Johnathan Hankins was missed.
Granted, it’s hard not to miss a 6-foot-3-inch, 340-pound man when he’s suddenly not where he’s supposed to be. But when Hankins went down with a pectoral injury against Houston in Week 14, the big man’s absence was felt.
The Cowboys activated the defensive tackle’s 21-day practice window on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to work with the team and perhaps even be back on the field Monday night for the first round of the playoffs.
“I feel good,” Hankins told Patrik Walker of the team website. “I feel like I could’ve been back out sooner, but with the [injured reserve] rules, I had to be out four weeks. But I’m not mad about it; it just gives me more time to get my body right and ready for the playoffs. The time is now.”
Hankins came to the Cowboys in late October after a trade with Las Vegas and hasn’t logged more than 33 defensive snaps in a game since he joined the team. But he proved quite effective in late November and early December, helping to hold Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor, and Dameon Pierce to 72, 82, and 78 rushing yards, respectively, in his last three outings.
“I thought the first couple weeks with John, we were getting him ready to go,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said this week. “Then I thought it just clicked: his space and how to fit in and how we play. … I’m definitely looking forward to having the big fella back inside. However a team wants to play, you have to have the big guys, have to have the rushers who cover. That’s the chess match on defense. Make sure: Do you want to go wide open? You’ve got to have the guys to do that. Want to close them down, get bigger? Have to have enough to do that. That’s the game within the game and having guys like [linebacker] Leighton [Vander Esch] and Hankins back will make that job a lot easier.”
In the Cowboys’ first game after Hankins’s injury, Jacksonville’s Travis Etienne ripped off 103 yards as the Jaguars totaled nearly 200 on the ground in their overtime win.
If he is, in fact, active for Monday’s tilt, Hankins will look to help sink a Tampa Bay rushing attack that’s already been stuck in the harbor for much of the season.
The Buccaneers rank dead last in the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry.
After gashing Dallas in the season opener for 127 yards on the ground, Leonard Fournette hasn’t come within 50 yards of that in any contest since. He ranks 40th leaguewide in rushing yards and is averaging just 41.8 yards per game.
Rookie Rachaad White could be more of a problem. The third-round draft pick out of Arizona State logged just six carries for 14 yards back in Week 1, but he’s amassed 771 yards from scrimmage over the course of the season and has been listed as the team’s starting running back since Week 10.
Tampa Bay leads the league in passing attempts, and Tom Brady may well continue with that approach.
But having Johnathan Hankins back on the Cowboys’ interior defensive line could go a long way in making sure that the Bucs’ running game, which has hit triple digits just three times all year as a team, remains missing in action Monday night.