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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Eagles defensive scheme

What are the weak points of the Eagles defense in your opinion?

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Cowboys have been waiting patiently, doing nothing but winning, and now they’ve arrived at the rematch with the Eagles. After their narrow loss in Philadelphia, the sense was that the Cowboys would stand a better chance come December, when they got to play host. Now, their time has come.

In that first game, the Cowboys offense was only in its second week of playing like one of the league’s best units. But their performance proved that the 40-burger against the Rams a week prior was no aberration. Dallas easily out-gained the Eagles 406 to 292 total yards of offense and averaged 5.8 yards per play to the Eagles’ 4.9 yards per play.

Dak Prescott, in particular, was surgical: he completed 65.9% of his passes for 374 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Were it not for an overruled touchdown to Luke Schoonmaker or a near-miss on a two-point conversion, Prescott very well could’ve led Dallas to victory in that game.

Now Prescott gets another shot at this defense, and things look good for him to once again have success. Last time around, we broke down this defensive scheme, which employs a Vic Fangio style of defense. In short, that means a lot of two-deep safety shells with lots of zone coverage. Prescott ate this defense up last time around, and he’s performed well against a few other teams that employ the same scheme this year.

Coming into that game, the Eagles defense had been up and down throughout the first half of the season. They came into the matchup with the Cowboys ranked 17th in EPA/play allowed and 18th in defensive DVOA, with their biggest weakness being their pass defense.

Believe it or not, things have actually gotten worse for this defense. They now rank 27th in EPA/play allowed and 21st in defensive DVOA. They still struggle against the pass, but the more troubling trend has been a sharp regression in run defense. The last time these teams met, Philadelphia was first in the league in run defense DVOA and giving up 3.8 yards per carry. They’ve since dropped down to eighth in run defense DVOA and are allowing 4.2 yards per carry; the Eagles have allowed 140+ rushing yards in each of their last three games.

In those three games the Eagles have played since beating Dallas, they are actually 30th in EPA/rush allowed while ranking slightly in the pass game at 26th in EPA/dropback allowed. In total, this defense is 31st in EPA/play allowed over that span despite facing two offenses in the Chiefs and Bills that have struggled relative to their expectations this season.

The Eagles’ struggles at the linebacker spot have only been further exacerbated. Nicholas Morrow has been a liability in coverage, seeing eight targets in each of the last two games and allowing a 62.5% completion rate and a sky high 116.5 passer rating. Morrow has been forced into a larger role due to an injury to Zach Cunningham, who missed last week’s game but is returning against Dallas.

These issues at linebacker led to the Eagles’ pursuit of free agent Shaq Leonard, who famously chose to sign with Philadelphia over Dallas ahead of this matchup. It’s unclear how much Leonard might play this week, but it seems as if the Eagles are eager to get him on the field. Leonard’s play has declined significantly over the last two years, which is why Indianapolis released him in the first place. That said, even when Leonard was a perennial All-Pro, coverage was his weak spot: he’s averaging a 93.8 passer rating when targeted for his career, which is higher than Cunningham’s number this year but lower than Morrow’s.

The linebackers aren’t the only Achilles heel for this defense, though. Their whole secondary has struggled, and veteran outside corners James Bradberry and Darius Slay are in the midst of some of the worst years of their respective careers. Last time they faced the Cowboys, that duo accounted for just under 42% of Prescott’s pass attempts and well over a third of his total yards.

Dak Prescott Passing Chart Week 9, courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats

As you can see, Prescott pretty much did whatever he wanted against this secondary in the first game. The Eagles left plenty of holes for Prescott to attack, and he took what they gave him with little hesitancy.

The biggest, and perhaps only, area that this offense struggled in that game was in pass protection. Terence Steele, in particular, struggled against an Eagles pass rush that still ranks ninth in pressure rate and 13th in sacks. Steele surrendered 12 pressures and four sacks, the worst game of his career. However, Prescott also held onto the ball for 2.86 seconds per throw in that game, well above his 2.69 average for the season.

The Eagles defense has only gone backwards since their last meeting, but the pass rush remains formidable. If the offensive line can hold up better than they did in Week 9, and Prescott can get the ball out a little quicker, there’s little reason not to expect another dominant offensive performance in this one.

Of course, the main area for improvement is finishing drives with points, as the Cowboys came away with zero points on three of their final four drives of the game. They’ll look to correct that in this one and, hopefully, extend their winning streak to five.

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