The final regular season game takes the Cowboys to Philadelphia for a Week 17 matchup with the Eagles. There isn’t much at stake here for either team except pride, but let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Eagles defensive personnel.
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 never been first Team All-Pro is truly mind-boggling to me. 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. He leads the team in sacks on the season with 6.5.
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 2.5 sacks so far this season. 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 he is very effective as a pass-rusher despite the fact that he has never had more than 6.5 sacks since entering the league in 2010. According to which source you want to believe Graham is one of the league leaders in quarterback hurries/pressures despite only 5.5 sacks on the season. 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, but I’ve never viewed him as a dominant presence off the edge despite averaging about eight sacks per season. Barwin is good against the run, but 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 all three are generally replacement-level at best as the Eagles are extremely reliant on their starting four.
It must be noted that this unit started out the season hot with the starting four combining for 12 sacks over the first six games, but over the last nine games they have only had six.
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, and 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 with three interceptions on the year, which ties him for the team lead.
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 a generally poor 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 has played well with three interceptions and a sack. It must be noted though that all three of those interceptions came in the first six games of the season and that he has cooled off considerably since then.
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 with his ability to cover deep while also supporting the run, as well as blitzing and covering the slot. Jenkins is a big time playmaker with two pick-six’s on the year, and together they form a formidable duo that should pose problems in both the pass and run game.
Fortunately for the Cowboys the cornerback group is not quite as talented. The Eagles have a hodgepodge of players here in Leodis McKelvin, journeyman Nolan Carroll, and rookie seventh-rounder Jalen Mills out of LSU. McKelvin has experience playing under Schwartz and was 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.
Carroll is the team’s top cornerback at this point, although that is more of an indictment of the other two. McKelvin flashes big-play ability at times, but it comes at the expense of giving up big plays due to his gambling nature. Mills on the other hand is also prone to giving up big plays due to a lack of speed that dropped him to the last round of the 2016 draft.
This is one of the worst cornerback groups in the league, although Jenkins will move down to play in the slot at times to help out similar to what Byron Jones does for the Cowboys.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Overly reliant on the starting defensive line
- Poor cornerback group that lacks depth
- Sometimes the defense is overly aggressive as whole, which opens them up to plays downfield
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- A defensive line that can utterly dominate if they aren’t asked to stay on the field for extended drives
- Formidable “spine” in the middle of the defense with versatile and talented linebackers and safeties
- Extremely aggressive defense overall that can intimidate and make game-changing plays when a game starts going their way