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Cowboy vs. Eagles prediction: Not great

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There aren’t many bright spots for the Cowboys going into tonight’s contest.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Objectively there isn’t much for a Cowboys fan to feel good about going into tonight’s matchup against the Eagles. The defense has allowed points on 19 of their last 23 drives without Sean Lee on the field. Without Tyron Smith, the offensive line gave up more sacks last week than the team has allowed in a single game in nearly 30 years. We all know the story with Ezekiel Elliott, and then of course the absence of Dan Bailey is the cherry on top.

That’s four First Team All-Pro caliber players, each of whom are at the very top of the league at their respective positions. You can weather maybe one or two losses of players of that caliber but once you start hitting three or four it becomes extremely difficult to manage. The “next man up” mantra is all well and good but there is a limitation to everything and the Cowboys are darn close to hitting that limit.

Of course on the other side of the ball you have the Eagles, with their league leading 8-1 record. Carson Wentz has improved demonstrably and is in complete control of the offense, the running game has been very effective behind LeGarrette Blount and newly acquired Jay Ajayi, the receivers aren’t dominant but they are functional and have been making plays downfield, and Zach Ertz is developing into one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league, despite being less than stellar in the run game.

Defensively the Eagles have one of the best pass rushes in the league, built on a deep stable of linemen who they rotate heavily. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are the headliners but Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Timmy Jernigan, and rookie Derek Barnett have all played well in supporting roles. The Eagles lost linebacker Jordan Hicks for the year but Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks have played more than well enough to pick up the slack. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McCloud form one of the better safety duos in the league, and while cornerback was seen as their biggest defensive weakness coming into the year, guys like Patrick Robinson, Jalen Mills, and rookie Rasul Douglas have been making plays on the back end thanks to the pressure supplied up front. And oh, Ronald Darby, perhaps their best cornerback, will be returning tonight from an injury that has kept him out since Week 1.

On paper this looks like a no contest, and it very well may be, but luckily for the Cowboys games aren’t played on paper.

I don’t have much to offer you today in terms of optimism, but the tried and true cliche of “any given Sunday” is an old saying for a reason. Football is a crazy sport, often defined by seemingly random occurrences such as turnovers and penalties, and the old adage rings even truer in divisional rivalries like these, particularly when one team is riding high and seemingly invincible while the other is coming off an embarrassing performance with seemingly no chance of victory.

So while it doesn’t look good, crazier things have happened.

And if something crazy is to happen tonight it will have to be in large part due to the plan the coaching staff puts together, with a bit of luck sprinkled in. The embarrassing performance last week where the coaches watched Chaz Green put together one of the worst performances out of an offensive lineman in recent memory and still left him on an island play after play cannot be repeated.

There will be some circumstances where Byron Bell will have to be left on his own but the staff must work to limit those as much as possible. They cannot simply call plays as if Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott are out there. They must go run-heavy, shorten the game, hopefully wear down the Eagles deep rotation of linemen, and then work play-action off of that. Slide protections to Bell’s side, leave in a tight end and a running back to help if you must, but the 4- and 5-wide alignments have to be left on the shelf tonight and only pulled out when absolutely necessary.

And for the love of God, if the game is close in the second half, try something a little outside of the box. A flea-flicker, a running back pass, anything that can manufacture yards and points in what is obviously a dire situation.

Remember how effective flea-flickers were under Bill Parcells? When is the last time you’ve seen the Cowboys run one?

You better believe the Eagles will be selling out after the type of pass-protection the offensive line put on film last week, so a simple trick play could easily yield a huge gain.

The fake punt last week was an encouraging sign, but let’s branch out from there and start trying things on offense.

Defensively, do something new. Whatever the heck the defense has been doing with Sean Lee out clearly doesn’t work, so mix it up. If that means more blitzes, so be it, if that means only three man defensive lines, so be it, you simply can’t just keep running the same stuff and hope results will change. Allowing points on 19 out of 23 drives is obscene, almost unheard of, so changes must be made.

Personally, I feel like Jaylon Smith needs to be used much more sparingly when Lee is out. In games that Lee has missed (Rams, Packers, majority of the Falcons) Smith has played 100%, 55%, and 77% of the snaps respectively. In the three games sandwiched between those (49ers, Redskins, Chiefs) Smith has only played 49%, 29%, and 30% of the snaps.

Smith is not clearly better than someone like Justin Durant or Damien Wilson, and he is arguably worse as far as gap discipline and holding his assignment goes, so there is no reason to see his snaps spike dramatically just because Lee is out. He is out of position far too often and gives up huge plays as a result, particularly in the running game. Keep him down somewhere around 30%-40% of the snaps played and try to emphasize what he does well, particularly working as a blitzer.

If there is one weakness that the Cowboys can take advantage of it is the hole at left tackle left by the injury to Jason Peters. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is an average at best replacement and a few weeks ago the 49ers pass rush ate up Wentz alive in the first half, notching three sacks in the first half while the game was still close. The Eagles ended up blowing out the Niners thanks to a defensive touchdown that blew the game open, but it was close for most of the first half and the Eagles offensive line struggled with the 49ers pass rush.

If the score gets out of control much of that goes out the window, but if the game is close the Cowboys pass rush must impose their will on the game.

At the end of the day, there’s no logical reason the Cowboys should win this game. If the Cowboys were at full strength, or if they even just had Sean Lee and Tyron Smith, it would certainly make for a fantastic battle, but when you’re down as many elite players as the Cowboys are there just isn’t a whole lot you can do except try to scheme up some plays to catch your opponent off guard and hope for a little luck. The Eagles are without a few key players, Peters and Hicks, as well as Darren Sproles, but none of those players except for Peters are on the level of someone like Elliott, Smith or Lee. Dallas will put up a valiant battle but the circumstances will just be too much to overcome, especially against a very tough opponent like the Eagles. Philadelphia takes it, 30-20.