Some fans have compared Monday night’s loss to the Tennessee Titans to the gut-wrenching defeat the team endured last year against Atlanta when we all watched helplessly as the offense did nothing and the defense didn’t have it in them to get stops. Both games were a hard slap in the face to Cowboys Nation.
And as luck would have it, here we are again on a cold November night where they have to follow up a disheartening loss by facing their divisional foe, the Philadelphia Eagles. If you’re like me, you aren’t too optimistic about what we’re going to see on Sunday Night when the Dallas Cowboys travel to Philadelphia. It has that feel where things could get ugly. Maybe it’s because that’s exactly what happened last year in November when the Eagles smoked Dallas 37-9. Or maybe it’s because we’ve lost all confidence in this team’s ability to perform.
That’s fair, but don’t be completely shocked if the Cowboys pull out the win. It’s certainly not impossible. The Cowboys can play great football. We’ve seen it. Unfortunately, it has come in spurts and only the Jacksonville game did they play 60 full minutes of good football. Is it possible they could pull off another surprise with a huge road win against the hated Eagles?
For it to go down that way, some things need to happen. The Cowboys have the pieces to make it work, in particularly, some first-round draft resources from the past, present, and future who all need to have big games for Dallas on Sunday night.
The Past - Ezekiel Elliott
You only have to go back to 2016 when the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall to identify the most talented player on this Cowboys team. Everything centers around Zeke. If defenses stop him, the Cowboys are toast. If they don’t, defenses are toast. One way or another, somebody’s going to be toast.
Strangely enough, Ezekiel Elliott has yet to play a meaningful game in Philadelphia. In the season finale in 2016, he had his tape cut and wasn’t allowed to see the field as the team decided to play it safe to not risk him to injury before the playoffs. Last season, he played, but the Cowboys were already out of playoff contention. It was also just his second game back after serving his six-game suspension.
Zeke has never lost to the Eagles. He wasn’t around for that blowout loss last November and the only meaningful game he’s played against them occurred in Dallas when this happened...
Those were the days when the Cowboys had a dominant running game where Jason Garrett trusted his team enough to go for it on fourth down in overtime. Elliott is a talented player and he needs to put that talent on display under the lights if the Cowboys are to have a chance.
The Present - Leighton Vander Esch
When the Cowboys beat the Eagles in their mid-season contest in 2016, Sean Lee made a game-saving tackle on Darren Sproles to take the Eagles out of field goal range. If that didn’t happen, we may have never even seen overtime. And last season, Lee injured his hamstring in the Atlanta game and wasn’t available the following week against Philadelphia. The Eagles ran all over the Cowboys defense as they allowed a season-worst 215 rushing yards.
Well, just like last year, Lee hurt his hamstring in the game right before the Eagles matchup. But unlike last year, the Cowboys defense doesn’t live and die by the presence of Sean Lee. This is largely attributed to the addition of this year’s first-round draft pick, Leighton Vander Esch.
Vander Esch is having a great season as he’s graded out as the fifth best linebacker in the NFL according to PFF. And when you grade him out specifically in coverage, he moves up to the fourth-highest spot.
The Eagles have one of the best tight ends in the game in Zach Ertz, but the Cowboys have an athletic linebacker who can limited how much of an impact he can make. Ertz is a huge test for the rookie, but this kid’s athleticism is legit. Even Bleeding Green Nation acknowledges that this could be a tough matchup for the Eagles.
When looking at the specific match up of tight end vs linebacker, I began to temper my expectations of Zach Ertz in the upcoming prime time match up. When targeting Ertz when facing a linebacker, a situation that has happened a league leading 35 times, Philly QBs have thrown for a passer rating of just 81.5, which ranks 32nd/46 tight ends.
When looking at similar statistics for the young duo of Vander Esch and Smith, it is hard not to picture an off night for Ertz.
The Future - Amari Cooper
We all know that the Cowboys will have the best running back on the field on Sunday night as Elliott is far and away better than any ball carrier the Eagles have. But the Cowboys also have the best receiver as well. Alshon Jeffrey and Golden Tate are good receivers, but the Cowboys decided to spend their 2019 first-round draft pick early with the acquisition of Cooper and that now gives them the top WR talent on the field. John Owning did an excellent breakdown of Cooper’s first game with the Cowboys and the results were favorable.
Being a good route runner is not just about physically running a route with an effective release, stem and break-point, it’s also about knowing when and how to use those releases, stems and break-points given the matchup, situation and play call, which Cooper demonstrates well in the plays above.
Cooper is not only good at running routes, but it’s his conceptual understanding of how and when to use them which separates him from most receivers in the NFL.
It may have been in a loss, but Cooper proved that his future will be extremely bright with the Cowboys.
Cooper hauled down every single one of his catch-able targets and was able to get separation again and again. Now, it’s just a matter of how well Dak Prescott can utilize him.
The Eagles have some risk-takers at the corner position and they can be exposed, but it’s going to take a combination of two things - skill route-running and a quarterback who can look their way. With Cooper, the Cowboys have one of those things already.