OXNARD, Calif. — Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith wipes the sweat from his face with a Gatorade towel, another training camp practice of his fifth active pro season in the books. Smith is still wearing a navy jersey bearing his newly adopted No. 9, his hands still encased in the off-white Adidas gloves he wore to practice.
But Smith’s feet, not his hands, are what he and coaches are locked in on this preseason.
“Minimizing the wasted steps,” Smith says.
Missteps contributed to a disastrous 2020 defensive showing, the Cowboys allowing 29.6 points per game (ranking 28th in the NFL) and 386.4 yards (23rd). Sure, Dallas knows, NFL rules and trends are paving the way for new heights in league scoring and passing. And yet it was the Cowboys run defense, a primary focus of Smith and fellow linebackers, that arguably tanked the Cowboys most.
Dallas allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season. Only the Houston Texans, bled for 160.3 ground yards per game, fared worst. The Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in contrast, held opponents to 80.6 rushing yards.
The run defense, including the linebacker and defensive tackle play especially, must improve.
“We can’t be the reason as to why this team doesn’t succeed,” Smith says. “We know that and we’re working toward that.”
Improvement on the field, players know, is also their best antidote to vitriol spewed off it.
‘Michael Jordan had criticism’
Statistically, Smith was among the most productive Cowboys defenders in 2020. His 154 total tackles more than doubled the next-highest player, his 89 solo downs far surpassing second-place cornerback Trevon Diggs’ 49 (Diggs played four fewer games). Smith’s availability, the No. 1 question when he was drafted in 2016 following a gruesome knee injury with nerve damage, was pristine last year. He played 1,084 defensive snaps, good for 98% of opportunities.
And yet, many fans rallied for Smith’s dismissal or trade. Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones took to the radio to defend Smith, at times unprompted, during the 6-10 campaign. Smith’s rigidity and missed tackles became sources of conversation, as did the times he executed a characteristic “swiping” motion after a tackle—often despite the Cowboys trailing and sometimes even after significant yardage was gained before Smith’s tackle. Smith says the motion signals his desire to eradicate negativity.
Add in a first-round pick spent on linebacker Micah Parsons and questions about the position group’s roles only heightened. Smith’s goal entering 2021: Keep the hubbub in perspective.
“I mean, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to have criticism,” Smith said. “Michael Jordan had criticism. LeBron James. Some of the best player in the world have criticism. That’s just a part of the game.
“You got to control what you can control. And for me, it’s just focused on my development and becoming a better player.”
Smith looks to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for direction on that improvement. Defenders say Quinn enables them to play more instinctively and thus more quickly than they felt their 2020 system allowed. Missed assignments and mental errors, the defense hopes, will decrease as a result. Physically, Quinn watched tape of players in 2020 and previous seasons, when then-coordinator Rod Marinelli implemented defensive principles more similar to Quinn’s system. Specific technical adjustments can help Smith regain his speed.
“His stride extension has certainly improved,” Quinn said. “I feel every bit of his speed. There has been a couple of plays that he was flying. At times (in the past), I thought they were maybe smaller steps. He’s worked extremely hard and he is closing – v’room.
“Man, do you feel that speed to go.”
In previous seasons, Smith was anchored as the Cowboys’ starting middle linebacker. In 2021, he’s likely to share that role. The Cowboys have also given Parsons indication he will play middle. Smith is expected to factor more heavily into blitz packages, Quinn eager to maximize the physicality of a player he says has “always had a good hit-and-run factor.” Parsons, Smith and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch will continue to rotate through responsibilities. Free-agent acquisition Keanu Neal and fourth-round rookie Jabril Cox will also contribute, including likely in sub packages and on special teams.
“Allow everybody to use their strengths,” Smith said. “The ability to run sideline to sideline is just something that I’m looking forward to.”
Smith and the linebacker corps hope that a new system, new coaching staff and new individualized responsibility will help them reclaim the success that helped the Cowboys to the 2018 NFC East title. Parsons said he believes the group has “a chance to be the best linebacker unit in the league this year.” Beginning Week 1, against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, the league’s second-worst run defense must improve drastically to even approach the echelons of that claim.
They must improve run fits, shed blocks more smoothly and tackle more surely. No more allowing quarterbacks to take off scrambling or running backs to break through the heart of their defense for easy scores. A defensive identity, they believe cautiously after a practice week of dominating their offense, is beginning to emerge. Will the on-field change of direction could shift the thinking that surrounds them?
“We're the Dallas Cowboys,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “We're going to get a lot of criticism, so I mean they're going to praise us when we're doing well, and if we're not doing up to our expectations, then it's going to be the other way around.
“You've got to take the good with the bad. I think (Smith’s) done a great job, just staying focused and keeping his blinders on, not worried about that and just going to work.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys' Jaylon Smith looking for bounce-back season in 2021