Defense has been sort of an Achilles heel for the Eagles the last three years. Their dominant defensive line in 2017 helped power them to the Super Bowl, but the rest of their defense hasn’t been able to keep up since. It seems like every time the Eagles play lately, the defensive line impresses time after time but the back end gets ripped to shreds.
That was certainly the case heading into the Cowboys’ first matchup of the year against this team, and it was the general takeaway when breaking down the defense then. Of course, the Eagles got a boon in the form of Dallas being forced to start rookie Ben DiNucci at quarterback, and it resulted in the defense tallying two takeaways and holding the Cowboys to just nine points and 265 total yards of offense.
That was obviously a massive statistical outlier, as the Eagles have allowed at least 20 points in every other game; they also haven’t held any other offense under 300 total yards all year. And this week as they travel to AT&T Stadium they won’t have the benefit of facing The Nooch, either. Andy Dalton, who’s been playing some good football lately, will be the quarterback this beleaguered secondary will have to try and stop.
But the Eagles defense might actually be better now than they were last time. It’s hard to know, honestly, because the Eagles have been playing bad football overall for so long now that (like the Cowboys) it’s hard to tell if things are actually improving or if they’re just getting lucky. But in the last six weeks, this defense limited both Baker Mayfield and the Browns and Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, and has forced five takeaways against their last two opponents, the Saints and Cardinals.
It’s not a drastic improvement, but context is key, and the context for the Eagles has been injuries up and down this defensive roster. Last week against the Cardinals, top cornerback Darius Slay was out with a concussion. That, in addition to earlier losses of cornerback Avonte Maddox and safety Rodney McLeod, led to Kyler Murray putting up 423 yards through the air.
Philly gets Slay back this week, but they also lost edge rusher Josh Sweat, whose six sacks this season rank third on the team. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has also been dealing with a neck injury in recent weeks, and though it hasn’t kept him out Cox has just one sack in the last three games. Prior to that, he had gotten to the quarterback at least once in four straight games. The linebacker corps has also been hit hard, with both Nathan Gerry and Davion Taylor landing on the injured reserve while Duke Riley has been limited in practice this week.
That’s put the onus on second-year pro TJ Edwards and former CFL player Alex Singleton, both of whom have struggled plenty. Edwards is giving up completions on 80% of passes thrown his way, while Singleton is doing so on 76.7% of his targets. Singleton also leads the team in missed tackles.
Beyond the linebackers, though, this defense is still struggling in pass defense. While the defense as a whole is 15th in DVOA, their pass defense is far down the list at 23rd. For a while the Eagles were forcing opposing quarterbacks to just dink and dunk due to their strong pass rush - Philadelphia ranks ninth in pass rush win rate, fifth in pressure rate, and second in sacks - that hasn’t been the case lately. In the last four games, Philly’s opposing quarterbacks have all ranked in the top ten in most time to throw while also being top 12 among completed air yards when facing this defense.
In other words, offenses have figured out how to slow this pass rush down, allowing bigger completions downfield. As mentioned earlier, it’s coincided with the Eagles getting more takeaways recently, but they’ve also become more boom or bust in terms of giving up big plays. All of these Eagles cornerbacks are giving up completions on at least 70% of their targets, which is far from ideal. Second-year pro Marcus Epps, who has become the new starting safety in place of the injured McLeod, is surrendering an 82.4% completion rate, highest among all Eagles defensive backs, while rookie safety K’Von Wallace, who’s seen more and more playing time since McLeod’s injury as well, is allowing a 66.7% completion rate. Jalen Mills, a cornerback who converted to safety in the offseason, is the only reliable coverage defender with a 57.9% completion rate.
In other words, don’t throw the ball near Mills and you’ll be fine. As for the Cowboys offense, they’ve become a real dink-and-dunk offense in recent weeks in an attempt to mitigate their own banged up offensive line. Since returning from injury, Dalton has consistently been in the bottom of the league each week in time to throw, so he needs to get the ball out quickly and let his receivers do the work. They are averaging 98.8 yards after the catch in the last five games.
Perhaps Kellen Moore will try and take some more shots down the field with this poor secondary, but the uncertain status of deep threat Michael Gallup could complicate that, even if he manages to suit up and play. Even so, their approach of getting the ball out of Dalton’s hands quick is well-suited for this defense, which has been gashed by yards after the catch at times.
This Eagles defense may be playing slightly better in recent weeks, their DVOA numbers have been increasing by minimal gains, for sure, but they’re still dependent on their defensive line creating an effective pass rush. With a more experienced quarterback this time around, the Cowboys can pick apart this secondary so long as the offensive line prevents the pass rush from impacting things.