FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys (4-2) have had a top-10 scoring defense every season under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn since 2021, including 2023 in which their 16.7 points per game allowed ranks as the fourth-best in the NFL through seven weeks. However, one key cog in the Cowboys' defensive dominance the last three seasons is now missing: middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. He suffered a neck injury in the team's 42-10 loss on "Sunday Night Football" at the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5 that has since landed him on injured reserve.
One of the players who filled in for him in Dallas' 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on "Monday Night Football" made critical play after critical play all night, and he is a player many who don't follow the Cowboys with a microscope may not have been as familiar with: second-year, undrafted safety/linebacker Markquese Bell. The 24-year-old out of Florida A&M has been a career defensive back, but the 6-foot-3, 205-pound defender has been tasked with filling in at linebacker on Quinn's defense following injuries to rookie linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, and Vander Esch. Bell totaled seven tackles, five of which occurred at or around the line of scrimmage while allowing just 36 receiving yards and one first down in coverage. He earned a 91.3 grade for his performance from Pro Football Focus, making him the seventh-highest graded player in the NFL for Week 6, on offense or defense, among those who played at least 25 snaps.
"Great job, I think you are going to see what we see every day when you look at a young man who came up through special teams," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said postgame on Monday. "Super competitive. He is a natural in there [at linebacker], particularly in sub-groups. I just love his tenacity and confidence for a young player. I thought he did a nice job."
Bell was all over the place in coverage as well as in the run game, stone-walling Chargers running back Austin Ekeler multiple times at key junctures in the game to preserve a much-needed Dallas victory prior to a Week 7 bye.
"I'm glad you guys brought up Bell because I was going to," Quinn said on Oct. 17, the day after the team's win over the Chargers. "Man, I was pleased with him. I felt the speed. I felt him guard guys, the running back coming out of the backfield. The contact, the hitting. … To see those two [Bell and Damone Clark] really step into that space [left by Leighton Vander Esch after his neck injury] and put the work in to be counted on, I think it's one of the best feelings as a player when you step up, you know you're being counted on and you deliver. It not only gives yourself confidence but your teammates around you to say 'this guy, he's got it. I can count on him. He can be trusted.' I really thought he would play well because he prepared and done well. I guess it's close to about six, seven or eight weeks since his move to linebacker, and I keep seeing his trajectory going up. I don't see that slowing down."
Weighing 205 pounds, his listed weight on the Cowboys' team website, makes Bell "undersized" to be playing a position that has plenty of responsibility in the run game. However, Quinn initially pegged the second-year, undrafted player as a linebacker when he first became a Cowboy in 2022.
"Coming from Tallahassee [Florida A&M], I thought he was going to go to linebacker first," Quinn said. "That was my vision and how I thought it. Once he got here and we saw him run and do the things, I said 'let's leave him here at safety. We saw him play man-to-man and do that. Going into it [Week 6 against the Chargers], I felt like he could get a little bigger. He had been a little bit bigger in the 220's and maybe even a little heavier at times, but I never saw him give way or give ground based on his weight. He has long arms, he can get guys extended and he has good instincts. I wasn't concerned about it."
"I just try to use my abilities and the skill sets that I have to the best of my abilities. We're all different sizes and shapes," Bell said Monday. "You have to use what God gave you. I try to incorporate my speed."
Quinn said Bell lost "a little bit [of weight] but not much" entering 2023.
"He has put most of it back on," Quinn said. "Over the summer, he was a little leaner. When we moved him to linebacker, we made a conscious effort to put some of that weight back on over time."
"I think you have to be smart about it too in how we utilize him," McCarthy said on Oct. 17. "I think Dan and the defensive staff are doing a great job of that."
Quinn and the defensive coaching staff have essentially changed Bell's position in 2023. While the roster page on the team website still lists Bell as a safety, he is a linebacker based where he lines up now, aligning as an inside backer on nearly 90% of his snaps.
Markquese Bell 2023 snap alignment
"I think Bell, in particular, to make the transition from safety to linebacker, and get a high numbers of reps with the communication that he has to do with setting the front and moving the guys, [Damone] Clark, another young guy as welI, I thought they did a nice job in their communication and speed," Cowboys secondary/defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. said on Oct. 18. "You saw that speed come to life. We ask the outside guys [safeties] Donovan [Wilson] and JK [Jayron Kearse] to help them with the communication from a coverage standpoint. We don't ask one person to do it. We ask the team to do it together."
One of Vander Esch's key responsibilities was having the green-dot helmet, meaning Quinn can relay the defensive play to whoever wears that helmet until their 15 seconds remaining on the play-clock. Kearse has taken over the lead communication in on-field defensive signal-calling since Vander Esch went on injured reserve.
"You know, that's not been anything [too] different, it's just a role that DQ [Dan Quinn] feels like I have to feel whether I have the green dot on and I call the plays or not," Kearse said Wednesday when asked about his leadership role on defense. "Just being that guy for the defense that speaks up and when things aren't going as good, calling me to pick things up. I've always been that guy since I've been here, whether I had the green dot or not. It's not really much of a change. It [calling the defensive plays and relaying it to the linebacker and linemen on the field] becomes a challenge when I'm covering a deep route, and then I have to get back to get the call to the guys, running to get it to them and then running back is the biggest challenge. But other than that, it's not much of a challenge. I communicate play-to-play anyways. Just getting the guys the call. Once I get it to the linebackers, they're doing all the communications with the front. I just have to get it to somebody and echo the call."
Bell credits Kearse and others for his relatively smooth transition to linebacker.
"They've been working with me making sure I get everything down," Bell said. "It's been good, the transition has been pretty good. I got a lot of guys at different positions helping me, coaches helping me every step of the way. The transition isn't hard when I have all of those guys supporting me to be the best."
His move is also made easier by Quinn's scheme as well given his game plans have stylistically long been centered around rangy, quick linebackers who can easily transition into coverage responsibilities.
"Well, one thing talking about Bell and just our defense in general is, I think the NFL is going to trend this way, positionless defense," Whitt Jr said. "He's a good football player. We want as many good football players as possible. You can he is a linebacker, but when we play our Dino package, what is [safety Jayron Kearse] JK? He is a linebacker. But then we can go into our Hippo package and what is Yeh [safety Juanyeh Thomas] in our hippo package? He is a corner. So, it doesn't really matter. We're going to put as many good football players on the football field and allow them to show their skill set, so we don't limit it by position. By position is he [Bell] a linebacker now? Yes, but he is playing some of the same roles that he played when he was the safety in our Dino package. That helped him get into that role as a linebacker. The only difference now is he has to set the front [take Kearse's call and relay it to the defensive line]. He has to do some front things that he didn't have to do when he was playing the Dino position."
Ultimately, Bell looks to contribute anywhere on the Cowboys defense that will allow him to him to see the field, a mindset that has endeared him to his coaches.
"I consider myself a hybrid," Bell said. "That's what I tell the guys all the time. They try to tell me I'm a linebacker, they tell me 'oh you're still a [safety]', I'm a hybrid. The more versatile I can be, the more I can help."
"For a guy that is 215 pounds, he is quick, he doesn't necessarily get stuck on guards," Whitt Jr. said. "He'll make them miss, and he'll still hit the hole. Especially in our man concepts where we're not having to read laterally, his match is in the backfield and he gets downhill right now. He has a lot of punch, he can cover tight ends. He is still going to play some of those safety-type roles. I'm just pleased with what he is doing."