There’s one area of the Dallas Cowboys defense that the Tennessee Titans need to stay away from on Monday.
For a majority of the 2018 season, the Tennessee Titans’ offense has stood out like a sore thumb among their NFL counterparts. In a league that is collectively scoring points at an unprecedented rate, the Titans have struggled to get anything done when they control the football.
Even on drives where the Titans offense is able to move the ball, they have rarely been able to finish drives off with touchdowns. Most drives that have ended up in opponent territory result in a field goal or, worse, a turnover.
The unit has, however, proven that they can indeed put a lot of points on the board. In the Titans’ Week 4 overtime victory over the Eagles, quarterback Marcus Mariota was very much in sync with his receivers as the offense deployed a powerful aerial attack.
Since then, things have been, for lack of a better term, rough. If the Titans hope to come out of Monday night’s matchup in Dallas with a win, the offense will need to get itself back on track.
The problem with that proposition? The Cowboys defense is very good. With playmakers at every level, the Cowboys defense has been one of the NFL’s most consistent units in 2018. Particularly in the red zone, where the unit is the second-best (Titans are first) in the league at holding opponents to field goals, they don’t seem to give an inch.
The unit is by no means flawless, but there is one positional group that is so talented, the Titans probably should not even bother trying to attack them. That position group is the Cowboys’ linebacker corps.
Because they run a 4-3 defense, the Cowboys deploy three off-the-ball linebackers in their base defense. Those three players are third-year player Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch, and veteran Sean Lee.
Smith, who missed his final year in college due to a brutal knee injury, is really coming to his own this season, flying to the ball in both the running and passing games. Vander Esch was a popular prospect during the 2018 NFL Draft process and for good reason—he’s played well as a rookie. Lee, though often injured, has been one of the NFL’s best and most consistent off-the-ball linebackers when healthy.
Garrett very complimentary of his three starting inside linebackers, and he’s glad to have them all healthy. Says that LVE and Jaylon Smith “gave them a chance” while Sean Lee was out.
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) November 1, 2018
In a conference call with the Tennessee media on Thursday, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was very complimentary of the group. “Each of those guys can bring so much to the table for our defense,” Garrett said. He added that the quick growth of Smith and Vander Esch allowed the entire defense to stay afloat during this season’s first several games, which Lee missed with an injury.
“In the past, when [Lee’s] been out, we haven’t played nearly as well on defense…Those guys have been given the chance, in Sean’s absence, to still play linebacker at a high level. It’s great to see those guys out there, we anticipate a lot from each of them each week in the games when they are healthy.”
The biggest challenge for the Titans offense in facing the Cowboys’ linebackers will be using their running backs effectively. Derrick Henry has struggled immensely in 2018, and Dallas is not the kind of opponent that would allow him to get out of his slump. Even the shifty Dion Lewis is a poor matchup against the athleticism of the Dallas linebackers.
Thus, for the Titans offense to get things done on Monday night, it will likely take a big effort from Mariota and his receivers. They need to develop a downfield passing attack early and often. If they try to dink and dunk close to the line of scrimmage, they will give the likes of Smith, Vander Esch and Lee the opportunity to wreck the game.
Cover image USA Today/Jerome Miron & Rich Barnes