The return of Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith to the field has been nothing short of staggering. The player who shredded his knee so badly on the final play of his college career at Notre Dame that some worried he might never play football again has been a fixture on the Cowboys' defense.
The fact that Smith has played 226 of a possible 284 defensive snaps this season is a credit to Smith's toughness and work ethic. The fact that he played all 69 defensive snaps (as well as nine more on special teams) against the Los Angeles Rams — six days after he logged 54 snaps against the Arizona Cardinals — is pretty astounding.
But there's also a concern about Smith's effectiveness, which has been hot and cold. On the one hand, he has been in on double-digit tackles each of the past two games, which shows he's not just flailing around out there. However, a close examination of the Rams tape shows Smith's shortcomings on multiple plays in coverage.
We charted Smith as allowing at least five catches (on six passes) on throws against him. It's clear that there are just certain things he's not yet able to do physically, even as the Cowboys are asking so much of him. The fact that LB Sean Lee missed the Rams game likely hurt the team in terms of communication and also stressed the defense, assignment-wise.
A team source we talked to (who asked not to be quoted, even anonymously) said he believed that Smith's lateral agility and change-of-direction skills were going to be his last — and perhaps biggest — hurdle to returning to top form.
There is still confidence that Smith is a great player in waiting. He has shown enough to date to warrant that. But dropping and reacting in coverage, making quick and sudden movements and getting off blocks all have proven to be hurdles he's still overcoming.
If Lee returns, along with would-be starter Anthony Hitchens (who is expected back after the Week 6 bye), the Cowboys wil be in better shape and can ask less of Smith. What they've asked of him and what he's delivered have been admirable. But with the Green Bay Packers coming to town Sunday, Smith's lapses in coverage loom as a major concern right now.