The time is almost here. It’s that special November game that you have circled on your calendar. You know the one I’m talking about; that all-important first matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles where these two 2018 NFC East front-runners take their first step forward as they show everyone who means business in the division. Well, that’s how it was supposed to go down anyways, but halfway through the season, it doesn’t quite have that same feel. Maybe it’s because the Washington Redskins are the team currently leading the NFC East. Maybe it’s because neither Dallas or Philadelphia is over .500 this season. Or maybe it’s because these once powerful offensive teams lead by a 2016 rookie quarterback are now struggling to score touchdowns, and both were outscored by an abysmal offensive team like the Tennessee Titans.
I would love to group the Eagles in with the sadness that Cowboys fans have felt thanks to an inept offense that is burying their chances of winning football games, but I can’t. I just can’t. Philadelphia is actually a good football team. Yes, they are what their record is, which is a mediocre 4-4 and that’s only one game better than this Cowboys team. But the Eagles have a couple things the Cowboys don’t have that give them big advantage - consistent defense and big-play ability on offense. These things will put this Cowboys team behind the eight-ball when they head to Lincoln Financial Field to play under the lights on Sunday night. Here are five things to look for in this first of two battles against the Eagles.
1. Zeke needs to get loose in Phily
The last time Amari Cooper traveled to Philadelphia, this happened:
Amari Cooper: Week 16 (2017) vs. Eagles, 63-yard TD pic.twitter.com/LPkR6hIhHh— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 26, 2018
It would be great if we got to see more of that on Sunday night. While Cooper is a nice offensive weapon, the Cowboys offense centers around the effectiveness of Ezekiel Elliott and their rushing attack. And lately, that ground attack hasn’t been working. Elliott has had four games this season where defenses have held him under 70 yards. The Cowboys have lost all four of those games. In his last two games, Zeke has been held to 2.9 yards per carry as Washington and Tennessee have been able to take him out of the game.
The Eagles will attempt to make it three games in a row as they boast the second-best run defense in the league, only giving up 83.8 yards per game. Opponents have the secret formula to stopping the Cowboys and that’s challenging Prescott to beat them. The Cowboys will need good play from Dak to have a chance, but being able to establish the threat of a running game will go a long way in helping alleviate the pressure facing their young quarterback.
The Cowboys must find the lost running game that made them so good in 2016, because this season hasn’t been so easy for Elliott. In the 33 games of his young career, Zeke has had seven games where he’s been held under 80 yards rushing. Five of those seven games have been this season.
2. You can’t hit what you can’t catch
On Monday night, all eyes from the home crowd were focused on no. 19 as their new offensive toy, Amari Cooper, was making his debut on his new team. On Sunday night, the same will hold true, only the home crowd is now the Eagles and the player wearing 19 is Golden Tate.
The Eagles weren’t able to offer enough to land Cooper, but Tate is a nice consolation prize. He’s been one of the best after-the-catch receivers in this league, which is something instilled in him early by his mom.
Tate on run-after-catch ability: "I was a RB in college. Once I got to college, I made the transition to WR. My mom always told me, ‘You can’t hit what you can’t catch.’ ...I feel like I get the ball in my hands, there’s a chance I can break it and take it."— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) October 31, 2018
Tate’s ability to turn a small gain into a big gain has always been a problem for the Cowboys regardless of what team he’s played for. His best game so far this season came in Week 4 against the Cowboys where he caught eight passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. He’s going to be a problem.
But the problem doesn’t stop with Tate. The Eagles have an assortment of short-pass-catching players who will look to steal extra yards to help keep the offense moving. Between bubble screens, bootlegs, or just quick dump offs to running backs, the Eagles will find ways to get chunks of yardage. The Cowboys linebackers will have to do a better job tackling than they did against Dion Lewis and the Titans on Monday night.
3. The money down
The Cowboys offense has been lousy on third down this season. They are bottom five in the league, only converting 33% of their third-down attempts. Here are the four teams worse than the Cowboys - Cleveland Browns (rookie QB), New York Jets (rookie QB), Buffalo Bills (rookie QB), and Arizona Cardinals (rookie QB). Yowsers.
To make matters worse, they will now face a defense that is third in the league in stopping teams on third down. Well, that’s not ideal.
Between the Eagles stout third-down defense and the offenses ability to keep the chains moving, Philadelphia is leading the league in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 55% of the game. And this is from an offense that has a clock-chewing ground attack of
Ezekiel Elliott DeMarco Murray Wendall Smallwood. The Cowboys are 25th in time of possession and are coming off a game where they held the ball for 10 minutes less than their opponents. The Eagles are averaging 10 more offensive plays a game than the Cowboys and Dallas can’t afford to give them this type of advantage in the game.
The Cowboys will have to do something they couldn’t do on Monday night - win the third down battle. And this comes from both ends of the ball. The offense has to convert and the defense has to make stops. Both were absent against the Titans and if that type of performance rears it’s ugly head again, the Cowboys are in big trouble against the Eagles.
4. Protecting Prescott
Keeping their young quarterback upright is always a big objective for this team, but it’s becoming more and more challenging as of late. Prescott was sacked five teams in the second half against the Titans as Dallas was trying to play catch up. Now, they will face an Eagles defensive line that consists of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, and Haloti Ngata. Some might try to tell you this Eagles defense has lost a step, but when they do - they regain ground rather quickly. They’re good, they’ve been good, and they’re going to stay good.
Fun fact: On November 5, 2017 eagles defense was ranked 10th with 19.5 points per game allowed. November 5, 208 eagles defense is ranked 5th with 19.5 points per game allowed. @JonMarksMedia @Ike58Reese— Redner Redner (@phillyspecial09) November 6, 2018
How that’s for consistency?
While the Eagles defensive line is a big problem, it’s only part of the problem. The Cowboys are having their own internal struggles within the offensive line. The promotion of Marc Colombo and addition of Hudson Houck is one action the organization has taken to help strengthen the group, but they have a tough task ahead of them. And it got a little tougher when they learned that rookie Connor Williams won’t be available after having a knee scope on Wednesday. This means a new piece to the offensive line puzzle as Xavier Su’a-Filo and Adam Redmond will compete for the starting spot at left guard in Williams’ absence. That’s nothing that should alarm you. I mean, it’s only Fletcher Fox and when has he ever been a problem?
5. Absolutely must win the turnover battle
If I close my eyes and imagine the Cowboys somehow escaping Philadelphia with a victory, the image I see most is Carson Wentz repeatedly turning the ball over. He only has two interceptions on the season, but he has trouble hanging on the ball when pressure arrives. In fact, he has a fumble in every one of his games this season. Sometimes these turnovers are inflicted by some grabby hands from the defense, but sometimes they’re not.
Carson Wentz continues to struggle with another turnover. #INDvsPHI #Colts #Eagles pic.twitter.com/IUgBVRP47K— NFL Updates (@Nfl_updat3s) September 23, 2018
The Cowboys defense has shown the ability to swarm towards the football. Against the Titans, they recovered three fumbles (although one was overturned) in the first quarter so the intensity to smash, crash, and race after the ball is something they are capable of. If Wentz starts getting loosey-goosey with the football, the Cowboys must take advantage. That not only means recovering those loose balls, but converting them into points, something the Cowboys struggled with on Monday night.
If the Dallas defense can create some turnovers and Dak Prescott can have a clean game, the Cowboys will have a shot to come away with the victory.
Those are some of the things I’ll be watching on Sunday night. What about you?