Eagles-Cowboys Preview: NFC Beasts
Going into this season, the NFC East was considered to be the worst division in the NFL. It turns out, it might just be the best, since the NFC East is the only division in the NFL without a team with a losing record. On Sunday night the two teams on top of the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, meet in a primetime matchup.
Another thing that has changed since the preseason is that both of these teams are now led by rookie quarterbacks, after the injuries to Cowboys QB Tony Romo and Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater (that led to Sam Bradford being traded). As a matter of fact, this will be the first time in the history of Eagles-Cowboys matchups (110 games) that both teams will be starting a rookie QB at the same time.
Of course, this game is so much more than just the rookie QBs. It's just that Eagles QB Carson Wentz and Cowboys QB Dak Prescott will get all the pregame hype. Let's take a look at all the players in this matchup though, shall we.
Eagles Offense Versus Cowboys Defense
entz is coming off the worst game of his young career against the Vikings. He only threw for 138 yards and had two terrible INTs. Luckily, the Cowboys defense is nowhere near as good as the Vikings. Dallas is only ranked 17th overall (358.3 yards per game) and 21st against the pass (266.6 ypg). Of course, the Eagles anemic passing offense is ranked 29th (210.7 ypg) and the team is ranked 28th overall (322.2 ypg) offensively. This is not a team that is going to win with their passing game, but they can win as long as Wentz stops turning the ball over.
Part of the struggles Wentz is having is due to the fact that he literally has no good receiving options to throw the football to. WR Jordan Matthews' 114 yards receiving in Week 1 against Cleveland is the only 100-yard receiving game the Eagles have had all season. Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham and Josh Huff just aren't very good. Expect Wentz to look to Matthews early and often, since he will be matched up against nickel CB Orlando Scandrick, who has been out since Week 2 with hamstring issues. And Matthews had 9 catches for 133 yards, and the game-winning 41-yard TD in overtime, the last time the Eagles played in Jerry World. It would also be nice for Wentz if Zach Ertz could start living up to his big contract. The Cowboys have had trouble covering TEs and safety Byron Jones is beatable.
The Eagles have a decent rushing attack, ranked 17th (111.5 ypg), but the Cowboys 10th ranked run defense (92.2 ypg) is doing well. Of course, teams aren't exactly testing them on the ground (21.2 carries per game), so that is helping their ranking. Ryan Mathews is the primary ballcarrier, but he's averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. Darren Sproles is seeing more carries than anyone imagined, but he's best as a receiving option the backfield. That is where he can do some damage against the Cowboys. The Cowboys defense allows some yardage, but they are a good redzone team.
The Eagles offensive line played well against a great Minnesota line, so they shouldn't have any problems with a Dallas defensive line that is ranked 24th with only 11 sacks, right? We'll see. Pass rushers Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory are gone and have been replaced by DEs Jack Crawford and Benson Mayowa. Don't worry. Nobody outside of Dallas has ever heard of them either. I would expect LT Jason Peters to dominate and rookie RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai to not need help on every single snap this week, against those two DEs. For all the grief the Eagles offensive line gets, they have only allowed 12 sacks this season. By comparison, the great Dallas line has allowed 9 sacks. The Dallas defensive player to watch is LB Sean Lee. When he's healthy, he's all over the field, disrupting the run game and breaking up passes in coverage.
NFC East Standings
New York Giants
Cowboys Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The other rookie QB in this game is Dak Prescott. Dallas didn't give up a ton to trade up and draft him, but he's actually playing better than Wentz so far this season. Prescott has the 5th highest passer rating in the NFL (103.9) and the 2nd highest completion percentage (68.7). He also has thrown only 1 INT in 182 pass attempts in his young career. But that low number of passing attempts explains why Dallas is only ranked 19th in passing (240.3 ypg). Prescott has the fewest numbers of pass attempts per game (30.3) in the NFL. The Cowboys don't normally ask Prescott to win games with his arm and he won't this week against the Eagles 5th ranked pass defense (204.3 ypg).
The good news for Prescott and the Dallas passing attack is that WR Dez Bryant is back after missing the last three games with a hairline fracture in his knee. That gives Dallas a weapon that the Eagles CBs will have to be wary of all game. While Bryant was out, slot WR Cole Beasley led Dallas with 390 receiving yards and 3 TDs. Last November he had 113 yards against the Eagles and nickel CB Ron Brooks is out for the year. That means that the Eagles will slide safety Malcolm Jenkins down to slot CB in the nickel defense. The problem there is that Jenkins was moved from CB to safety earlier in his career because he isn't great at covering WRs. Expect another big game from Beasley. Also don't discount TE Jason Witten. He might be old now, but he's always killed the Eagles.
What the Cowboys really like to do on offense is run the football. Dallas is the No. 1 ranked rushing offense (161.2 ypg). They are averaging an NFL-high 33.7 rushing attempts per game. And RB Ezekiel Elliot leads the NFL in rushing with 703 yards and has 5 TDs. The Eagles are ranked 14th against the run (102.7 ypg) thanks to their stupid Wide-9 defensive set that allowed a whopping 230 yards rushing to the Redskins a few weeks ago. The Eagles better concentrate on stopping the run all game and not just getting after the QB, or Elliot might get 230 yards himself on Sunday night.
The Cowboys don't just have the reputation as the best offensive line in the NFL, they really are the best. They open holes in the running game and protect the passer equally well. The Eagles have the 3rd most sacks in the NFL, with 20, but they will have their work cut out for them against Dallas. DE Connor Barwin isn't getting by LT Tyron Smith and without DT Bennie Logan, DT Fletcher Cox is going to see double teams every snap. The one matchup in the trenches that favors the Eagles defense is DE Brandon Graham against RT Doug Free. Expect Dallas to give Free help most of the night.
Who will win the NFL Rookie of the Year Award?
Did you know that there have only been two kickoffs returned for TDs this season and the Eagles have both of them? Even more unusual is the fact that two different players, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Huff, have scored those return TDs. This is important because the Dallas Cowboys are not good at covering kicks and punts. Dallas is 21st in kickoff coverage and 28th in punt coverage. Hey, maybe this is the week PR Darren Sproles gets his return TD. Eagles kicker Caleb Sturgis has made his last 14 attempts, but Dallas kicker Dan Bailey has made 122 of his 134 career FG attempts. Dallas punter Chris Jones has a big leg, but maybe he's out-kicking his coverage. That would explain the poor punt coverage numbers. Cowboys kick and punt returner, Lucky Whitehead is not a threat.
Josh Huff's Kick Return TD
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Dallas head coach Jason Garrett are both winning with a rookie QB, which is impressive. But neither one is exactly considered a great coach. Pederson literally has no track record and Garrett's record is spotty at best. A lot of that has to do with being considered a puppet for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but Garrett always seems to be on the hot-seat. Eagles defensive coordinator seemed to right the ship last week against the Vikings, but this Cowboys offense is a completely different beast. This will be his biggest test of the season.
This game is going to be decided in the trenches. If the Eagles can't stop the Cowboys running game, it is going to be a blowout. If they can at least slow down Elliott and make Prescott beat them with his arm, they have a good chance to get out of Big D with the win. They also need Wentz to go back to the guy who took better care of the football. The problem for the Eagles is that the Cowboys are getting a few players back from injury and they are coming off their bye week.
The teams have split their last six games, with the visiting team winning each time. That bodes well for the Eagles, but honestly, I just think the Cowboys have more talent on offense than the Eagles defense will be able to handle. Yes, I think Wentz will play better, but I don't think he'll have the ball enough to make a difference with the Cowboys ball-control offense.
Cowboys 27 - Eagles 20