Eagles Cowboys Preview

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

 

This is the game we have all be waiting for. Eagles v Cowboys. Wentz v Prescott. Sunday Night Football. It is one of the most anticipated games between these teams in recent memory. Here’s an advanced scouting report with a focus on key numbers and matchups that could determine the outcome of this game.

When the Cowboys are on Offense

Battle in the Trenches

Everyone will be talking about Dak Prescott v Carson Wentz, but the most important matchup in this game is the Eagles defensive line against the Cowboys vaunted offensive line. It’s a matchup of strength versus strength, and it’s no secret the two units aren’t fond of one another.

The Eagles have the number one rated pass rush in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and their defense ranks 1st in overall DVOA, 1st in pass DVOA, and 13th in run DVOA.  The Eagles are 4th in the NFL in total sacks, with 22. The one weakness, as of late, has been the run defense. They’ve allowed 72 rushes for 381 yards 5.2 YPC and 1 touchdown in their last three games. Some will immediately blame the wide nine technique, since it creates large running lanes between the Eagles lineman to exploit, but the truth is the missed tackles have been more of an issue.

The Cowboys have the number one offensive line in the league, according to Football Outsiders. They rank 1st in run blocking, ninth in pass blocking and have allowed only 9 sacks on the season, which is the third best mark in the league.

This therefore presents a salivating matchup of two of the best lines in the league. If there was any edge, it might come down to health. The Eagles are without one of their best lineman in Bennie Logan, while the Cowboys get back their best lineman, and one of the best lineman in all of football, in Tyron Smith. Smith has missed several weeks with a back injury, and the All Pro Left Tackle returns just in time to square off against the Eagles.

For my money, the winner of this matchup will come down to whether Jim Schwartz dials up the blitz effectively. I’m just not sure the Eagles can afford to rely on their front four to generate pressure. Two weeks ago, the Eagles faced Football Outsider’s second best offensive line in football in the Washington Redskins. They rarely blitzed, got 0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and were gashed by Kirk Cousins and the ground game all day.

The Vikings have the worst offensive line in football according to Football Outsiders, but the Eagles were able to manufacture pressure because Jim Schwartz abandoned his philosophical aversion to blitzing by sending an extra rusher 12 times.  It worked. The Eagles got 6 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for a loss and 9 passes defended.

I broke down some of these blitzes on Twitter, but never got to put up a post, so I am going to force them in here. Schwartz’s game plan was nothing short of brilliant. He sent blitzes often, varied the location of the pressure, and never let the Vikings offense get in rhythm.

If the Eagles can get pressure, the entire dynamic of the game changes. But if Prescott is able to operate with a clean pocket, the Eagles defense could be in for a long day.

Dak Prescott

Prescott has been fantastic this year. He’s completed 68.7%, for 1,486 yards, 8.2 y/a, 7 tds, and 1 int. Prescott’s 82.9 QBR is the second best mark in the league. He’s athletic, but chooses his runs smartly, and has added 3 rushing touchdowns on the year. Prescott makes smart decisions, has only two turnovers on the year, and has solidified himself as the Cowboys quarterback of the future (and perhaps, present).

I’m interested to see how Prescott does under pressure and when his team is behind on the scoreboard.  Prescott has only been sacked 9 time on the season, which is tied for the third best mark in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. Prescott has also rarely played from behind. He never trailed once against the Bears, Bengals or Packers and was behind for only portions of the wins over the Redskins. The only time he was behind for an extended period of time was against the 49ers, when he faced a 14-0 deficit in the 2nd quarter. But, that’s the 49ers, one of the worst teams in the NFL.

In other words, Prescott has benefited from playing in favorable situations throughout most of the season. That isn’t to take anything away from what he’s accomplished. But as we saw with Wentz the last two weeks, being under pressure and playing from behind changes the dynamic considerably. If the Eagles can get a lead and Schwartz can effectively dial up pressure with the blitzes, the Eagles might be the first team to make Prescott look like a rookie.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliot has 137 carries, 703 yards and 5.1 ypc, 5 tds. If he keeps this pace up, he’s a lock to win the offensive rookie of the year award (Sorry, it’s true).

Elliot started slow during the first two games of his career: tallying 20 carries, 51 yards and 1 touchdown against the Giants, followed by 21 carries for 83 yards and 1 td against the Redskins. But since then, Elliot has been on fire, averaging 165.5 total yards and 5.93 ypc in his last four games. Granted, three of those games were against the Bears, 49ers and Bengals, who rank 20th, 29th and 23rd in run DVOA, respectively. But the Packers have the #2 rated run DVOA, and Elliot hung 28 for 157 yards on them. The kid can ball.

The Eagles are going to need to maintain gap discipline and tackle like they did against the Vikings, not the Redskins (where, by my count, they missed at least 9 tackles). The Cowboys entire offense is predicated on controlling the ball; they lead the league in time of possession; missing tackles will just make life harder on the D.

Three other stats that likely only interest me.

(1) 82 of Elliot’s 137 carries come with multiple tight ends on the field (43 with two, 39 with three tight ends). The remaining 55 come with one tight end on the field. In other words, Elliot has yet to gain a single carry without a tight end on the field. So if you see the Cowboys lining up with 4 wide receivers, odds are they won’t be running the ball.

(2) Another trend I noticed: if you see the Cowboys run a man in motion, odds are Elliot isn’t running the ball. Elliot has only 8 carries when the Cowboys put a man in motion on the season. His 129 other carries did not involve a man being put in motion.

(3) We’ve heard the old adage that runners get stronger as the game progresses. I haven’t tested whether that theory is true league wide, but it hasn’t been so far for Elliot. In his first through 10th carries of each game, Elliott averages 6 yards per carry and has 3 touchdowns. On his 11th through 20th carries, his ypc drops to 4.7 and he has 2 touchdowns. And on carries 21-30, he averages only 3.7 ypc and has 0 touchdowns.

Dez Bryant

Bryant returns just in time to face the Eagles, a team that he has performed well against during his career. In 9 career games, Bryant averages 5.4 catches, 86.11 yards and .88 touchdowns. But if we focus on the last 7 games, his numbers rise to 5.7 catches for 97.85 yards and 1.14 touchdowns. No one needs to be reminded of the damage Bryant caused to Bradley Fletcher back in week 14 of the 2014 season: 6 catches, 114 yards, 3 touchdowns. In my mind, that game — and Davis’ refusal to adjust — marked the turning point in Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. Bryant got off to a slow start this year because Witten and Beasely have served as Prescott’s security blankets. But  with Bryant returning from injury and the team playing in prime time, expect the Cowboys to get Bryant involved early in the game.

Cole Beasely

Speaking of Beasely, it’s time to start giving him credit as a legitimate slot receiver. He is firmly entrenched as Prescott’s favorite target, is a great route runner and has caught a ridiculous 84.6% of his targets. On the year, Beasely has 33 catches, 390 yards and 3 touchdowns, which puts him on pace for a career year. And with Ron Brooks out, Beasely will likely match up against Malcolm Jenkins in the slot, who Beasely roasted the last time the two matched up, catching 9 passes for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jenkins had a terrible game against the Redskins, getting beat by Vernon Davis on a wheel route for a 37 yard gain and giving up 2 touchdowns passes. He rebounded nicely against the Vikings, but a lot of his production came as a blitzer. Outside of the battle in the trenches, Beasely v Jenkins could be a key matchup for the game. If Jenkins struggles, the Cowboys could dink and Dak their way down the field all game.

When the Eagles are on Offense

Big Picture

This matchup presents an opportunity for the Eagles offense to get back on track, as the Cowboys defense isn’t stout, but instead benefits from spending the least amount of time on the field than any other defense in the league.

The Eagles rank 24th overall offensively in DVOA, 19th in running game, 19th in passing attack. Their offensive line is about middle of the pack, which is a marked improvement over Chip Kelly’s last two years in Philly. They rank 13th in run blocking, 18th in pass blocking.

Conversely, Dallas ranks 20th in defensive DVOA, 22nd against the pass, 8th against the run.  The Cowboys have allowed only 92.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th best in the league. They’ve also allowed only 2 rushing touchdowns all year, which tops the NFL.

Carson Wentz

After starting the season on a tear, Carson Wentz has cooled off significantly the last two games.  Wentz has completed 118/185 passes, completing 63.8% of his passes, for 1324 yards, 8 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 7.2 y/a, a quarterback rating of 92.7 and a QBR of 54.1.

That Wentz has regressed after Lane Johnson’s suspension is not by happenstance. Johnson’s replacement, Big V, was an unmitigated disaster against the Redskins, giving up 3 sacks. He surprisingly played better against the Vikings, who have one of the best pass rushes in the league. But some of that was by design, as Doug Pederson provided Big V help with tight end and running back chips throughout the game. Indeed, Brent Celek and Trey Burton saw their playing time increase to 48% and Burton 22% of the snaps last week to provide Big V help. That, in turn, limited the number of pass catchers out on the field. But, it’s better than Wentz being on his backside almost immediately.

Wentz should not be under duress for most of this game. The Dallas defensive line is anemic, their 11 sacks is tied for 24th in the league and their 24 quarterback hits ranks 31st.

Eagles Receivers

Since the bye week, Wentz’s target selection has been questionable: Agholor leads the team with 17 targets, Matthews is second with 15, followed by DGB (12), Ertz (9), Sproles (8), Huff (7), Mathews (6), Burton (4) and Smallwood (2). Ertz has averaged 3 targets per game since coming back from injury.

The west coast offense is designed to spread the ball around to multiple targets. But given the limitations of most of the Eagles pass catchers, it would be wise for Pederson, Reich and Wentz to start force feeding the ball to Matthews and Ertz. Agholor just is not getting it done, and feeding him the ball at a high clip is one of the reasons the offense is struggling.

The Cowboys secondary is not spectacular, but it has improved thanks in large part to Byron Jones, who is an athletic freak at the back end of the Cowboys defense. (Not to rub salt in the wounds, but the Eagles drafted Agholor ahead of Jones — yikes). The Cowboys have also benefited from improved play from Morris Claiborne. He’s allowed just 21 catches on 40 targets for 191 yards and zero touchdowns. While he has never validated his lofty draft status (6th overall in 2012), he is finally starting to serve as a functional starter.

But make no mistake, there will be opportunities to be had for the Eagles. This secondary isn’t special, so the Eagles should be able to make plays.

Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews has had two critical fumbles in the last three games, one of which cost the Eagles a victory. But his issues extend beyond that. He’s carried the ball 67 times for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns. His 3.9 yards per carry rank 28th out of 40 qualifying running backs. That simply is not good enough. I thought Mathews was in for a good year based on his impressive production last year, when he was clearly the best back on the team. But now, Mathews is struggling and DeMarco Murray, who was a train-wreck last year, is one of the best running backs in football again. Because, reasons.

While the Cowboys have been effective against the run, they have struggled to stop pass catchers out of the backfield. Ty Montgomery caught 10 passes for 98 yards against the Cowboys two weeks ago, while Giovani Bernard caught 6 for 46, and the Bears running backs caught 6 for 62. In other words, Darren Sproles might have himself a decent game tomorrow.

Efficiency/Avoiding Costly Mistakes/Penalties

If I were to pick one key for the Eagles offense this week, it is to be efficient and avoid costly mistakes. As you can see from the numbers, the Cowboys defense isn’t actually very good. They instead benefit from facing the third fewest plays in the league because the Cowboys offense leads the league in time of possession.

Opportunities will be few and far between, so the Eagles must avoid beating themselves. They have a habit for inopportune mistakes; a penalty negating a big play, a drop on third down, etc. They will need to limit those mistakes so that they aren’t leaving their defense on the field for extended periods of time. If they can do so, they should have a chance to put up points. But if they don’t, this could be a repeat of the loss to the Redskins.

The Pick

I have gone back and forth on this one. The Cowboys are the more complete team playing better and more disciplined football. They should win this game — indeed, they have been favored by 4.5 points all week, a tell-tale sign that Vegas thinks the Cowboys are the better team. But something tells me the Eagles defensive line will take this game personally (as the have done in the past) and will wreak havoc on Prescott and the Cowboys offense. I also expect the Eagles offense to get back on track against a Cowboys defense that has been protected by its highly efficient offense.

Give me the Birds 24-17. 

Season record: 3-3

 

 

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