The Eagles have a stout defensive front that is usually one of the few units that has given the Cowboys running game problems over the last few years, let’s take a look.
The headliner here is defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, a player who is truly one of the best at his position in the league. He was Second Team All-Pro in 2014 and 2015, although the fact that he has only made one Pro Bowl (2015) and has never been a First Team All-Pro is truly mind-boggling. It could be argued that Cox is the best all-around defensive tackle in the league when you take into account pass-rush ability and the ability to stop the run. There are better pass-rushers, Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins for example, and there are better run-stuffers, such as Damon Harrison, Linval Joseph, and Brandon Williams, but there may not be a defensive tackle in the league that combines Cox’s ability to do both. He can absolutely destroy an interior running game all on his own as he plays with great power, while he also has the ability to beat guards and centers with quickness, length, and change of direction as a pass-rusher.
Next to Cox on the inside is Bennie Logan, an excellent run-stuffer who usually doesn’t provide much in terms of a pass rush, although he does have two sacks so far this season. Logan suffered an injury against the Redskins, which was one of the main reasons why the Redskins had so much success against them on the ground. It is unknown whether or not he will play this week, but he would be a huge loss if he isn’t able to go. One could argue that Cox and Logan are the best defensive tackle duo in the league, and the rest of the Eagles defense revolves around these two.
The starters at defensive end are Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin. Graham is another very strong run defender, and while he has never had more than 6.5 sacks since entering the league in 2010, he does have four so far this season in the famed “Wide-9” scheme that first-year defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz runs. Early in his career Graham was considered a bust, likely because he was miscast as a 3-4 OLB, but he has improved by leaps and bounds since playing more with his hand down. Barwin has had more statistical success as a pass-rusher throughout his career, although I’ve never viewed him as a dominant presence off the edge despite averaging about eight sacks per season. He always seems to get his in terms of sack numbers but he isn’t a guy you have to game plan around. Barwin is good against the run, although overall he is miscast as a defensive end in this scheme and is a better fit as a 3-4 OLB.
There isn’t much behind the starters except for Vinny Curry, a versatile fifth-year player who can line up either on the edge or inside in pass-rushing situations. First-round bust Marcus Smith and defensive tackles Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao round out the depth chart, although they barely play any snaps if the starters are healthy, as the Eagles are extremely reliant on their starting four, plus Curry. If Logan isn’t able to play Allen is the likely replacement, which would be a huge advantage for the Cowboys running game.
This unit is led by Nigel Bradham and emerging second-year player Jordan Hicks. Bradham had a breakout season under Schwartz in Buffalo in 2014, and while he struggled in 2015 playing in Rex Ryan’s scheme he has rebounded now that he is back playing under Schwartz. Bradham is physical and explosive against the run, although he’s also very capable in coverage.
Jordan Hicks is someone Cowboys fans should be familiar with as his sack is what caused Tony Romo’s broken collarbone in the second game of 2015. Not only that, but Hicks also had a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second matchup last season, a play which sealed the game for the Eagles. Like Bradham, he is physical against the run but is also very good in coverage. Both Hicks and Bradham are three-down players who rarely leave the field and it will be difficult dealing with two linebackers of this caliber behind a very stout defensive line.
Behind these two is Mychal Kendricks, a player who seemed on path to becoming a superstar a few years ago but has since plateaued. He isn’t an ideal fit in the Eagles new scheme and usually plays less than half of the Eagles defensive snaps. Stephen Tulloch is a veteran who has experience playing under Schwartz, but at 31 years old he is a replacement-level player.
This is a unit of contrasts as the Eagles have arguably one of the top safety duos in the league, while at the same time an average at best cornerback group. In the offseason the team signed Rodney McLeod from the Rams, and while some may have thought that they overpaid after giving him a contract averaging over $7 million a year, that investment has paid off as McLeod already has three interceptions over the first six games. McLeod generally will play in a centerfield role as Malcolm Jenkins will move all over the field, sometimes acting as a slot cornerback, other times blitzing, and also playing deep at times himself. Jenkins is one of the more versatile safeties in the league as he can cover deep while also supporting the run, blitzing and covering the slot. Together, this is a formidable duo that should pose some problems in both the pass and run game.
Fortunately for the Cowboys the cornerback group is not quite as talented and that’s where the return of Dez Bryant should really help matters. The Eagles have a hodgepodge of players here with former Buffalo Bills in Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, journeyman Nolan Carroll, and rookie seventh-rounder Jalen Mills out of LSU. McKelvin and Brooks have experience playing under Schwartz and were brought in during the offseason to help ease the transition to a new scheme, while Carroll, a player the Cowboys nearly signed this past offseason, was re-signed after two years with the team.
McKelvin was thought of as their best corner throughout camp and the preseason, although an injury that cost him a few early season games has allowed Carroll to supplant him as their most trusted corner. Furthermore, Brooks, who primarily played in the slot, tore his quadriceps against the Vikings and is out for the season. This means that Jenkins will likely move down to play more slot cornerback, which could have a ripple effect through the rest of the secondary.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- The Eagles are overly reliant on their starting defensive line and if the Cowboys running game continues to dominate they should wear down, especially if Logan is out
- Average cornerback group that lacks depth, if Bryant is fully healthy they will have a difficult time stopping him and the other Cowboys receiving threats
- Overall lack of depth throughout the defense as there are really only five defensive linemen (four without Logan), two linebackers, and five defensive backs who play the vast majority of the defensive snaps
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- A defensive line that can dominate under the right circumstances, namely when they aren’t asked to stay on the field for prolonged drives
- Formidable “spine” in the middle of the defense with versatile and talented linebackers and safeties
- Extremely aggressive defense overall that can intimidate when a game starts going their way
The Cowboys return units will have to be particularly focused this week as the Eagles have returned a kick for a touchdown in each of the last two games, one by receiver Josh Huff and another by running back Wendell Smallwood. This isn’t the week to be getting cute with kickoffs, if Dan Bailey is able to boom them for touchbacks, do so, because half of the Eagles touchdowns in their last two games have been off kickoffs. Not only that, but Darren Sproles is well known as a dangerous punt returner who can flip a game on special teams. Despite his age Sproles is still averaging over 10 yards per punt return. This will undoubtedly be one of the biggest challenges of the season for the Cowboys special teams.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis has been below average in his three years prior to 2016, converting at under a 80% clip, although so far this season he has only missed one field goal.