When it comes to the debate between pass rush and coverage, the Dallas Cowboys have been fortunate to have star players at both levels of their defense over Dan Quinn’s tenure as defensive coordinator. They’ve led the NFL in takeaways for the last two years, and this year with the offense putting up points at a breakneck pace, these extra possessions have led to one win by 40 points, three by at least 30, and three others by at least 20.
Then there was the outlier that became the Cowboys ninth win last Thursday night against the Seahawks. The Cowboys offense put up 400 yards for the second week in a row, and tallied 41 points, but found themselves in the unfamiliar position of needing all of these points to pull out a one-score win as the defense allowed 35.
In some ways this win showed resilience and a new way for the Cowboys to win even with the game pressure turned up on Mike McCarthy’s offense. With the Seahawks being just the start of a tougher stretch of games that will determine playoff seeding for Dallas, they’ll have plenty to correct defensively starting on Sunday night in the rematch versus the Eagles. The NFL calendar has reached the point of the season where games need to be won and lost with the star players making the biggest difference, and the Cowboys realized this with DaRon Bland’s interception, DeMarcus Lawrence’s fourth-down stop, Jake Ferguson’s go-ahead touchdown, and finally Micah Parsons’ pressure to create the game-ending turnover on downs versus the Seahawks,
They also saw Bland get picked on in coverage by D.K. Metcalf, and the Seahawks pass attack focus on getting the ball out of Geno Smith’s hand in a similar way the Eagles can with Jalen Hurts. The Cowboys defense allowed Seattle to convert nine of 14 third down attempts, including a Metcalf touchdown on third and eight, and three others of at least seven yards. The key was Dallas’ ability to turn the ball over on downs with crucial fourth down stops, where the Seahawks went 0-3. The Eagles offense presents an entirely different challenge, as they shorten the field in the early-down pass game with the best fourth-down conversion percentage in the NFL, going a perfect 2-2 against the Cowboys in their home win while moving the chains on seven of 14 third downs.
The Cowboys defense didn’t play a bad game against the Eagles by any stretch, but when their secondary fails to get their hands on a takeaway, and the pass rush is kept in check without a signature forced fumble or other splash play, this team loses part of the identity they rely on to win. The offense has more than picked up slack since this loss to give the defense plenty of healthy leads to use to their advantage, but the Cowboys should expect the Seahawks game to be just the start of a stretch of more competitive games. Primetime versus the Eagles will decide who sits in the driver’s seat for the NFC East through December, but while Philly moves onto easier games against the Giants and Cardinals, Dallas still travels to the Bills and Dolphins before hosting the Lions in week 17.
With their personnel mostly set in the secondary and continuity being established in the absence of Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys have seen their front seven handle the run well with Damone Clark, Markquese Bell, Johnathan Hankins, Osa Odighizuwa, and of course Micah Parsons, allowing them to line up in coverage with DaRon Bland, Stephon Gilmore, Jourdan Lewis inside, and Donovan Wilson, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker as safeties. Starting with Sunday night against the Eagles, they’ll need this group to affect Hurts’ receivers more than they could in the first meeting, playing mostly off coverage and allowing big possession receivers like A.J. Brown to keep Philly comfortably ahead of the sticks all game. A third and 15 in the first quarter was the longest distance the Eagles faced all game on this money down, never being taken out of their run game either as the Cowboys largest lead was just seven in the first half.
The Cowboys defense won’t see a quarterback ranked lower than 12th in passing attempts for the rest of the season, but two of them in Josh Allen and Sam Howell also lead the league in interceptions. If Quinn has any wrinkles left for the back end to match the overwhelming number of games, stunts, and twists he runs in the front seven to wreak havoc, now is the time to see them as the Cowboys play to cement their status as real contenders. Pass coverage isn’t often on the list of over-clichéd things that teams looking to win through December and January must have, as added emphasis goes towards both running the ball and defending the run, as well as affecting the QB with pass rush. Dallas still wants to throw the ball all over the field with Prescott playing at a MVP level, so matching up in the secondary against teams that feel they’ll need to come out pass-happy in a shootout is critical.
The Cowboys won a back-and-forth 40-34 affair against the Gardner Minshew led Eagles in the home matchup last season, and proved their mettle in a similar type of game against the Seahawks to enter rested off a win, drawing an Eagles team beaten badly by the 49ers 42-19. Any possible way they can come out of Week 14 with a win will be the goal, but holding onto the lead in the division will be dependent on this defense playing its best, most consistent football in the four games to follow.