It’s been just over a full month since the last time the Cowboys faced the Eagles, and there’s little doubt that Dallas has been looking forward to this rematch ever since. The first time around, they lost by five points, with a handful of plays being the deciding factor in it all.
It was, at the time, an uncharacteristically poor game for the vaunted Dallas defense. Jalen Hurts entered the game second in interceptions on the year, and the offense as a whole was sixth in turnovers. Yet, the Cowboys had just their second game of the season without a single takeaway; the Eagles fumbled three times, but recovered each one of them. The Cowboys also forced just two punts in the first three quarters.
Much of that has to do with the Eagles’ offensive approach. We detailed the specifics of this scheme last time around, but a big part of this offense’s success is the general aggression with which they play, most of it centered around the infamous tush push. The Eagles know that any play with two yards or less for the first down marker is an easy conversion with how successful the tush push is, regardless of what down it is.
In the last game between these two teams, the Eagles ran the tush push four times. The first resulted in a first down on fourth and one; the second was a touchdown on third and goal from the one; the third was a conversion on third and one; and the last one actually came on first down on the Eagles’ own one-yard line, but it did pick them up two yards. Every time the Eagles ran this play, they saw some level of success.
So what’s the secret to stopping the tush push? It’s a trick question, because there is no stopping it. The Eagles have one of the very best offensive lines in football and a quarterback capable of executing it to a high degree. It’s a cheat code of a play, which is why some in the league want it banned.
So while there’s no way of actually stopping the play once the Eagles line up to run it, there is still a way to stop it: don’t let the Eagles get into those situations in the first place. It’s common sense, really: any time a defense is facing a team known for aggression on fourth and manageable, the goal has to be eliminating all fourth and manageable situations.
What that means is the defense needs to generate stops on the early downs, ideally creating negative plays to get the Eagles into a spot where they can’t simply play for a fourth and short. This approach would require a shift in how Dan Quinn operates, as his scheme has been mostly built around playing for third down:
Interesting nugget I just found on the #Cowboys defense.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 5, 2023
In total, the Cowboys disguise their coverage at the 10th lowest rate. However, when looking at just 3rd/4th down, DAL disguises its coverage at the 2nd-highest rate.
Quinn’s MO has been to present the offense with simpler looks on early downs and just win with talent, setting up high leverage third downs. At this point, Quinn pulls out all the stops, with tons of simulated pressures, stunts, blitzes, and disguised coverages.
For the most part, it’s worked well for the Cowboys, but the Eagles are a different beast. Winning on early downs against this offense is the secret to beating them. The Cowboys seemingly tried to attack the Eagles in this way the first time they faced them this year.
In totality, the #Cowboys have blitzed at a ~26% rate on 1st down, ~32% on 2nd down and ~32% on 3rd/4th downs.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 6, 2023
However, against PHI in Week 9, DAL utilized at a ~34% rate on 1st down, ~35% on 2nd and ~18% on 3rd/4th.
Will we see a similar gameplan this weekend?
The Cowboys changed things up, blitzing far more on early downs than they normally do. The results were actually fairly impressive: the Eagles gained two yards or less on 12 of their 24 first down plays and on 10 of their 18 second down plays. The issue came on third and fourth down, where the Eagles posted a sky high 62.5% success rate and averaged a ridiculous 0.596 EPA/play.
Coming into that last game, the Eagles offense had been playing well apart from their turnover penchant, ranking fourth in EPA/play. Since then, though, they’ve taken a step back, ranking 12th in EPA/play in their three games since beating Dallas. They’ve been less careless with the football, but Hurts is still one of the most sacked quarterbacks. In fact, he has the highest rate of sacks that are the quarterback’s fault.
The Cowboys seem to have figured out the best way to defend against this Eagles offense, even if they didn’t deliver on that plan in the last game. However, they shut out the Eagles offense in the fourth quarter of that game, forcing three-and-outs on all three of their drives. If they can bottle that and replicate it for a full game, and perhaps generate a takeaway or two, the Cowboys can have success against an Eagles offense that isn’t flying as high as they were last time these teams met.