Officially underway is the changing of the guard in the Dallas Cowboys linebacker corps.
Amid last week’s season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, first-year Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn began phasing out longtime veteran starters Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in favor of newcomers, first-round rookie Micah Parsons and free-agent addition Keanu Neal.
And much like Dallas’ pass-happy approach on offense, the situation will be as fluid as the opponent allows.
“I would say this is early,” Quinn said Monday, “and we’re certainly expecting those guys to play a lot. Some games, they’ll play a ton. Some games, it will be more balanced. I feel like we’ve got four excellent linebackers. … I’d expect games to be different as the season goes on.”
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According to the official team website, Smith (16) and Vander Esch (14) combined for just 30-of-65 defensive snaps in Week 1. This is in large contrast to Parsons (51) and Neal (50), who rarely came off the field during the 31-29 defeat.
Quinn attributed the discrepancy to the Cowboys’ plan of attack, which revolved around slowing Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ passing threat. Although Smith and Vander Esch figure to see more action against a run-based opponent, their coach claims “I trust them in all spaces.”
“I thought both of them played strong and well in their reps. … Both of them are equally equipped to handle all of the stuff,” Quinn said. “I would expect that to move around as the season progresses.”
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McCarthy Reacts to LBs
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed after the game that Smith and Vander Esch have become game plan-specific contributors. The former averaged 68 snaps per game prior to this season, while the latter averaged 50, per The Athletic’s Jon Machota.
“I think they understand if you look at the big picture,” McCarthy said, via Machota. “We took 24 defensive players into the game. We had projections of how we wanted to play guys, and we knew it was going to be a challenge with the climate and the humidity. I think we really hit the target as far as getting the distribution of playing all the guys on defense.
“So, yeah, personally, I can’t speak on their behalf, if they weren’t frustrated, I’d be disappointed. These guys have played a lot of football throughout their whole career. It’s our focus to be better as a whole as a defense and frankly, the more players you play, the better off you’re going to be.”
Smith finished with four tackles, including two solo stops. Vander Esch notched two solo tackles. Parsons was the most explosive of the bunch, posting seven tackles (three solo), one pass deflection, and one quarterback hit in his NFL debut.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL