentence, preventing them from getting outside quickly enough to cut off the ballcarrier’s angle. Smith, unlike most linebackers, is not a mere mortal. He ducks underneath Ereck Flowers, who was in very good position, and still manages to close on Sterling Shepard.
I thought this was Jaylon Smith's best play of the night. pic.twitter.com/KUHNeheYtr
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 11, 2017
From this angle you get another perspective of the most impressive part of this play from Smith, which is his closing speed. He shifts into another gear as he crosses the hashmark in pursuit of Shepard, and it’s remarkable how much ground he is able to cover to close and make the play. This had a chance to be a big play for the Giants, but Smith shuts it down for a short gain.
These are the types of plays linebackers must make in order to have a great defense.
— Joey Hayden (@_joeyhayden) September 11, 2017
The Cowboys’ defensive coaching staff emphasizes only a few things to its players: consistent effort and creating turnovers. They want to make gang tackles and have guys consistently attacking the football. This play by Smith illustrates that philosophy almost perfectly.
Smith was covering a different man in the Cowboys’ scheme on this play. He reacts to the throw underneath. Even though Sean Lee appears to have the ballcarrier secured, Smith hustles into the play and delivers a blow, attacking the football with his right arm.
The ball comes out, and although it was ruled New York’s ball, these are the exact plays the Cowboys are looking for.
Jaylon jacks up the LG and fills his gap perfectly. Excellent. pic.twitter.com/kdYyCtkFpA
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 12, 2017
Plays like this one are always underappreciated by the general public, but a big part of the job of the Mike linebacker in Dallas’s defense. Smith comes downhill hard after quickly processing his key. Delivering a blow to the left guard who is attempting to seal him off, he knocks the blocker off balance, closes down the running lane, and forces the ballcarrier into Lee, who scraped over the top and is in perfect position to make the tackle.
With one week in the books for Smith, all signs are pointing up. If he continues to improve physically at the rate he has over the last several months, the Cowboys will have a truly special linebacker corps by the end of the regular season.
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