The Dallas Cowboys squaring off against the Philadelphia Eagles in primetime football, likely playing for the division lead, does it get more American than that? With Dak Prescott looking like the Comeback Player of the Year and the Eagles emerging as better than expected, the 125th installment of this historic matchup will not disappoint.
It is always difficult to predict the outcome when these two teams face each other, and this week is no different. Which version of Jalen Hurts will we see? Are the Eagles a legitimate threat, or was Philadelphia’s one win just a dominant performance against a struggling team? Will the Cowboys be able to move it downfield against an Eagles defense that has played well through two games?
With so many question marks coming into this rivalry, there is no way to confidently project the outcome. However, what does the analytics tell us going into week three?
The Cowboys Offense
While it is difficult to admit, you have to give Eagles first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon credit, he has turned the ship around. In terms of defensive DVOA, PFF grading, and EPA per play allowed, the Eagles defense finished between ten to twenty in every statistic last season. Gannon inherited a perfectly mediocre defense.
Fast forward two weeks in the 2021 NFL season, and this same defense ranks eighth by DVOA, sixth by EPA per play allowed, and has surrendered a combined 23 points. While the Eagles have not faced a powerhouse offense yet, this is a significantly improved defense.
As impressive as Philadelphia’s defense has been through two weeks, they struggle on early downs. Coincidentally, early downs are where the Cowboys offense excels, specifically in the run game.
Between Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys lead the league in offensive EPA per play on first and second down. The Eagles defense lands as the thirteenth worst team in EPA per play allowed on the ground in early downs. Cowboys’ fans should expect Kellen Moore to recognize this disparity and take advantage with a heavy dose of Pollard and Elliott.
With the Dallas offensive line proving they can still create space for the backfield to run, paired with the devastating injury to Brandon Graham, the Cowboys will use their running backs to set up short-yardage conversions. This is where things get interesting.
The Cowboys currently boast one of the best third-down conversion rates in the NFL, whereas the Eagles defense lands as the fifth-best team at preventing a conversion on third-down. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and one has to give. If the Cowboys want to add another win, they will have to execute in short-yardage situations.
For Dak Prescott and the passing game, it’s more ambiguous. While Philadelphia is currently allowing the third-lowest passing yards per game in the NFL, they have not exactly faced elite quarterbacks. An aging Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo do not strike fear into opposing defenses. The legitimacy of the Eagles secondary is another question mark coming into this game.
Expect Kellen Moore to test Philadelphia through the air, but if the rushing attack is successful, the game should play out similar to last week. That is the beauty of this offense; if the opposing defense has any weakness whatsoever, Moore will use his weapons to exploit it.
The Cowboys Defense
Jalen Hurts, meet Micah Parsons. The Eagles quarterback has been impressive this year in escaping pressure and getting the pass off. Hurts is currently averaging a 129.7 passer rating this season on the 23 throws he has made under pressure.
However, Jalen Hurts holds onto the ball much longer in the pocket than Tom Brady or Justin Herbert. Hurt’s average time to throw of 3.08 seconds is currently the third highest in the NFL, meaning Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory will have time to wreak havoc.
But the key to defensive production for the Cowboys will be converting those pressures into sacks. Through two weeks, Hurts has only been sacked on 13% of the total pressures he’s seen, one of the lowest in the NFL.
Getting to the quarterback is not an issue for Parsons, the rookie linebacker did it eight times last week. But making sure Hurts doesn’t get the ball off before going to the ground is a different story. The Eagles’ quarterback is currently second by PFF grading and tenth by EPA per play. Hurts has played well this year, and he will have a good game if the Cowboys allow him to get comfortable in the pocket.
Dallas’ run defense has been one of the biggest surprises this year. After allowing the second-most rushing yards in the league last season, the Cowboys are currently holding their opponents to just 73.5 rushing yards per game.
Miles Sanders should be another running back the Cowboys are capable of containing, especially considering his inability to break tackles. This year, Sanders has produced an abysmal 2.14 yards after contact per attempt, the fifth-worst of all starting running backs. The Cowboys should be able to bring Miles Sanders to the ground after their poor tackling performance in week two.
Thus, the defensive game plan for Dallas needs to revolve around finishing the play. Preventing Sanders from breaking tackles on early downs will force Jalen Hurts to throw. From there, Hurts will try and extend the play, where Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory need to make it difficult for him to do so.
Coaching and Special Teams
For the second week in a row, the Cowboys will be facing a first-year head coach. The Eagles will make critical mistakes, and the Cowboys must capitalize on them.
Cowboys’ fans have heard about Mike McCarthy’s résumé for a year and a half now; it is time for that experience to manifest itself on the field. If McCarthy is the leader that the Cowboys hired him to be, he will be able to outcoach Nick Sirianni.
Philadelphia enters this matchup as the most penalized team in the NFL. But unlike last week, Hurts cannot overcome penalties as efficiently as Justin Herbert. When offensive miscues back the Eagles up, the Cowboys cannot allow them to convert in long-yardage situations.
As for special teams, this is likely John Fassel’s last week to fix his mistakes before all Cowboys fans turn on him. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, special teams has been horrible this year.
In case you need statistics to illustrate the performance thus far, the Cowboys are the sixth-most penalized team on special teams, third-worst by average yards per return allowed on kickoffs, fifth-worst by special teams PFF grading, and below-average in nearly every punting statistic. But you don’t need data to realize that the Cowboys have been bad in this aspect of the game.
If you keep playing with fire on special teams, it might burn the Cowboys and cost them another win. Just play one clean game in this regard and save all Dallas fans the worry that it could impact the outcome.
One thing is certain, the first game back with a sellout crowd at AT&T Stadium will be electric. And there is no better matchup for a return to full capacity than with the Eagles.
Monday cannot come soon enough. Two teams with relatively new head coaches, two quarterbacks with something to prove, and defenses on the rise. If playing the Eagles on Monday Night Football doesn’t get you excited, what else will?
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 51.1%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 31, Philadelphia Eagles 27