After facing back to back NFC East opponents to start the season the Cowboys haven’t played against a division rival since early September. That changes as Week 8 brings the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium. This is a familiar foe with plenty of new faces on offense, so let’s take a look.
The Eagles offense is led by the second-overall pick in the 2016 draft, rookie sensation Carson Wentz. Cowboys fans should be very familiar with Wentz as there was plenty of buzz that the team was interested in selecting him with the fourth-overall pick after coaching him at the Senior Bowl this past February. Similar to Dak Prescott, Wentz has had a hot start to his career, throwing for 1,324 yards, eight touchdowns and just three interceptions, although he has leveled off a bit over the last few games. Wentz has great size, a strong arm, athleticism, mobility and most importantly, great football intelligence; it’s been reported that the Cowboys considered Wentz and Prescott as the two most intelligent quarterbacks in the draft when asked to draw up plays on the board. Not only can he extend plays with his legs to make throws downfield, he’s also a dangerous runner with surprising speed for his size.
Where Wentz struggles is with his ability to go through reads quickly and maneuver inside the pocket. He has great toughness in that he is more than willing to stand in the pocket and take hits in order to make downfield throws, but at times he stares down targets and doesn’t feel the rush, which can lead to big hits, such as the one during the preseason that resulted in a hairline rib fracture. So far the Eagles haven’t asked Wentz to do too much and have designed an offense where he is generally only asked to make easier, low-risk throws with a heavy dose of wide receiver and running back screens, as well as some read option with play-action off of it. He won’t hesitate to take shots down field when given one-on-one coverage though, and he can be dangerous when extending plays with his legs as he will keep his eyes downfield instead of immediately running for yardage.
Wentz has all the makings of a franchise quarterback although I feel like the last three games have shown that the hype garnered over the first few games was a bit over the top. The Eagles aren’t asking him to do too much, many of his throws are simple, one-read types and his stats have been padded by yards gained after the catch on screens and shorter throws.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
This group is led by third-year man out of Vanderbilt, Jordan Matthews. Despite his size at 6-3, 212, Matthews generally works out of the slot. He doesn’t have outstanding speed or route running ability, but he doesn’t lack in those areas either. His hands are inconsistent as he struggles with drops at times but overall he is a solid all-around receiver, certainly not elite or a true “number one” type, but he is a capable starting receiver in the league with nearly 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns over his first two seasons.
There isn’t much behind Matthews though as the other two primary targets are second-year players Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham. Neither has been particularly impressive since entering the league, and Green-Beckham somehow managed to get himself traded only a year after Tennessee invested a high second-round pick in him. Green-Beckham had a little over 500 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie while Agholor had only 283 yards and one touchdown. Neither has shown anything over the first six games of this season to indicate that they will have a breakout campaign. You certainly can’t ignore these two as Agholor has good speed and Green-Beckham has great size at 6-5, 225, but they aren’t players you have to build a game plan to stop either.
The Eagles do have a trio of tight ends that must be accounted for though. The group is led by Zach Ertz, a fourth-year player who broke out in 2015 with over 800 yards receiving. He has impressive size at 6-5, 250, functional speed, good hands, and is a good route runner, and while he isn’t a truly elite tight end, he is one of the primary receiving threats that the Cowboys defense will have to hone in on. Behind Ertz is veteran Brent Celek, who is primarily a blocker at this point, and third-year man Trey Burton, who is primarily a receiver and struggles in the run game. Neither is a significant threat on their own but the Eagles love to use two and three tight end formations and can scheme ways to get Celek or Burton open with misdirection and play-action.
Long story short, there’s not a lot here as far as a traditional running game goes. The “starter” is injury-prone veteran Ryan Mathews, he is a player who can pop a big run from time to time but he is generally ineffective on an every-down basis, averaging only 3.9 YPC so far this season. Not only that, but Mathews has struggled with fumbles recently, doing so in the fourth quarter in each of the last two weeks. There has been speculation as to the possibility that Wendell Smallwood could eat into his touches.
The bigger threat here is the ageless wonder, Darren Sproles. Sproles isn’t much of a threat as a traditional back out of the backfield, although he can hit you with a big run on a draw play if you fall asleep on him; however he is truly one of the top receiving backs in the league. He isn’t quite what he was five years ago when he was putting up 600-700 yards receiving a season but he does have 210 receiving yards over the first six games, which is good for second on the team and puts him on pace for 560 for the season. The Eagles love to set up screens to him, which gives Wentz low risk, easy throws, with the potential of a chunk gain if Sproles can get out in space. The Cowboys will have to be aware of where Sproles is at all times because he is still capable of huge plays, such as the 73 yard catch and run for a touchdown against the Steelers.
Behind Mathews and Sproles are the aforementioned Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner, two guys who aren’t much of a threat to line up in a traditional I-formation and run downhill at you, but they can be dangerous in space in spread formations on draws and similar plays. In tandem they average about 4.7 YPC, although on a very limited number of carries, and most of their damage came in a blowout win over the Steelers.
This group is led by eight-time Pro Bowl, two-time First Team All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. At 34 years of age Peters isn’t what he once was, but he is still one of the better left tackles in the league. At one point center Jason Kelce looked to be on his way to becoming perhaps the best center in the league, although he has plateaued a bit over the last few years and some in Philadelphia wonder if he is a poor fit in the new system due to his lack of size.
The most obvious deficiency on the 2015 Eagles offensive line was at offensive guard, so in the offseason the team went out and signed Brandon Brooks (6-5, 343), a massive interior lineman from the Houston Texans. Brooks is excellent in the running game, although he can struggle with quickness in pass protection. At the other guard spot is Allen Barbre, a 32-year-old journeyman who has impressed this season to the point where some in Philadelphia believe he has been their best lineman after right tackle Lane Johnson.
The loss of Johnson, who is serving the second game of a 10-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, is a huge one for the Eagles as he was developing into one of the better right tackles in the league. His replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, was absolutely brutalized by Ryan Kerrigan of the Redskins in his first career start, although he did improve a bit last week against the Vikings. Either way, this will be a player the Cowboys will certainly look to take advantage of on Sunday.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage
- Inconsistent running game that lacks a traditional running back who can carry the ball 20-25 times a game
- Lack of any true game-breaking threats in the passing game, Darren Sproles at 33 years of age may be the Eagles most explosive weapon in that regard
- Vaitai at right tackle can be a sieve at times, Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford must take advantage of this
- Wentz tends to stare down receivers and has so much belief in his arm that he will attempt to force throws into coverage, which could lead to interceptions
What The Cowboys Must Fear
- Darren Sproles getting into space on screens and draws
- Ball-control passing game that looks to give Wentz low risk throws and reads
- Wentz using his legs to keep plays alive