Back when the Eagles went on their big Super Bowl run in 2017, they were powered by an incredibly stingy defense and two different quarterbacks that were performing well above their expectations. Now, the Eagles only have one of those quarterbacks and an average at best defense.
The defense still features a tough defensive line headlined by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Derek Barnett, but beyond that line the Eagles have a lot of questions and not too many answers. They cut linebacker Zach Brown, who led the team’s linebackers in tackles, after he publicly talked trash about Kirk Cousins only for the Vikings quarterback to torch Philly’s defense for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
With Brown now out of the equation, their leading tackler at linebacker becomes Nigel Bradham, who left the Vikings game early with an ankle injury and is ruled out for the matchup against Dallas after not practicing all week. Then there’s Nathan Gerry, the Eagles’ third linebacker who’s played the vast majority of his snaps on special teams but saw an increase in action last week after Bradham went down. To his credit, Gerry leads the team in interceptions with two. Also expected to see an increase in snaps against Dallas is every Cowboys fan’s favorite Eagle, Kamu Grugier-Hill.
But the real problem for the Eagles defense is their secondary. They’ve been without their top two cornerbacks for a while now. Jalen Mills has been on the PUP list thus far but is set to return against Dallas, and Ronald Darby hasn’t played since Week 3 due to a hamstring injury. In their place, the Eagles have rolled with Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, and Avonte Maddox.
The result? Philly’s allowing 280.2 passing yards per game (an average that’s aided by a Luke Falk outlier) and 13 touchdowns. Their +11.6% DVOA confirms just how bad the secondary has been against the pass thus far. Their corners have been allowing a lot of completions and yards, particularly Douglas; opposing quarterbacks have a 136 passer rating when throwing his way. If both Mills and Darby take the field Sunday night, Douglas would likely see his playing time reduced.
With Mills returning, though, Philly isn’t getting a huge boost. Last year, Mills allowed a 63.9% completion rate, with roughly a third of the yards he surrendered coming after the catch. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 12.6 yards per target against him and had a stellar 109.7 passer rating when targeting him. Darby allowed just a 61% completion rate, though that number ballooned to 65% in the three games he played in this season. Regardless, Darby is the team’s top corner and they’ll need him to go up against a passing attack that ranks third in the league.
As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has dealt with injuries to his top two cornerbacks, he’s also asked more of his safeties. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have both played very well, with McLeod leading the team in tackles. Third safety Andrew Sendejo, who started his career with the Cowboys, has also gotten in on the action with Schwartz’s frequent use of the Big Nickel package, though Schwartz has used it less the last two weeks.
Personnel issues aside, Schwartz brings a very similar scheme to what the Jets used last week. This isn’t surprising given that Schwartz learned in part under Gregg Williams, but Schwartz is a big fan of blitzes from unexpected places. With a defensive line like that, Schwartz doesn’t need to blitz to generate pressure, but even so he’s primarily been using Bradham as his top blitzing linebacker; with him sidelined for this week, though, Schwartz will turn to someone else.
He also gets his safeties involved in the pass rush quite often, something that hurt Dallas last week in particular. Through six games, Jenkins and McLeod have combined for 40 total blitzes, or nearly seven different safety blitzes per game. With the troubles that the Eagles have at corner and linebacker, the Cowboys should be able to use that aggressiveness against them, especially with Amari Cooper looking likely to play.
Of course, the one saving grace of this defense right now is that defensive line, and it’s given them the second-most efficient run defense with a -24.9% DVOA. For an offense that’s been running the ball more each week, now would seem the time for the Cowboys to start putting the ball in Prescott’s hands more frequently. Not only is the run defense very, very good, but the pass defense is very, very bad.
Much like last year - when Prescott averaged 362.5 passing yards, completed 75.5% of his passes, and scored five total touchdowns to win both games - this is a game that’s set up for Dak to have a big performance. He’s already been performing among the best quarterbacks in the league, and this is a golden opportunity for him to continue that. The question will be if the coaches trust him to do so against a defense reeling with injuries, poor play, and overall uncertainty.