Dallas Cowboys

Youngsters provide bright spots for Cowboys in lopsided defeat

Nov 12, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Dallas Cowboys safety Xavier Woods (25) runs with an interception against the Atlanta Falcons during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys were without four All-Pros — Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, Ezekiel Elliott and Dan Bailey — for most of their game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons dominated most of the game as Dallas struggled to replace its absent stars.

The 27-7 loss dropped the Cowboys to 5-4 on the season and three games behind the NFC East-leading Philadephia Eagles, making their Week 11 matchup even more important for Dallas.

While many will lament the flaws plaguing the Cowboys’ roster, let’s take a look at some of the young players who were bright spots in the loss to the Falcons. David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence were certainly bright spots for the Cowboys’ defense; let’s take a look at some other young defenders who impressed.

Xavier Woods, S

Another week, another impact play from the sixth-round rookie out of Louisiana Tech. This week, Woods came up with an impressive interception off an Anthony Brown deflection:

Woods did a great job of rotating from his intermediate zone to get in position to make the interception. Woods was able to read the quarterback’s eyes, allowing him to break toward the pass area as Ryan started his throwing motion. This allowed Woods to adjust to the deflection and make a play on the ball.

Against the Falcons, Woods registered 24 snaps — second-most for him on the season — in a game when starter Jeff Heath left with a concussion. While Woods still struggles in run support, he may be the best pure coverage safety on the Cowboys.

He has the athletic ability, football intelligence and ball skills to be a very good starting safety in the NFL. It’s time the Cowboys gave him the ability to prove it.

Lewis Neal, DT

After placing Brian Price on injured reserve, the Cowboys decided to call up Lewis Neal from the practice squad and make him active against the Falcons.

At 6-foot and under 300 pounds, Neal is an undersized defensive tackle who relies on his quickness, use of leverage and powerful hands to be effective. In 18 snaps against Atlanta, Neal was able to make his presence felt:

Here, Neal is able to get a good jump on the ball, which allows him to quickly get to the left guard’s edge. From there, Neal employs a powerful rip move to clear the blocker’s hands as he makes his way toward the QB for the hit. Neal shows good balance through contact and keeps a direct route to the QB despite the push from the left guard.

Neal’s small frame makes it difficult for blockers to establish inside hand position, giving Neal the ability to play off blocks and make plays. Here’s an example:

On this play, the Falcons are running an outside zone concept to Neal’s side. As the ball is snapped, Neal engages Atlanta’s right guard with superior pad level and hand placement. This allows Neal to quickly turn and “back door” Atlanta’s right guard on his way to the tackle for loss.

Altogether, the Cowboys should be happy with their undrafted free-agent defensive tackle. With Neal, Price (when healthy), and Richard Ash, Dallas has an impressive stable of young, developmental defensive tackles.

Anthony Hitchens, LB

On a day when the Cowboys’ defense lost its leader — Sean Lee — early on, Anthony Hitchens was very impressive, finishing with nine stops, six more than anyone else on Dallas’s defense, per PFF.

The Iowa product missed the first four games of the season because of a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee. While he helped give Dallas’s defense a boost in his return, he still wasn’t playing to the best of his abilities. But Hitchens has been rounding into shape — he appeared to have regained his burst in the last two games.

Against Atlanta, Hitchens made his presence felt early. His big hit knocked Falcon RB Devonta Freeman out of the game:

Here, Hitchens is able to quickly identify the Falcons’ run and flow toward the play side. Seeing an alley, Hitchens quickly darted inside the blocker climbing to the second level, which allowed him to get downhill and lay the crushing blow to Freeman.

While Hitchens has always been a tough linebacker who isn’t afraid to take on blockers, he showed impressive burst and quickness against the Falcons:

Here, Hitchens is able to diagnose the run quickly and pursue downhill. While Tevin Coleman tries to bounce the ball back to his right, Hitchens was able to knife into the backfield too quickly and wrap up Coleman by the legs for a loss.

While Lee was certainly a big loss for the Cowboys, Hitchens mitigated some of the negative impact by playing at such a high level. In the past, Lee’s absence was arguably the No. 1 reason for Dallas’s losses; however, that wasn’t the case in Atlanta. Hitchens filled in admirably.

— Follow John on Twitter for more NFL insight and analysis


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