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Cowboys vs. Eagles: Previewing the Eagles defense

The banged up unit is nowhere near as good as they have been.

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles seemed to have it all: a quarterback in MVP form, a whole host of deadly running backs, a great offensive line, and a defense that looked impenetrable. A year later, and pretty much all of that has changed, but none more so than the defense.

After acquiring Haloti Ngata and Daryl Worley in free agency and drafting Avonte Maddox and Josh Sweat in the draft, it seemed as if this stacked defense was getting even better, and that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s only challenge would be finding reps for everyone. But Worley had to be released a month later after being arrested for an altercation with police. Sweat has struggled to get on the field, and Ngata has had trouble staying on the field, while Maddox has had his share of injuries as well.

That’s only a microcosm of what’s been a massive regression for this defense. Derek Barnett, who had an impressive rookie year rushing the passer in 2017, was placed on injured reserve after seven games this year. Ronald Darby, arguably the best cornerback on the team, joined Barnett in Week 10 with a torn ACL. And Rodney McLeod, the Eagles’ underrated safety, had to undergo surgery on his ACL in Week 3, ending his season.

But the hits keep coming, as a significant amount of members of this defense are dealing with injuries on seemingly a weekly basis. This week, the Eagles only have seven players listed on their injury report, which is actually a bit of an accomplishment at this point in their season. Yet, five of those seven are on the defense, and most of them are impact players. This includes the aforementioned Maddox, Michael Bennett, Jordan Hicks, Timmy Jernigan, and Jalen Mills. Hicks and Mills have both been ruled out for Sunday’s game, while Jernigan and Maddox are listed as questionable despite not practicing at all this week. Bennett missed practice on Thursday but was a full participant on Friday and is also questionable.

Hicks leads the team in tackles, Bennett leads the team in sacks, and Mills leads the team in passes defensed if you don’t count Darby. Last year, Jernigan was a big part of the Eagles’ defense, especially in run situations, but he missed the first portion of the season on the PUP list before returning last week, though he left early with back spasms.

At first glance, though, Jernigan’s absence hasn’t killed the run defense, as Philadelphia ranks 10th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. However, the Eagles defense has seen the fewest rushing attempts of any defense in the entire NFL, and they’re giving up the second most yards per carry average in the league at five yards. This roughly translates to: their run defense is bad, but their pass defense is even worse.

Speaking of their pass defense, the Eagles are giving up 264.3 yards through the air each game, placing them at 26th in the NFL. Perhaps more alarming is that opposing quarterbacks are completing 66.2% of their passes against this secondary, the 12th highest figure against any defense this season, despite having the fifth most pass attempts of any defense. And taking away the ball has been a challenge, as only three other defenses have recorded fewer interceptions.

Darby’s injury didn’t make things any better. But even with him in the lineup, Mills had been playing very poorly all year long and still looks like the best corner still on the field because the other guys like Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Maddox have all been well below average. Corey Graham was asked to fill in McLeod’s role at safety and has been solid, but he is yet another hole on a defense that somewhat resembles Swiss cheese at this point.

The Eagles do still have Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, though, and they’ll need those two to have the best games of their career on Sunday if they want to win. Cox has deservedly earned a reputation as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, and he’s doing it again this year with 35 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five sacks, and 23 hits on the quarterback. But even more impressive is that Graham’s numbers almost mirror that of Cox aside from having a significantly lower amount of QB hits. The last time these two teams met, the Cowboys were able to hold off Cox from bringing Dak down, but Graham tallied a sack and a half. Bennett also had two sacks in that game.

But for Dallas, their plan should be simple. Ezekiel Elliott had 151 rushing yards last time vs. Philadelphia, and they should be able to get another big day from him against this defense. Additionally, Dak Prescott seems to be in a good position to continue his hot streak; for what it’s worth, he had 270 passing yards and two total touchdowns against this defense last time. The biggest challenge for the Dallas offense should be limiting the pass rush, but it seems as if the Eagles defense is falling apart at nearly every level, and that should play to the Cowboys’ benefit.

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