There was a lot of addition and subtraction on defense for Dallas during this past off-season. They wanted to reshuffle the deck – and for good reason. Between coaching, injuries, and play in 2020, the defense set them up for disaster. At linebacker, it looks like at least a couple of the new pieces will player impact roles early and often for the Cowboys this season.
Cowboys defense was on field for 65 snaps Thursday vs. Buccaneers. Snap distribution for linebackers:
Micah Parsons, 51
Keanu Neal, 50
Jaylon Smith, 16 (25%)
Leighton Vander Esch, 14 (22%)
Jabril Cox, 0
Parsons and Neal are primary nickel LBs, limiting Smith and LVE’s usage.
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 10, 2021
Based on these counts, Dallas clearly values athleticism and range in their linebackers more than previously. Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn wants to take a bit of the pressure off of the young secondary by having players in front of them that can help in coverage as well as make plays in the run game.
We may see these high percentages decrease a bit as Dallas plays less pass-heavy teams that don’t have Tom Brady, but the spread is so dramatic that it seems like a trend could become a possibility.
It is also worth noting that the Cowboys’ run defense was effective, even if it wasn’t tested too often. They allowed about 4 yards per carry. That was without the heavier linebackers in the game in most instances.
This is what good run defense looks like:
1. Second-level block failed because Micah Parsons is too fast, forcing Fournette to bounce outside.
2. Brent Urban absorbs two blockers.
3. Keanu Neal patiently reads the play and gets a clean shot at the RB.
Thank you, new guys! pic.twitter.com/Wf7AnW24Jb
— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 11, 2021
Employing these linebackers as a combo will help them get valuable reps together. Even with training camp and preseason action, it still takes time to get on the same page for the games that actually count. Dallas fans should be excited for it, though.
The change is one that gives the entire defense more versatility and upside. The athletic abilities of Parsons and Neal allow Quinn and co. to cook up more diverse blitzes and coverages. That could go a long way in helping both a defensive line and secondary that lack depth.
Keep an eye on the linebacker snap counts going forward because it looks like Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal will have even bigger roles than many expected in their first season with the Cowboys.