Tyler Smith. Micah Parsons. CeeDee Lamb. Leighton Vander Esch. Ezekiel Elliott. Zack Martin. And that’s just in the last 10 draft classes.
The Cowboys have an incredible history of first-round draft picks who immediately step into a starring role and are among the absolute best at their position, even as rookies.
Given that kind of track record, the instant-gratification crowd within Cowboys Nation is ready to label Mazi Smith a bust just six games into his pro career.
Aden Durde doesn’t see it that way.
But the Cowboys defensive line coach admits that it is the sackmasters who get most of the headlines.
“It’s fun when you’re affecting the quarterback,” Durde told reporters this week. “If [opponents] want to throw the ball and they want to go like that, that’s our kind of game. They’re eager to get out there. We’ve got a gang of rushers. It’s like a fight on the sideline to get out there and want to get out and compete.”
Run defense, though, is somewhat unsexy by comparison, and the only fight most observers have seen from the 22-year-old defensive tackle out of Michigan was his involvement in the pregame brawl with several Chargers players at SoFi Stadium this past Monday night that saw Austin Ekeler almost lose his head.
But apart from that, Smith’s dealings with opposing running backs has been somewhat limited, at least according to his stat line. Smith has logged just two solo tackles this season and assisted on two more. He’s recorded one TFL.
That does not mean that he isn’t doing his job. The life of an interior defensive lineman- especially one considered to primarily be a run-stuffer- is about clogging up the line of scrimmage, often occupying one or more offensive linemen so that a teammate can swoop in and make the actual tackle.
Getting after the passer once in a while is a bonus.
By and large, the Cowboys have contained the run well in 2023. Consider the gauntlet of ball carriers Dallas has faced and the yardage totals each amassed:
- Saquon Barkley: 51
- Breece Hall: 9
- Dalvin Cook: 7
- James Conner: 98
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 30
- Ezekiel Elliott: 16
- Christian McCaffrey: 51
- Austin Ekeler: 27
That Week 3 debacle in the desert nothwithstanding, the Cowboys have yet to allow an opposing rusher to be much more than a minor nuisance.
Durde says playing with that kind of dominating edge every week has become the identity of the Dallas defensive line.
“If I’m really honest with you, I think that’s the growth of our unit,” Durde explained, “We should always have the chip on our shoulder. It shouldn’t matter who we play. … Just having that mentality that when we walk on the field, they have to deal with us.”
For his part, Smith is having to deal with no longer being the most feared player in the defensive huddle. Splitting time with esteemed 11-year veteran Johnathan Hankins means Smith has yet to see more than 22 defensive snaps in any game as a Cowboy.
That should be seen as less a reflection on Smith’s abilities or potential and more a statement on just how different NFL life is from the college game, especially at his position.
“I think we sometimes take it for granted when you come in the game as a first-round pick, the pressure that’s on you,” Durde told media members. “But the game is a lot different, the way they get told plays. A lot of them, they’re getting like 80 snaps a game, the plays move fast, the coordinator’s telling them, they don’t have to listen to communication. Now all of that’s changed. You get into a huddle, someone gives you the communication, you line up, now what am I getting? These things are changing, I think, and as we’re going through this, Mazi’s growth and understanding of how to play the game at that level is growing. You can see week in [and] week out, he’s making marginal gains, and that’s what it’s about. He’s around a good group of players, he’s in a position where he can grow and he’s in the right place. He’s doing good.”
If Durde isn’t worried about Smith’s lack of eye-popping numbers, maybe Cowboys fans should temper expectations, too, and take a long-term approach to trusting the process and letting Smith develop within the system that’s given the team a 4-2 record heading into the bye week.
An offer for Cowboys fans
Judged by how often his name is mentioned on TV, the rookie hasn’t done much. But Durde maintains that Smith- and the rest of the interior role-players in his unit- are serving a vital function that allows the larger defensive scheme under coordinator Dan Quinn to work as designed.
“It’s more about the mission. The mission is to keep stacking wins and keep growing. If we affect the quarterback, if we hit him, we pressure him, we sack him, whatever the outcome, it will help the coverage. And then if they do their thing, then the ball comes to life, and it’s kind of DQ’s way of defense: rush and cover. For us, the outcome’s the outcome. Just get after them, and as long as we’re working and communicating as one, we’re all happy.”