Ben DiNucci really picked the best/worst time to make his first career start. On Sunday Night Football, national prime time television, playing for America’s Team in a game that will have big implications on the fate of the NFC East. After all, someone has to win this division; why can’t it be the seventh-round rookie nobody had heard of until now?
It certainly won’t be easy though. We know how banged up this offensive line is - in limited time last week, DiNucci was sacked as many times as he threw the ball - but the receiver corps is still top notch. And unlike Andy Dalton, DiNucci possesses some positive mobility that can help mitigate the poor pass protection.
The problem? This Eagles defense has a darn good defensive front. Only the Buccaneers and Steelers (who Dallas plays next week, of course) have more sacks on the year than Philadelphia. And they’re doing that with the sixth-lowest blitz rate in the NFL, too. Much like the Football Team last week, this is a group that creates pressure routinely without having to send an extra rusher. And they’re even better at disrupting the quarterback than Washington.
A lot of the pass rush comes from the edges, where defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has a three-headed monster of Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat. Together, those three make up 12.5 of the Eagles’ 24 total sacks. Graham leads the team with six sacks (third-most in the NFL), and is sixth in the NFL in pass rush win rate for edge rushers; similarly, the Eagles as a whole are fifth in team pass rush win rate, winning at a 52% rate.
As good as Philly’s edge rushers are, though, their interior defensive line is also very talented. Fletcher Cox has been a force to be reckoned with for years, and naturally receives a lot of double-teams. Malik Jackson and Javon Hargrave are two powerful disruptors as well, and they’ve essentially rotated with each other next to Cox to create a really tough interior in the trenches. Going up against rookie Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin coming off a missed game last week, will test this offensive line in a big way.
And it’s not just the pass protection that will be tested as this defensive line is really good against the run, too. In fact, they’re 12th in the league in run defense DVOA and sixth in the league in run stop win rate; Graham, in addition to being an elite edge rusher, is second among edges in run stop win rate.
This is all familiar, though. Under Schwartz’s tenure, this defense has gone as their defensive line has gone, because the rest of the defense has been average at best, and often downright bad. It’s once again the tune in 2020, as injuries have once again disrupted the already-thin linebacker corps and the secondary has been burned far too often.
At linebacker, Nathan Gerry has been the lone constant for the Eagles, while they’ve rotated between Genard Avery, Duke Riley, Alex Singleton, and TJ Edwards. Both Avery and Gerry have missed practice this week, while Edwards is on the injured reserve. Given that Gerry leads the defense in tackles, losing him for this contest would be a big blow. Either way, expect a lot of snaps from Singleton and Riley, both of whom are in their first year with the Eagles.
The secondary is a big weak spot, once again. Philly traded for Darius Slay in the offseason, and he was supposed to finally give them a good cornerback. Instead, Slay has been targeted the most of this defense and is giving up completions on 70.5% of those targets. But the crazy part is that’s the lowest number for any of these Eagles corners, so he technically is their best cornerback.
Slot corner Cre’von LeBlanc is giving up a 77.8% completion rate while Nickell Robey-Coleman is giving up a 78.3% completion rate. Even Avonte Maddox, who’s only seen 20 targets this year, has surrendered completed passes on 75% of throws his way. Jalen Mills, a former corner who converted to safety this year, has been equally bad, giving up a 70.4% rate. The lone defensive back to be playing well in coverage is Rodney McLeod, who’s only allowing catches on 42.9% of his targets. And every single one of these defensive backs have allowed at least one touchdown against them.
This has been the recurring problem, and most enduring criticism, for Schwartz’s defenses. His simplistic 4-3 scheme is successful at creating pressure with just four rushers, but allocating a full seven players to pass coverage hasn’t helped at all. In a normal game, this is one where Dak Prescott would carve them up in a big way. Maybe even the Red Rifle could do that. With DiNucci? Who knows.
It’s a bit of a catch 22 for the rookie. If he’s able to scan the defense, he should be able to hit his talented receivers for some big plays. But very few quarterbacks have been given any time against this defense, and none had as banged up of an offensive line as Dallas does. But the opportunity is there for DiNucci, and if he really is as mobile as Mike McCarthy has made him out to be, the Cowboys might have a puncher’s chance against this defense.