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Michael Bennett already looks like the missing piece the Cowboys needed all season

The Cowboys’ trade for Bennett is helping the entire defense raise their game — and solidifies their playoff hopes in the process.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

I’ve been watching Michael Bennett play in the NFL for quite some time now. While it is certainly true that Bennett is likely on the downside of his career now that he’s in his 11th season in the league, the guy can definitely still bring it on Sundays. That’s why as soon as I heard about his trade to the Cowboys, I was excited to see him play in Dallas’ scheme.

I am pretty familiar with it as my old defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, is the defensive coordinator there, along with Kris Richard. I knew he would be a good fit for that defense, not only with his play but also with Bennett’s salty on-field demeanor.

In addition to being highly skilled, Bennett tends to play with the kind of edge you need to have on defense. He goes hard and plays physical from the first whistle to the last. No matter what actually went down in New England that saw Bennett fall out of favor there, I was pretty sure the Cowboys could use another guy with his skillset and his take-no-shit attitude.

If early returns are any indication, this may go down as one of the smartest trades in NFL history.

Bennett has continued to play at a high level everywhere he’s been

Over Bennett’s first four years in the league with the Buccaneers, I watched him work his way up from quality backup to starter to team leader. I went back and checked my old notes on him, and right from the start there were two things that jumped out to me about Bennett’s game.

The first thing was his get-off. He would scream off the ball the instant the center so much as breathed too hard, which would almost immediately put the blocker assigned to him in quite a pickle.

The other thing that stood out about him was his short-area explosion. Even when Bennett hadn’t built up a full head of steam, he could still manage to push a blocker back. That explosion, like his get-off, also helped him to get great penetration behind the line of scrimmage.

He was a destructive force almost from day one, but he didn’t really know how to harness it all right away. At first, he relied almost exclusively on his athleticism to make plays because he didn’t have very good technique. As he became more precise with his hands, and more decisive with his footwork, Bennett’s productivity started to take off, too, especially when he went back to Seattle in 2013.

With the Seahawks using Bennett on the edges a lot on early downs and inside a lot on passing downs, they allowed him to really take advantage of all of his tools. He became a guy that offenses had to account for on every single play, and he continued his high level of performance for five years in Seattle as well as last year with the Eagles.

It is because Bennett had so much success when his previous teams moved him all over the defensive front that I thought he would be a great fit in New England this year. With Trey Flowers leaving for Detroit, Bennett seemed well-equipped to take over Flowers’ multifaceted role for the Patriots, despite being in a base 3-4 defense for the first time in his career.

At the beginning of the season, Bennett’s prospects appeared to be promising, too. He was able to notch 2.5 sacks in the first five games. However, for whatever reason he saw his playing time steadily decline. The tension from his reduced playing time evidently came to a head with an argument between Bennett and his position coach, leading to his one-week suspension.

It was safe to say the writing was on the wall that Bennett’s time was about up in New England, but I don’t think he could’ve found a better place for him to land in a trade than with the Cowboys.

It didn’t take Bennett long at all to fit in with the Cowboys

Exactly 10 days after Bennett was shipped off to Dallas, we were all able to see just what he could bring to the table on Monday Night Football against the Giants.

As expected, the Cowboys eased Bennett into the action, and his night didn’t necessarily start off so well. On his third play of the game, Bennett had one of his infamous offsides on that gifted the Giants a first down. After that, things started to pick up for him.

Two plays after the penalty, Bennett lined up inside as the right three-technique and yoked up perhaps the Giants’ best offensive lineman, left guard Will Hernandez, before escaping off the block and taking Saquon Barkley down for a 4-yard loss.

By halftime, Bennett had been in the game for 17 plays, notching an additional tackle, a pressure, and a hit on the quarterback. It was clear that the more he played, the more comfortable he was on the field.

It’s crazy because usually it takes new guys a while to not only digest the playbook, but also get used to playing with their new teammates. That is especially true on the defensive line, where you have to learn the blitzes, stunts, and pass rush games. With Bennett, he showed great chemistry with a bunch of dudes he had never played with before.

In the second half, Bennett looked like he had been with the Cowboys all offseason. He logged more playing time and flashed quite a bit, even coming home with a sack late in the game on a well-executed three-man pass rush game with DeMarcus Lawrence and Christian Covington assisting.

However, the play of his that I was most impressed with was a pressure he had when the game was a lot more in doubt earlier in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t pretty, but it showed exactly the kind of player the Cowboys are getting in Bennett, for at least the rest of this season.

One play shows just how much of a difference Bennett can make

With a little less than 12 minutes left in the game, the Cowboys were only up 23-15 and the Giants had already matriculated all the way down to the Dallas 11-yard line. It was third-and-10, and a New York touchdown there would have changed the entire complexion of the game.

This time, Bennett was lined up as the left defensive end outside of Giants right tackle Mike Remmers. Maliek Collins was lined up inside of Bennett in a 2i head up on the right guard, Kevin Zeitler. Bennett and Collins were aiming to run another pass rush game where Collins would rip outside to the B gap on the snap, while Bennett would first get up the field to sell a speed rush and set Remmers up for the okie doke. Then Bennett would exchange lanes with Collins, working inside of Zeitler to the A gap.

Even though he has only been in Dallas for a little while, Bennett knows how to run pass rush games and he understands how to time them out. So he got up the field, then kind of hesitated to keep Remmers’ focus on him. Once he felt Collins get upfield in the B gap, Bennett looped inside heading for the A gap just as he was supposed to. But everything didn’t go quite as planned.

See, Zeitler got enough contact on Collins to force him a little wider than he wanted to go, and Zeitler also was able to maintain his balance well enough to be in good position to block once Bennett looped around inside.

But this was where Bennett showed he is different from a lot of cats. The easiest thing in the world for Bennett to do would have been to try to avoid Zeitler inside and allow himself to get washed to the other side of the center, well out of the range of having an effect on the play. What Bennett actually did was use that short-area explosion I mentioned earlier and went right at Zeitler, quickly mushing him back to the quarterback.

Then, without breaking stride, Bennett came off the block and unleashed a big hit right into Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones’ chest as Jones tried to deliver the ball down the field. The pass ended up floating well over the head of wide receiver Bennie Fowler.

The Giants settled for a field goal and were never able to get the score any closer the rest of the game.

You want to know something else that was pretty cool about that play? With Bennett holding it down at left defensive end, that opened up an opportunity for Lawrence to move to pass rush as a three-technique over on the right side with Robert Quinn. I don’t know how much they will have D Law rushing inside going forward, but I can tell you if I were a Cowboys fan, I would be very excited about how having Bennett on your roster opens things up for the rest of the guys.

Bennett should be a big boost to the Cowboys’ playoffs push

It really is pretty wild that for the low, low price of a conditional seventh-round pick, the Cowboys were able to acquire Bennett. He’s a guy who can still play at a Pro Bowl level, who can play almost anywhere up front, and who can either keep the pass rush heat going when Lawrence and Quinn need a breather, or help turn that pass rush all the way up when all three of them are in there together.

I will also note that Bennett did look a little gassed late in the fourth quarter, which shouldn’t be very surprising since he hadn’t actually played in a game in almost a month. No matter how much conditioning you do, it just isn’t the same as playing in a game. The bright side is Bennett will probably continue to improve as he plays his way back into game shape. That should be a frightening thought for any team left on the Cowboys’ schedule.

The 5-3 Cowboys, aside from a couple of hiccups, already looked like they were pretty close to being a playoff team before this trade was pulled off. Hell, on their best days they even looked like a Super Bowl contender. With Bennett added to the mix, the quality depth of their defensive line has gone through the roof.

His addition should not only solidify their playoff hopes, but push them closer to that elite level of teams that advance deep into the postseason. Teams are going to catch hell trying to block them up front for the rest of the year, and with Bennett rotating in with Lawrence, there will no longer be any dropoff in play.

Regardless of what actually happened in New England to force the Patriots to cut ties, I believe Cowboys fans are going to quickly fall in love with Bennett and the way he plays the game. If Monday night was any indication, he will definitely be a difference maker for Dallas the rest of this year.

Who knows, maybe if he and the Cowboys keep winning, Bennett will end up in position to settle any difference with the Patriots on the field in the very last game of the season.