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Cowboys scouting report: Scouting the Philadelphia Eagles defense

This time around might actually be easier for Dallas.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Cowboys played the Eagles, we broke down their defense here and explained how their defense had been hindered by injuries. Eight weeks later, and the story is pretty much the same. If anything, the injuries have gotten worse for Philly.

Hassan Ridgeway, a defensive tackle who actually sacked Dak Prescott in their last matchup, is on the injured reserve. Also on the injured reserve list is linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who had been pushed into a starting role after the Eagles cut Zach Brown.

Then there’s a whole host of defenders who are on the injury report this week and have various chances of playing Sunday against Dallas. The three most prominent names are vital pieces of the Eagles defense: cornerback Ronald Darby, defensive end Derek Barnett, and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

Both Barnett and Cox have had down years for them, but remain two of the best linemen on the team. Barnett’s 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss are both second on the defense, and Cox has long been one of the NFL’s best interior defensive linemen. Darby, on the other hand, leads the team in passes defensed by a comfortable margin and is considered to be their top cornerback. He missed four games earlier in the year and now is in danger of missing another with a lower body injury.

Injuries in the secondary in particular have been the biggest ailment for this defense this year. The only Eagles defensive backs to have started every game this year are safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Coincidentally, they are also the two leaders in tackles for the defense, partially a byproduct of the high amount of passes completed against this defense and partially a byproduct of the instability at linebacker.

While Jenkins and McLeod have both been really good in their roles, the rotating cast of cornerbacks has not. Darby may be considered their top guy, but he’s allowing the highest completion rate of any corner with meaningful snaps on this team. Additionally, Darby’s 14.9 yards of average depth of target are second most on the team, which is not great.

But beyond Darby, there are plenty of problems. Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas have both seen a high amount of targets when they’re on the field, and the results haven’t been great; Douglas is allowing a 59.6% completion rate but also 16.8 yards per completion, while Maddox is allowing a 61.9% completion rate with a lower 10.8 yards per completion. Neither has managed to pick off a pass this year.

Jalen Mills is considered to be their best corner after Darby, but he’s only played in eight games due to nagging injuries. What’s worse is that Mills hasn’t played well when he has been healthy: he’s allowing the lowest completion rate on the team but also leads the team in yards allowed per completion with 18.5 and leads in average depth of target. Mills has also surrendered the most touchdowns per target in the secondary. Teams have been targeting Mills on deeper routes and having pretty good success this year.

Inconsistent play hasn’t been unique to the defensive backs, though. The linebacking corps has seen its struggles, which started with cutting their leading tackler and continued with Nigel Bradham missing a string of games. Grugier-Hill landing on the injured reserve made matters worse. While Bradham is back, he and Nathan Gerry have been the only consistent contributors at that level, but behind an underachieving defensive line it’s been tough sledding.

At the end of the day, this Eagles defense is governed by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who employs a bend-but-don’t break philosophy similar to that of the Cowboys. And like the Cowboys defense, inconsistent play at every level has broken the defense one too many times. As a result, Philadelphia is 16th in points allowed and 18th in passing defense.

The low amount of carries against this defense has helped boost their run defense numbers, but the real Achilles heel of this unit is their secondary. The Eagles have a +11% passing defense DVOA, which ranks 20th in the league. Just like last time, the Cowboys’ best path to success is through attacking this secondary, even with Dak being limited in practice. But that doesn’t mean this offense, led by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, shouldn’t also be able to put up big yards.

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