Left for dead two weeks ago after a home blowout loss in prime time, the Dallas Cowboys now have their sights on the NFC East title.
Sunday couldn't have worked out much better for Dallas. The Cowboys' win on the road over the Atlanta Falcons got them back to .500. The division-leading Washington Redskins not only lost but saw quarterback Alex Smithleave with a devastating injury. The Philadelphia Eagles were dismantled by the New Orleans Saints. And the complementary sprinkles on top of Dallas' Sunday was the New York Giants eking out a win to hurt their draft status.
The back-to-back wins by the Cowboys have come on the strength of the defense. Sunday, Dallas held a high-powered Atlanta offense to 19 points, 354 total yards, including 274 passing.
The rising star in Dallas, however, is linebacker rookie Leighton Vander Esch. The first-round pick stood out once again, filling the stat sheet, gobbling up eight tackles, three passes defensed, one QB hit and an interception. The INT marked the first time in five seasons a Cowboys linebacker had interceptions in back-to-back games.
"It was right place at the right time," the modest rookie said of the pick after the win, via the team's official website.
His teammates weren't so easily dismissive of the game-changing play.
"That was a crucial turnover right there," quarterback Dak Prescott said. "A stop by the defense allowing us to take a two-score lead."
The interceptions are big plays, but it's LVE's every-down presence that has helped morph the Cowboys into a playoff-caliber defense. In the past, when Sean Lee went down with injuries, the Dallas D got small. With the rookie taking over this season, however, the Cowboys defense might actually be better.
"I want to be that guy that they can trust to make plays and to do my job, just like everybody else, and don't look upon me as a rookie that doesn't know how to play ball," Vander Esch said. "I want to be that guy that they can trust."
LVE's ability to shed blocks is uncanny. He's strong enough to take on 350-pound linemen and fast enough to keep up with 4.4-speed running backs.
Teammates see the type of difference-make the rookie can be.
"He already has the character, and now he's making the plays on the field and growing as a player," Jeff Heath said. "The sky's the limit for him."