Check below for previous scouting reports in this series:
Perhaps the biggest challenge on the Cowboys’ schedule in 2018 is the Philadelphia Eagles. The reigning Super Bowl champs return a lot of their team from last year, and have even added some big talent. Dallas split the series last year but one of those games was against the backups, as the Eagles had already locked up a playoff berth. The other game was a situation where Dallas, without Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, and Tyron Smith, had a 9-7 lead at halftime and then was blown out 30-0 in the second half.
Given the intense rivalry and all the factors from last season, the Cowboys will want to beat this team probably more than anyone else. Both teams have seemingly gotten better from last year, so how can Dallas fare against them? First, let’s hear from Brandon Gowton, manager of our Eagles counterpart, Bleeding Green Nation, on what he thinks of the Eagles so far:
1. What is your biggest concern for the team entering the 2018 season?
I’m concerned about some injuries (Tim Jernigan, Brandon Graham) on the defensive line heading into the season.
2. What was the best addition to the team this offseason?
Michael Bennett. Adding him to a defense that led the NFL in pressures last season is an exciting thought.
3. How is this team different from last year’s team, for better or worse?
The Eagles lost some key offensive coaching assistants and some role players but most of last year’s Super Bowl team is still together.
4. What do you think is a realistic goal for this team in 2018?
The goal is to become the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the Patriots did it back in 2005.
The part that sticks out most to me is the changing of the guard on the offensive staff. While head coach Doug Pederson calls the plays, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo were instrumental in the game plans each week, so much so that both coaches received head coaching interest. Reich left to become the Colts head coach and DeFilippo left to become the Vikings offensive coordinator.
The Eagles promoted wide receivers coach Mike Groh to the offensive coordinator spot and a quality control coach, Press Taylor, to quarterbacks coach. Groh has only been an offensive coordinator once before, for three seasons at the University of Virginia, and his offense never finished the season ranked higher than 101 out of 119 teams at the time. In 2016, Groh was the passing-game coordinator for a Los Angeles Rams offense that averaged 14 points per game while making Jared Goff look completely incompetent as a passer. Luckily for the Eagles, Groh won’t be calling plays, but there was a considerable loss of talent between the duo of Reich and DeFilippo and their replacement.
The biggest question, though, revolves around Carson Wentz and his recovery from an ACL injury. He is reportedly on target to return by Week 1, and the Cowboys don’t face them until November, seemingly ensuring they’ll face a healthy Wentz. Still, ACL injuries are very hard to recover from. For every miraculous Adrian Peterson story, there’s at least three Derrick Rose stories. Nobody knows yet if Wentz will be able to return to his MVP front-runner level of play he displayed last year, but the rest of the offense is diverse enough to supplement any struggles he may have.
The Eagles traded away Torrey Smith and signed Mike Wallace to serve as their deep threat, while Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery will continue to threaten secondaries in the RPO situations. Zach Ertz, though, was the biggest receiving target in 2017, and that shouldn’t change, but rookie Dallas Goedert should get plenty of work in the rotation as well. The running game is filled with players that can burn a defense, with a deep rotation between Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles, Corey Clement, Donnel Pumphrey, and even Matt Jones. All of these weapons benefit greatly from one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
So how can the Cowboys defense stop this multifaceted attack? Well it won’t be easy, but one must look to the two games that Wentz and the rest of the starters lost in 2017 against the Chiefs and the Seahawks.
In the case of the Chiefs, who narrowly won 27-20, the defense got pressure on Wentz early and often. Wentz was sacked six times, and while he led the team in rushing yards, he also fumbled twice. The pressure got to Wentz as well, as he threw a key interception in the fourth quarter that helped Kansas City score. Dallas hopes to have a deep rotation of pass rushers in their arsenal, led by DeMarcus Lawrence. David Irving will be back from suspension by then and Randy Gregory should have developed a significant role after working back into things in the first month of play. Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Jihad Ward, and Kony Ealy could also get into the mix. This could be a situation where Jaylon Smith gets lots of blitz packages while the defensive line occupies the offensive linemen. The idea is to apply pressure and force Wentz into mistakes.
The Cowboys secondary is now coached by Kris Richard, whose defense in 2017 was the only one to limit Wentz to less than 20 points. In that game, which Seattle won 24-10, there were two keys to Richard’s defensive approach. First, they plugged up the running game quickly. The Eagles didn’t eclipse 100 team rushing yards, with Ajayi leading the way with only 35 yards on nine carries. Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks’ number one run-stopper, played a pivotal role with 12 tackles, 2.5 of them for a loss. Sean Lee serves that role for Dallas, and if he’s healthy for these two games, he’ll be leaned on to mimic Wagner.
The other thing that the Seahawks did well was being opportunistic. They were one of the few teams who pressured Wentz consistently, and in watching the game film, it was surprising to see Frank Clark get around right tackle Lane Johnson on a majority of pass plays. Wentz got flustered, and many of his incomplete passes were way off. And while the Eagles didn’t turn it over much, Wentz lost a fumble and threw an interception. What helped was that the Seahawks scored touchdowns immediately after both takeaways.
And that leads to the Cowboys’ offensive approach. While the defense has to capitalize on every mistake the Eagles make, because they’ll make very few, the offense has to respond by stacking points on top of each other early. In 2016, the Cowboys scored first in nine of their games, with eight of those on the opening drive. To beat the Eagles, this offense has to score on their opening drive, and then get the ball back and score again. The Seahawks put up 10 points before the Eagles scored on a field goal. By the time Philly scored a touchdown in the third quarter, Seattle had 17 points. This pressured the Eagles to abandon the run, as Wentz threw the ball 45 times. That increases the opportunity for sacks and interceptions. Keep in mind that the Seahawks didn’t have Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor for this game, and if Dallas has all their guys, any mistakes from Wentz could turn into big plays for the defense.
The biggest obstacle for the offense, though, is scoring against such a talented defense. As Gowton mentioned earlier, Philly led the NFL in pressures and then added Haloti Ngata and Michael Bennett. They also drafted Josh Sweat, who has the potential to be the steal of the draft. The battle in the trenches will be the toughest battle for the Great Wall of Dallas, especially as they try to feed Zeke. With all the talent on the defensive line, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could employ some 5-2 fronts to combat Elliott’s abilities. Dallas will likely respond by puting either or both Geoff Swaim and Dalton Schultz next to an offensive tackle to provide extra blocking. They could even bring out Cameron Fleming or Joe Looney in a jumbo package, as getting Zeke going is a key part of this offense.
The back seven of this defense is where Dallas can find some success, though. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham are good in the linebacking corps, but there’s some uncertainty in the secondary. They tried to replace Patrick Robinson with Daryl Worley, but released him a month later due to an arrest. Ronald Darby looked solid after returning from injury last year, and Jalen Mills is a solid defender who probably fits best in the slot. Rasul Douglas performed admirably in relief of Darby, but word is the Eagles are hoping Sidney Jones has a breakout year after essentially taking a medical redshirt last year. This secondary is going through so much change, and will have to be on their absolute best to take the ball away from Dak Prescott, who rarely turns it over. While he threw three interceptions against the Eagles last year, one was bobbled in the air by Terrance Williams and another was a deep throw where Dez Bryant didn’t come back to the ball. The third was a bad throw, but one where Prescott had defenders hanging onto him. Having Smith on his blind side and Elliott for blitz pickup would have helped a bit.
It’s important to note that, over the past two years, the Cowboys and Eagles have only had one game where the key starters of both teams played against each other. We never even saw Ezekiel Elliott against the Eagles starters on defense last year. For this key matchup, there’s a lot of unknowns. One thing that’s almost certain is that the two games between these teams, one in November and one in December, will be fought and won in the trenches. The team with better play from their offensive and defensive lines should win.