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Opposing player to watch: Defensive end Brandon Graham

After last week all eyes will be on the Eagles pass rush, here’s a look at their best edge rusher.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

When your team gives up eight sacks the week before, there isn’t really much of a choice for an article like this, you have to focus on the guys who will be attacking the offensive line. The Cowboys are facing the very distinct possibility that Tyron Smith will miss his second straight game with his replacement likely being journeyman Byron Bell, a player who hasn’t made a start since 2015.

Of course coming into the season most expected Chaz Green to be the backup left tackle, as he was last season when he made two starts in the absence of Smith, and as he was during the preseason when Smith sat out the first few games. But that all went out the window last week when Green put together one of the worst individual performances for an offensive lineman in recent memory, and that’s no hyperbole.

So here we are, going into one of the most important games of the season against a divisional opponent that is primed to run away with the division, and it seems like we’ll be seeing a steady dose of a player in Bell. The Cowboys will have to shift blocking schemes to help on the left side of their line, and that could open things up on the other side. That means they’ll need to watch out for Brandon Graham, a Second Team All-Pro in 2016. He usually lines up over the right tackle, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Eagles also give him a few shots at Bell on the other side, too.

Graham is an interesting case because he’s never put up truly eye-popping stats, his career-high for sacks in a season is only 6.5, but he’s widely regarded as one of the better defensive ends in the league. Much of that has to do with the fact that Graham is a well-rounded player who doesn’t simply rush the passer and ignore the run. He is very stout in the run game and routinely makes plays behind the line of scrimmage in that respect. Another part of that is that it is known that despite the lack of stats, Graham is a menace off the edge who consistently influences the pocket and forces the quarterback to move off their spot.

He combines excellent hand use and technique with power and a stout, low center of gravity that allows him to play with leverage. He is able to drive tackles into the quarterback and constrict the pocket with power while also beating them around the edge with good enough, but not great speed, and a variety of pass-rush moves. He primarily plays at left defensive end, often matching up with Doug Free in years past on the offense’s right side, but after what the Cowboys put on film last week in Atlanta you could see some of the Eagles’ best edge rusher at right defensive end this week. Even if the Eagles choose to leave Graham at his customary left side he will surely still wreak havoc in a more “balanced” matchup vs. La’el Collins, and with the massive question mark that exists on the left side, the pocket could quickly collapse from both sides.

Graham only has five sacks on the year, which doesn’t jump off the page, although it does lead the team and much of the lack of pure statistical success has to do with the fact that the Eagles employ a deep rotation of defensive linemen. Graham leads the group in snaps played on the year, at right around 70%, but there are six others who have played at least 45% of the snaps, with nobody except for Graham above 54% on the year.

This type of rotation doesn’t always lend itself to statistical success but it does make for a very effective pass rush as it keeps the group fresh and engaged. Even when Graham comes off the field don’t expect much of a breather for Bell or the other linemen as Chris Long, Vinny Curry, and Derek Barnett have combined for 8.5 sacks on the year.

Again, that might not seem like much, but the Eagles pass rush has been very effective, especially when playing with leads, and when you just gave up more sacks in a game than you had in nearly 30 years the week before you aren’t exactly in a position to brush off anything.

Clearly the Cowboys coaches must put together a better plan than whatever it was that they thought they were doing last week. Despite the fact that Green was beaten over and over and over again, most often by a guy in Adrian Clayborn who is mostly “just a guy”, the coaches continued to leave him on an island and seemingly refused to give him help most of the time.

That cannot happen Sunday. You know that Jim Schwartz and the Eagles will be licking their chops after watching last week’s film and protecting Dak Prescott must be priority number one.

If that means a pared down playbook with a heavy dose of 2- and 3-TE sets and 60% run plays, so be it.

If that means very rarely going 4- or 5-wide and empty backfields so be it.

Heck, less empty sets would probably be a better thing regardless.

The coaches can’t just roll out there and call plays like they have Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott, they may have to get more conservative and keep a running back, tight end, or even both in to block. There will be plays where the left tackle will be left on an island but it is the coaches’ jobs to figure out how to limit that as much as possible, and then when it does happen you have to figure out a way to neutralize Graham, Curry, Barnett, Long, or whoever it is that lines up at the right side, and devise plays that don’t ask Prescott to stand in the pocket for 3.5-4 seconds at a time.

It won’t be easy but that’s why you pay NFL coaches millions. They should be able to figure out a way to scheme around less than ideal circumstances for a few games. Under no circumstances should a performance like the one we saw last week be repeated, even with the fact that this week’s opponent is better than last week’s.

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