Vikings offensive line vs. Dallas linebackers
Much like their offensive line, the Cowboys had a big hole in the middle of their defense several years ago. While the offensive line was shored up with first-round selections, the linebacking unit, which seemed to miss Sean Lee due to injury on a yearly basis was shored up with a pair of risky decisions.
While Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch both had their share of injury questions coming into the league, the Cowboys threw caution to the wind and selected them anyway. The result was two of the best linebackers in the NFC on their defense and a combination that could give Minnesota fits on Sunday night.
Vander Esch is the player that has had the most impact on the offense since being drafted in the first round during the 2018 NFL Draft. The Boise State product was a giant red flag during the process for a series of neck injuries that made general managers wonder how long he would hold up after he came into the league. The answer was quite well after Jerry Jones made the pick and has become a tackling machine with 140 total tackles in his rookie season.
This year has been a mix of good and bad as Vander Esch has seen an uptick in his Pass Rushing Productivity rating from 7.7 in his rookie season to 10.0 this season. However, he may not play thanks to a stinger that kept him out of Monday night’s win over the Giants.
The road to recovery was much more severe for Smith, who was a top-five talent before destroying his leg in his final collegiate game. While most NFL teams wouldn’t even clear him, the Cowboys took him with a second-round pick and were patient during his rehab process.
Smith hasn’t received the same press as Vander Esch, but has been very good for Dallas, racking up 121 total tackles and four sacks in his first full year as a starter. The former Notre Dame star has picked up where he left off this season with an 11.5 PRP rating and 2.5 sacks through eight games.
Even if Vander Esch can’t play, the Minnesota Vikings will have to deal with Lee, who is a capable fill in. Minnesota’s offensive line had trouble (especially on the interior) last week against Kansas City and if they want to allow Cousins to work and get their running game going, they’ll have to make sure the Cowboys’ linebackers are accounted for.