The NFL couldn’t have written it any better. The Cowboys are winners of four straight with backup quarterback Cooper Rush, and now they head to Philadelphia to take on the undefeated Eagles on Sunday Night Football. It’s guaranteed to be a massive ratings draw, especially since the winner of the game will move into the driver’s seat of the NFC.
The Cowboys opened as a 5.5 point underdog, but they’ve been underdogs in every game this year but one, lending credence to Mike McCarthy’s assertion that Dallas is nobody’s underdog. They’re likely going to be rolling with Rush again, although Dak Prescott hasn’t been ruled out yet.
So can the Cowboys win this game?
Well, of course they can. The Eagles are getting a lot of praise right now for being the lone undefeated team, but a closer evaluation of their performance this year reveals some glaring weaknesses. For starters, they’ve played a pretty easy schedule; only one of their wins has come against a team that’s presently above .500, and that team was quarterbacked by Kirk Cousins in a night game when the Eagles pulled off the win.
Additionally, the Eagles have had close calls each of the last two weeks. They got in a 14-0 hole early against the Jaguars, but then Trevor Lawrence became the first player this century at any position to lose four fumbles in a game. Last week in Arizona, the Cardinals were driving down the field with ease in the final minute before Kyler Murray’s curious decisions to slide short of the first down and then spike the ball on third and short sealed the win for Philadelphia.
In short, the Eagles are lucky to be 5-0 and not 3-2. Their offense also got outscored by Jared Goff and the Lions in Week 1, but a Goff pick-six helped put Philadelphia over by a final score of 38-35. In fact, it’s that Lions game that reveals a very real blueprint for success for this Cowboys offense.
The Eagles defense has been playing really well this year, and they’re fifth in defensive DVOA, one spot ahead of the Cowboys’ own defense. They’ve been elite against the pass, allowing the fewest net yards per pass atempt in the league. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry are both allowing completions on less than 46% of their targets.
But while the Eagles used a first-round pick on the massive Jordan Davis in an effort to beef up their run defense, it hasn’t worked out. Philadelphia is 20th in run defense DVOA and they’re allowing the fifth most yards per carry. The one positive for them is that the Eagles have been playing from the lead so often this season that teams rarely run the ball - only the Chiefs have been run at less on the year - but this defense is susceptible to the run.
That’s why the Lions game film is so crucial. Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni admitted after the game that he was surprised that the Lions kept running the ball even after falling behind to Philadelphia, but Detroit had a method to their madness.
Nick Sirianni didn't think there was a correlation to the Lions' running success and Jordan Davis' usage. He said Davis' playing time was based on the rotation. He also said the Eagles thought the Lions would be more one-dimensional when trailing, but DET stayed balanced.— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) September 12, 2022
Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon hasn’t made extensive use of rookie Davis so far - he has yet to play more than 42% of snaps in a game - but he’s primarily given Davis some run as a nose tackle in the Eagles’ hybrid 5-2 look they use often. In this package, Davis is flanked by two defensive tackles and they’re bookended by two edge rushers, sometimes with their hands in the dirt and sometimes standing up. This is Gannon’s go-to front for run downs, but Davis usually comes off on passing downs.
So when the Lions came out in heavier personnel groupings and drew this 5-2 front, they either ran the ball on wide outside runs to take Davis out of the play or, more often, checked into a play-action pass with shallow crossing routes to take advantage of the light second level. They built on this by running the ball out of passing formations, which meant running against a Jordan Davis-less defensive front.
That strategy worked wonders for Detroit, as they scored 35 points and tallied 181 rushing yards, both season highs allowed by this defense. The Cowboys have the talent to run a similar attack, too. Their running game, currently ninth in rushing DVOA, has been at its best running to the outside. They’ve also failed to utilize their tight ends in the passing game with any regularity, but they could come up big if Dallas is passing out of heavy personnel groups with multiple tight ends, not to mention the Hulk package. There’s also the fact that Rush has a 109.4 passer rating on play-action dropbacks, much higher than his 87.8 passer rating without play-action.
While the Cowboys should be able to have success running the ball against this Eagles defense, the same can be said of the Eagles on offense. They lead the league in rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns, and the mobility of Jalen Hurts makes them truly dynamic. Hurts’ modest progression as a passer this year has made him all the more dangerous on RPO’s, which are built off this power running game.
The Cowboys have struggled against the run, although they looked noticeably better last week against the Rams. Another encouraging development is that the Eagles’ highest success rate - by far - on run plays has come on runs to the right end. That’s where Dallas has been best in run defense, thanks in large part to DeMarcus Lawrence playing in that spot.
The Cowboys also have a secret weapon in Jason Peters, who may actually play in this one after missing last week with a chest injury. Peters is very familiar with Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles offensive line coach and run game coordinator, having played for Stoutland for eight years. Stopping this run game won’t be easy, but Peters should be able to offer Dan Quinn some insight on how this run game functions.
It’s very likely that this game will come down to the run game and which team can have more success doing it. Both of these defenses are stellar against the pass but susceptible to the run. In theory, that should make this a low scoring game, but divisional matchups of this magnitude can often lead to unexpected fireworks.