The Dallas Cowboys are preparing to host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, in a game that Dallas really needs to win. Can they pull off the upset? We talked to Bleeding Green Nation to get the lowdown on what the Eagles are up to, and how the game may play out.
Blogging The Boys: How much of Carson Wentz having a huge season is his own growth, and how much is adding to the cast around him, especially the skill positions?
Bleeding Green Nation: I definitely think both of these things factor in here.
I’ll start with the supporting cast. The reality is that Wentz really didn’t have much to work with in 2016. Ryan Mathews was the Eagles’ lead rusher. He’s no longer in the league. Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner, and Bryce Treggs all saw significant playing time for the Eagles in 2016. The only player from that group who is still in the league is Treggs, who has five receptions with the Browns this season. Philly’s offensive line dealt with a number of key absences last season. Starting right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games. Rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai was forced into action. Then he got hurt. Then Vaitai’s backup, Allen Barbre, also had injury issues. In other words, the Eagles were dealing with a make-shift offensive line at times last season.
This season, Wentz is in a much better spot when it comes to his supporting cast. He has legitimate NFL wide receivers to work with now in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Nelson Agholor has also improved from being one of the league’s worst players to a legitimate weapon in the slot. The offensive line has played well for most of the year, despite left tackle Jason Peters going down. At running back, the Eagles have been able to overcome the loss of Darren Sproles. LeGarrette Blount has stepped up and undrafted rookie free agent Corey Clement is giving the team some nice production. Jay Ajayi was acquired prior to the NFL trade deadline, so it’ll be interesting to see what he can bring to this team. Wentz actually has legitimate NFL players to work with now instead of a group of guys who don’t even belong in the league.
While Wentz’s situation has surely been upgraded, I wouldn’t at all say that’s the only reason behind his success. He’s clearly taken a step forward in his development. He’s doing a great job of diagnosing defenses and making adjustments prior to the snap. His accuracy has generally improved. He’s able to make plays on his own when things break down. Wentz has shown the ability to overcome adversity and put the team on his back in order to help the team win. That’s the mark of a true franchise quarterback. Not to mention NFL MVP.
BTB: What is the main thing you worry about that could go wrong for the Eagles down the stretch?
BGN: I could say injuries, but that’s an obvious concern for every team.
A couple issues that stand out include positions where injuries have already occurred. TCU alumnus Halapoulivaati Vaitai is starting at left tackle in place of Jason Peters. That’s clearly a big downgrade, so we’ll continue to monitor how the offensive line performs. Losing Jordan Hicks (the Cowboys killer himself) is a big blow to the defense. Joe Walker has struggled to replace him in Philly’s base defense, which likely prompted the signing of veteran free agent Dannell Ellerbe.
Honestly, there aren’t a ton of worries with this team right now. They’re 8-1 and playing like the best team in the NFL. Good coaching and great quarterback play should be able to mitigate the smaller concerns that pop up.
BTB: From the little you have seen, what does Jay Ajayi bring to the Eagles offense?
BGN: Ajayi adds more of a home run threat to the Eagles’ offense. We saw that on his 46-yard touchdown run against the Broncos. That play was blocked to perfection, so it’s not like Ajayi had to do a ton there, but I’m not so sure LeGarrette Blount or Corey Clement have the raw speed to take that carry to the house. Ajayi also brings more physicality to the Eagles’ running game. It’s not like the Eagles were lacking that since they already have Blount, who has been productive this season.
Running back was viewed as one of the Eagles’ biggest weaknesses heading into the 2017 season. Philly has been fortunate to get better production out of their guys than expected. Blount’s been great at gaining yards after first contact. Clement has been able to contribute in multiple phases: rushing, receiving, pass protection, special teams, etc. The problem is none of the Eagles’ rushers were a true “lead back” type. Ajayi is that guy with workhorse ability.
BTB: If you were the offensive and defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, how would you scheme for this game?
BGN: If I was the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, I’d be looking to scheme around the fact that Tyron Smith likely won’t be playing at left tackle. This Eagles defense is generating the most pressures in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, so having Dak Prescott hold onto the ball just doesn’t seem like a viable strategy. Quick passing game. Screens. Bootlegs to the right to move the pocket away from the left side. There’s not a whole lot about the Cowboys’ offense that scares me right now, but Prescott’s mobility is definitely a weapon that must be accounted for. I’d plan some designed runs for Dak and try to keep this Eagles defense honest.
If I was the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, I would try to get DeMarcus Lawrence matched up on Vaitai. Lawrence is obviously having a great year rushing the passer and Vaitai is the weak point of the Eagles’ offensive line. Pressuring the quarterback is typically key in any matchup. For Dallas to have a chance to win, they need to try to get Wentz rattled and force him into mistakes. Maybe throw some different blitz looks at him early in the game.
BTB: How have the Eagles been able to overcome some of the injuries that might have derailed other teams?
BGN: There are three main reasons that stick out in this regard: 1) Carson Wentz, 2) Doug Pederson, and 3) Howie Roseman.
1) As mentioned earlier, having a quarterback who can elevate the rest of the team around him is the one of the biggest reasons to invest in a franchise passer. That’s what the great ones do: succeed in spite of circumstances that aren’t always ideal. Wentz is playing like the MVP right now. That makes up for some other issues on the team.
2) Pederson and the Eagles’ coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for getting their backups ready to play. They’ve also been able to scheme around some of their injuries. Take Vaitai for example. In addition to giving him extra help, the Eagles have designed some plays to get the ball out quick in order to make life easier on him. I’d contrast this with how the Cowboys seemingly handled the Chaz Green/Byron Bell situation against Atlanta. It felt like the Cowboys’ coaching staff didn’t do a great job of working around that issue. Then again, there’s only so much you can do if the players aren’t good enough, which brings me to my final point.
3) Roster depth. Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas have built a roster that’s fairly deep and well-rounded. Most importantly, the Eagles really invested in the trenches. The resources spent there have been able to mitigate the injuries to Peters and Sproles. On defense, Philadelphia’s ability to generate pressure have been able to make life easier on their linebackers and cornerbacks. Missing Hicks and Ronald Darby (who is back now) wasn’t the death knell it could’ve been.
When you combine all of these factors together, it explains how the Eagles have been able to work through their injury situation.
Thanks for the knowledge, Bleeding Green Nation.