The Dallas Cowboys will soon host the NFC East leading Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. The Eagles are riding a seven-game winning steak led by early MVP-candidate Carson Wentz and their high-flying offense. With the recent help of a 51-point performance against the Denver Broncos, the Eagles join the Los Angeles Rams as the only two offenses in the league that are averaging over 30 points a game.
For Dallas, things have taken a bad turn after a terrible performance in Atlanta last week. With some key pieces unavailable, the team has suddenly lost all ability to make plays and this has a lot of fans uneasy. It should be interesting to see what kind of fight the Cowboys bring. Will they just go through the motions and lose like most people expect them to or will they surprise everyone and bring the Eagles back down to earth? There will be plenty of things to watch on Sunday night, but here are the five things I will be keeping an eye on.
1. Dak on the run
All eyes will be on the whomever trots on the field to play left tackle not wearing the number 77. Will it be Chaz Green or will it be Byron Bell? Last week against Atlanta, the Cowboys entire pass protection was in shambles. Green looked more like a bull fighter than an NFL tackle. Bell wasn’t any better. Jonathan Cooper couldn’t stop holding, and even the great Zack Martin would uncharacteristically give up a sack. It was a giant fiasco. Not having Tyron Smith definitely hurts.
The Cowboys Yards Per Play With and Without Tyron Smith on the field this year:— Ethan Young (@NFLDrafter) November 14, 2017
With Tyron Smith: 7.31
Without Tyron Smith: 4.50
Participation Impact: +2.81
That is the largest Participation Impact among eligible offensive tackles.
This week, the Cowboys offensive line will have to face a very good Eagles defensive front. Players like Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Timmy Jernigan are all going to be difficult to block. And Vinny Curry will have the fortuitous honor of rushing from the right end spot and will be trying his hardest to do his best Adrian Clayborn impression.
The Cowboys have to know that these Eagles rushers will be coming and they will be coming fast. That means Dak Prescott is going to have to be on his toes again. Having him hang out in the pocket will make him a sitting duck so look for him to use his mobility to make plays. Prescott has actually been throwing some darts on the run and his ability to continue doing so will be important on Sunday. Eagles defensive coordinator recognizes this and had high praise for the Cowboys young quarterback.
"I've been around the NFL for a pretty long time now. I don't know if I've ever seen a better thrower on the run than Dak Prescott," Schwartz said. "He can throw, scrambling to his left. He can throw scrambling to his right. There are not many quarterbacks that can do that. He can threaten the whole field on the run. He doesn't have to reset the throw, and he's very accurate on the run.
Just as a friendly reminder, Carson Wentz plays for the Eagles and Schwartz sees him plenty.
2. What kind of offense will we see from the Cowboys?
The super-articulate and extremely artistic Jimmy Kempsi offered up a very detailed flowchart of the current state of the Cowboys offense.
While you have to give Jimmy credit for how spot on his drawings are, his overly simplistic view is quite the embellishment. After what we saw against Atlanta, that narrative might be easy to sell to some people as the struggles were clearly visible. But the question now becomes - what can Dallas do to get their offense on track Sunday night?
Good teams adapt. Elliott is a star running back, but the Cowboys have other viable ball carriers. Geoff Swaim is a good blocker, but the Cowboys have other tight ends that know how to seal the edge. Tyron Smith is worth every penny of his $100 million contract, but the Cowboys have other All-Pro lineman that are capable of blocking.
The Cowboys have to find ways to move the ball. They have a lot of other players that can do an assortment of things. It may require Scott Linehan to be a little more creative, but it can be done. Maybe more slant action to Dez Bryant? Maybe more designed runs from Dak? I mean, if he’s going to get hit anyways, it might as well be on his own terms.
Last week, the only points the Cowboys got was from a drive that started at their opponent’s 21-yard line. That kind of stuff cannot happen. There are too many good players on this offense to not put some points on the board.
3. Without Lee, can the Cowboys stop the Eagles running game?
Sean Lee has been an Eagles destroyer these last couple years. Remember that time he tackled Darren Sproles for a seven-yard loss that took the Eagles out of field goal range so they couldn’t make it a two-score game to prevent it from going into overtime where the Eagles eventually lost due to a Dak to Jason Witten walk-off touchdown? Well, if you don’t - here’s a little reminder.
Cowboys are about to go down 10 with 7 minutes to go, and Sean Lee forces the Eagles to punt. Absolute MONSTER. Play of the year for him pic.twitter.com/lQ5JIoiHb2— #FireGoodell (@Cogssss) December 26, 2016
And then there was that time he spent all game in the backfield tackling DeMarco Murray. It looked a lot like this.
Saw #Eagles run into too many stacked boxes... LB mugging A gap and outnumbered (6 on 7). Sean Lee free all damn game pic.twitter.com/YMzDs2yHs3— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 22, 2015
Lee would save this game for Dallas as well with an interception in the end zone that foiled the Eagles chances to make a comeback.
Lee is fantastic, but all he gives us fans right now is memories. The Cowboys will be without his services on Sunday night which could mean trouble for the run defense. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this, but the Eagles are coming off a game where they rushed for 197 yards. And I don’t want to alarm you further, but it was against that same team that only allowed Zeke to rush for eight yards.
The Eagles beat up on Denver pretty good and they used a plethora of runners to do the damage. LeGarrette Blount banged around for some yards. Corey Clement got in on the action and ended up with three touchdowns. And newly stolen Jay Ajayi was their top rusher despite having fewer attempts than the other two guys. I wasn’t a fun site watching Ajayi fly down the sidelines for a 46-yard touchdown in his Eagles debut.
With no Lee, the Cowboys will be relying on veteran Anthony Hitchens to hold everything together. He will be the defensive captain. The good news is - he looks outstanding now that he’s healthy. The bad news is - his buddy next to him, Jaylon Smith, doesn’t. The Cowboys will activate Justin Durant, but unless he’s been held in a time capsule from 2014, things could get ugly. Can this group step up their game and break the no-Sean Lee curse?
4. Wentz’ eyes are deadlier than Medusa
Carson Wentz is a sneaky-sneakerton and is very crafty in getting the defenders off-balance. He will employ a lot of different tricks to throw off the defense. He can get you going the wrong way with his shoulder movement. He loves to use the pump fake to see if you’ll bite. But even more dangerous is those baby blue eyes. He will use his eyes to sell the idea that he’s locked in on a target, but will change it up in a heartbeat.
There is no doubt, the second-year quarterback has shown great improvement this season. He had 14 interceptions in 2016, but only has five so far this year. His improved accuracy has helped limit turnovers, but he creates a lot of clean lanes himself. His mobility and subtle moves to throw off defenders have made the Eagles offense very difficult to defend. And once they get into the red zone, they are almost unstoppable. They have shown dramatic improvement this season in red zone efficiency as they have gone from one of the bottom-third teams in the league last year at under 50% TD conversion to being the best in the league this season at 72%.
The Cowboys defensive backs need to be very disciplined in their coverage assignments. Anthony Brown has been struggling this season and it doesn’t seem like it takes much to get him out of position. A little twist here, juke there, and the next thing you know - Alshon Jeffery is catching an uncontested pass in the end zone.
5. Pull out all the stops
There was a time where the Cowboys identity consisted of a patient offense that would wear their opponents down and take advantage of an opportunistic defense. That time was just a couple weeks ago, in fact. But extenuating circumstances have put the Cowboys behind the eight-ball. They may not be able to grind out a bruising running game if they cannot pass protect and drives. They may not be able to get out in front of the Eagles and pressure Wentz into making mistakes.
The Cowboys are going to need to take matters in their own hands and get a little creative on Sunday night. This could include some trickery. The last time the Eagles visited AT&T Stadium, Cole Beasley threw a pass and Chris Jones scampered down the side line on a fake punt. The Cowboys may have to resort to these types of decisions to win the game.
On defense, Rod Marinelli is going to have to find ways to rattle Wentz. Don’t be surprised if we see more cornerback blitz’s as they utilize Orlando Scandrick and even rookie Chidobe Awuzie off the edge to create pressure. They cannot allow Wentz to just pick them apart in the secondary. They need to bring the fight on Sunday night.
These are the things I will be watching for in this all-important match up. What are you interested in seeing on Sunday night?