There wasn’t a lot of mystery about which team was going to be the biggest divisional threat to the Dallas Cowboys this season. The Philadelphia Eagles have regularly challenged the Cowboys in recent years as these two teams make up five of the last six division winners. In fact, going back to the turn of the century, the Cowboys and Eagles have won a grand total of 15 of the last 21 (71%) NFC East titles.
It’s still early in the season, but these teams are already lined up to play in one of the biggest matchups of the year. Both teams are riding hot as they currently have the two longest winning streaks in the NFL, with the Cowboys winning four straight and the Eagles a perfect 5-0 on the year.
With a big game comes big moments, and today we’ll try to predict what some of them look like as we examine five things to watch when the Cowboys head to Philadelphia.
1. The ground attack
No team in the NFL runs the ball more than the Eagles as they lead the league with 186 rushing attempts. Philadelphia’s biggest strength is its offensive line and they scheme a lot of different running plays in every direction. Of course, the elusive Jalen Hurts adds a major punch to their rushing attack as he already has 266 rushing yards on the year including six touchdowns. Between Hurts and running back Miles Sanders (who is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season), look for the Eagles to be vigilant in pounding away with the run.
The Cowboys aren’t much different. They are top 10 in rushing attempts per game and they actually have more running attempts from their running backs than the Eagles. With backup quarterback Cooper Rush at the helm, the offense has committed itself to keeping him in manageable situations and that has meant a heavy dose of the run game this year. The Eagles' defense is much more vulnerable against the run (allowing five yards per carry, 25th in the NFL), so expect Dallas to have a heavy rushing attack planned.
2. Pitch and catch
The emergence of Jalen Hurts “the passer” has been all the buzz this season, and to his credit, he’s been really good. The Eagles are first in passing efficiency with 7.6 yards per attempt. But looking at the film shows a lot of instances where Hurts likes to dump off short passes and let his receivers do the rest. Dallas Goedert is a prime example as he’ll hang at the line of scrimmage to block in the running game, but then at times shoot outside for a quick pass.
Philadelphia will challenge the Cowboys' defense to make tackles. Fortunately, the Cowboys have been very good at wrapping up ball carriers this season. The Eagles are third in the league with receiving yards after the catch (761) so look for them to exploit opportunities to move the chains via short passes.
3. Winning on early downs
An aggressive ground attack coupled with effective short passes sprinkled in has allowed the Eagles to be in favorable third-down situations. In fact, they are second in the NFC in third-down conversion percentage this season.
The Cowboys’ defense has benefited greatly by coming up with negative plays quite frequently. The question begs, can they replicate these same scenarios against the Eagles or will Philly’s offense operate efficiently enough to limit those tougher down-and-distance situations? The Cowboys’ defense must win this chess battle. If the Eagles are allowed to grind away at them and keep the defense on the field, this could make for a tiring night in Philadelphia.
On the other side of the ball, it’s imperative that the Cowboys' offense finds early down success as well. The Dallas offense is second-worst in the NFC in third-down conversions, so if they start struggling to move the chains and give us a bunch of three-and-outs, this game will not be fun to watch.
4. Don’t forget about Quez
The Eagles receiving weapons consist primarily of A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and the before mentioned Goedert. These three have combined for 112 targets on the year. The Eagles' slot receiver Quez Watkins only has eight targets this season, but that doesn’t mean he’s an afterthought. Watkins averages 17.6 yards per reception which is the highest on the team.
With Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jayron Kearse drawing the tougher matchups, that could leave slot corner Jourdan Lewis on an island with Watkins. Don’t expect to hear his name often, but when we do, it’s probably not going to be good.
5. The D must dominate
It’s getting easier and easier to dial in what to expect from a Cooper Rush-led offense. Scoring is minimal and the explosive plays are virtually non-existent. Without any firepower on offense, how are the Cowboys expected to come away with a win?
The Cowboys absolutely need another brilliant performance by the defense if they are to have a chance in this one. They need to force Hurts into situations where he has to throw downfield and get in his face when he does. They need to apply pressure early and often and take advantage of any miscues the Eagles make. For the Cowboys to sneak away with a big road win and knock off the undefeated Eagles, their defense and maybe even special teams need to find the end zone.
What will you be looking for on Sunday night?