Everyone is feeling better about the Dallas Cowboys offense as they’ve scored 30 points in each of the last three games, but we can’t leave out the defense as this group has held opponents to 17 points or less in two of their last three games. It’s the only two times the defense has held them to that total all year. In that same span, the defense has taken the ball away at least three times. These turnovers play a big part in why the Cowboys have won football games despite giving up their second- and third-most yardage totals of the season.
So, how did the Cowboys pull off this win? Let’s check out what we can learn after a second time through the game film in this week’s defensive edition of After Further Review.
The CJ Package
The Cowboys had a fantastic game plan to make sure the elusive rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts didn’t hurt them with his legs. Not only did he present a huge threat to turn out big chunks in the rushing game, but allowing him too much time to find a receiver can put a huge strain on the Cowboys secondary.
To counter this, the Cowboys chose to rush three defensive lineman at times and used special teams ace C.J. Goodwin to track the Eagles quarterback. Goodwin started back about 10 yards, started charging in when the ball was snapped, and then put on the brakes to carefully keep Hurts out in front of him. It wasn’t designed to rush the quarterback as he was still afforded plenty of time to pass. But this delayed pressure was enough to keep him from running for big gains as well as eventually forcing him into making a decision.
Goodwin is a great choice for this task as he has great speed and tracking ability which is why he’s such a valuable asset on special teams. While he never actually tackled Hurts, his presence started getting into Hurts head and you could see if affect his throws as well as his decision-making. Goodwin’s pressure helped create the errant throw that was picked off in the end zone by by Anthony Brown that turned out to be the dagger.
Just like that, the Cowboys have themselves a new tool for their defense.
On the package where CJ Goodwin is on the field in a dime package where he spies the QB, Mike Nolan calls it, "CJ"— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 29, 2020
Gregory comes alive
Randy Gregory didn’t play until Week 7 and even then he only played six snaps on special teams as Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith handled the duties on the right side. The following week, Griffen was traded to the Detroit Lions, which opened up the door for Gregory to start getting defensive reps. Smith is still very much in the picture, logging 70% of the defensive snaps, but the Cowboys like to move him around a lot. This has left more of the right defensive end job to Gregory in recent weeks.
Against the Eagles, Gregory was all over the field. What was impressive about his play is that he showed a lot of awareness on the field. Rather that over-pursing Hurts and allowing the Eagles quarterback to escape forward, Gregory backed off and kept track of Hurts whereabouts. This positioned him perfectly to shut the gate as Hurts was trying to get through. Gregory did this twice in the game, and the second time resulted in a takeaway.
Gregory had three forced fumbles on the day. On his first sack/fumble, he starts to the outside, causing the Eagles left tackle to over-position himself to his left side. Gregory then uses his length to push off and attack the inside, giving him a clean shot on Hurts. And speaking of length, watch Gregory show great awareness of Miles Sanders running to the outside, stay with him, and then reach out to knock the ball away. The Eagles are lucky Sanders was close to the sidelines or that would’ve been yet another turnover.
Long arms also come in handy when you’re knocking down passes. Again, this is just great awareness of what’s going on to reach out and make a play at the last second.
Gallimore & Hamilton
The Cowboys have been very vulnerable against the run this season as they are averaging 161 yards allowed, which is dead last in the NFL. However, this unit has shown improvement in recent weeks, as this is the third straight game they have held opponents under their average. With the tandem of Hurts and Sanders, this game could’ve gotten ugly, but the Cowboys defensive line did a good job plugging running lanes.
The game script featured a lot more passing for Philadelphia, but credit the Cowboys defense for keeping Sanders in check as the Eagles running back only averaged 3.8 yards per attempt.
Here is a very underrated two-play sequence in the game. After the Eagles had 2nd-and-short, the Cowboys defense made two straight run stops. First, Neville Gallimore tosses Jason Kelce aside like he’s not even there. Kelce is a three-time All-Pro center by the way. Then, Justin Hamilton gets off the line so quickly and powers his way into the backfield. This shoves his man into the path of the right tackle who is try to pull to his left, but instead accidentally collides with Sanders. Just this slight obstruction completely blows up the run play as by the time Sanders hits the hole, Hamilton is able to finish the play, stopping the Eagles short of a first down.
We have a Reggie Robinson sighting
Fans have been waiting for fourth-round rookie Reggie Robinson II to get in on some action. While he’s been active for four straight games now, he’s yet to log a single snap on defense. Robinson did see 20 snaps on special teams, and he made it count with a nice tackle that popped the ball loose from Eagles returner Boston Scott. Again, the Eagles were lucky the ball came loose near the sidelines as while the C.J. Goodwin was able to recover the fumble, he stepped out of bounds first, allowing Philadelphia to keep the ball.