The Eagles, on paper, don’t have as much talent as the Cowboys. The first meeting between the teams — a 37-10 walloping in Texas two months ago — suggested as much.
“They got us the last time,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, “and they kicked our tail.”
But if the Cowboys had played up to their talent, they likely wouldn’t have lost four of their last six games and found themselves tied atop the NFC East with the 7-7 Eagles. The same could be said of the Eagles, but to a lesser extent, especially considering all their injuries.
Coaching, scheme, environment, circumstance, happenstance — all of these variables can affect the outcome of any given game and they have little to do with talent. The Eagles are only 2 1/2-point underdogs Sunday, after all. But they’re home dogs for reason.
Dallas has more weapons on offense. The Cowboys have more difference-makers on defense. And they have the first tilt as proof — not to mention three straight meaningful wins in the series.
But anything can happen in one game and the Eagles certainly have enough to win, and the Cowboys have enough to lose. Here’s a closer look at the film from the first game and how both can happen:
Duh. The Eagles turned the ball over four times in the first meeting, two of which came on their first two drives. The Cowboys haven’t exactly been takeaway machines this season. In their 13 other games, they’ve forced only 11. Forced may not be the way to describe how many of the Eagles’ 23 turnovers occurred this season, but the law of averages would suggest they won’t have as many as they did two months ago.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh: We had the two turnovers early, deep in our territory. We can’t do that. We can’t turn the ball over and give them a short field and put our defense in a bad position.
Tight end Dallas Goedert (No. 88) had the first, fumbling on the Eagles’ fifth play from scrimmage.
Goedert has had an inconsistent second season. For every great block, catch, and run after catch, he’s had a mistake. He had another costly fumble in the Seahawks game last month.
But no Eagles player has fumbled as much as quarterback Carson Wentz (No. 11). He has lost 7 fumbles this season — all of them in the last eight games, starting with this DeMarcus Lawrence (No. 90) strip sack.
The fumble wasn’t egregious. Right tackle Lane Johnson, who went on to have probably his worst game of the season, got burned and Wentz was hit in less than three seconds. But the quarterback has been careless with the football, particularly when he starts to feel pressure.
Groh: I think we’re all very conscious of it. I think Carson is very conscious of it. We just try to continue to reiterate it and do a really good job with his pocket security when he is moving around because he has the ability to slip a guy, move in the pocket, and get free.
Wentz’s other fumble in the first game came when he dropped a snap. Johnson is questionable for Sunday. He missed Sunday’s game against the Redskins with a high ankle sprain and didn’t practice Wednesday. The Eagles are 4-10 in games without Johnson since 2016, although they did win Sunday with Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle.
The early turnovers were bad enough, but the Eagles’ defense couldn’t keep the Cowboys out of the end zone.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz: We gave up two quick touchdowns, and that’s probably the thing I was most disappointed in that game. Holding them to field goals right there, give us a chance.
Tackling was the No. 1 issue. On this third and 1 after the first fumble, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (No. 4) successfully sneaked for a first down. But the Eagles didn’t rally to the ball and Prescott, with legs churning, fell forward for an 8-yard gain.
Three plays later, receiver Tavon Austin took an option pitch into the open field. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick took a poor angle and missed Austin, who ran almost untouched into the end zone.
Schwartz: When you’re pursuing well as a team, you don’t notice missed tackles.
Scandrick was released two days later. But he wasn’t the only Eagles player to miss tackles that day. There were 16 total in the game. On this Ezekiel Elliott (No. 21) 13-yard run after the second fumble, the running back ran over safety Malcolm Jenkins (No. 27).
The Eagles are one of the worst-tackling teams in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Elliott is one of the hardest running backs to bring down. He averages 3.22 yards after contact, which is sixth in the NFL out of ballcarriers with at least 135 attempts.
Schwartz: He’s a strong contact runner and we’re going to have to put a lot of hats on him. It’s not going to be one-on-one tackles. It’s going to have to be gang-tackling.
In the five games Elliott has played against the Eagles, Dallas is 5-0. And in those games, he averaged 115 yards rushing and 48 yards receiving.
Jenkins: He’s one of the best backs in the league for a reason. We understand the challenge that’s ahead of us. We’re not just going to step off the bus and stop him.
The Eagles have long had one of the league’s better run defenses. They rank third in rushing yards allowed this season. But Elliott has owned them. Should Schwartz keep numbers in the box to contain him? On this play from the first game, the Eagles had eight hats vs. seven blockers and the free defender — linebacker Nate Gerry (No. 47) — was able to hold Elliott to a minimal gain.
But the Eagles can’t sell out vs. the run. Dallas is balanced and the Eagles can’t afford to keep a safety in the box all game with their corners often on islands vs. game-breaking outside receivers like Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.
Jenkins: Their offense runs through [Elliott], so stopping the run’s something we’ve got to do. But it’s not like we’re going to all-out blitz every play and leave everybody one-on-one.
Miles Sanders, in the first meeting, was in the middle of a lull. Jordan Howard had assumed the role as the Eagles’ lead running back and defenses had started to key in on Sanders as a receiver. He had caught five 30-plus-yard passes over a four-game span before the first Cowboys game.
The Eagles had tried to scheme Sanders (No. 26) free early in the game. He ran a wheel route here vs. a safety and had gotten separation after a rub route. But Wentz, for whatever the reason, dumped to Howard (No. 24), who was dropped for a loss. It was either a poorly designed or executed play as no one blocked linebacker Leighton Vander Esche (No. 55).
Sanders has been the Eagles’ most explosive player, having produced eight of their 13 plays of 30 yards or longer since DeSean Jackson’s injury in Week 2. He has also blossomed as a runner in Howard’s absence. Even if Howard returns Sunday from a shoulder injury, Sanders should remain a focal point.
He had a career-high 25 touches last week and had his best game with 122 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
Groh: You try to gauge where he is physically. It’s late enough in the year, his stamina is excellent right now. He’s in really good game shape. He's played a full college season now. He's really not a rookie anymore.
Be creative on offense
The Eagles have endured an assortment of injuries on offense. They have new and young faces at all their skill positions. But they must find a formula for Dallas that isn’t predictable.
Pederson: I think it’s a fine line on how much you want to be creative, especially with some young players on offense. You don’t want to get so creative that you’re putting too much in and then it becomes a mental block for a lot of these guys.
The Eagles have had success in “21” personnel. Running back Boston Scott has flashed as a receiver the last two weeks. On this two-back look against the Cowboys, the Eagles were able to get both Goedert and Sanders matched up vs. linebackers in vertical routes. Wentz threw to Goedert for a touchdown, but Sanders would have been just as open.
The Eagles used perhaps their most diverse set of personnel formations against the Redskins. With their top three receivers out, they’ve been forced to come up with new permutations in terms of packages.
Groh: Can be described like a science project in terms of how we’re going to tag a particular player with what personnel group. If it’s that personnel group, where is that guy going to be, how do we get him over there and the other guy over there.
Be aggressive on offense
The Eagles had cut the Cowboys’ lead in half to 14-7 early in the second quarter. Their defense forced a punt and they got the ball back on their own 10-yard line. Pederson called two straight run plays and on third and 4, he had Wentz hand off to Sanders.
Sanders was stopped and the Eagles were forced to punt. Some thought that Pederson’s play calling was too conservative. He said there was a hole for Sanders to hit, but he instead bounced outside. Nevertheless, the Eagles missed an opportunity. Dallas would score a touchdown on the ensuing drive and the Eagles never got closer.
Pederson: I can always probably be more aggressive. I could have been more aggressive probably in the Redskins game, but those are all things that I take away from each game. Am I not aggressive or too aggressive? You try to balance that out.
The Eagles have been successful on third down this season. They’ve converted a second-best 47 percent. But only the Patriots have had more third downs. On Sunday, they converted 10 third downs, but had a whopping 16 opportunities.
Pederson: Too many. … So we have to do a little bit better there from an execution standpoint on first-down to try to stay ahead of the chains that way. But it’s not a major thing that we were focused on.
Play more zone than man
Schwartz employs a variety of coverages, but he likes single-high man defense. If the rush doesn’t get home, though, the Eagles’ outside cornerbacks often have trouble holding up in man. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter. On this play, for instance, Rasul Douglas (No. 32) bit on a Cooper (No. 19) double move.
Douglas has since returned to a reserve role, but he played Sunday with Ronald Darby nursing a hip injury. Darby, of course, has had his issues all season. Jalen Mills has been the Eagles’ most consistent outside corner, but he’s had his struggles, as well.
Prescott has improved as a passer vs. zones. But he can have trouble throwing to spots vs. throwing up to his receivers vs. one defender. On this play, pre-snap motion indicated man coverage. Mills (No. 31) pressed at the line and had tight coverage, but the pass was precise and the catch perfect.
Schwartz: You have to make plays on the ball when it goes up in the air. Good vision on the ball, and good high point when you have guys like Cooper that they’ll just throw it up to, you have to be able to come down with that. I think there’s a pass-rush element to it, too. Take the quarterback’s timing away from him a little bit. And I think there’s some scheme to it also and there’s different ways you can roll coverage. Sometimes you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul when you do that, but sometimes it can have an effect.
Prescott has been sacked only 18 times this season. The Cowboys offense has allowed the fewest sacks per pass attempt in the NFL.
Jenkins: A lot of it is their run game. You’ve got to respect the run and that comes with play action, play action usually comes with protection, and they do a certain job, not as much as they done before, of getting [Prescott] out of the pocket when need be. He does a job of getting rid of the ball, staying mobile in the pocket, extending plays.
The Eagles recorded three sacks in the first game. Defensive end Derek Barnett (No. 96) had the first when he turned the corner on Pro Bowl tackle Tyron Smith (No. 77).
Barnett forced another sack when Eagles defensive tackle Hasaan Ridgeway brought Prescott down later. Barnett has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain. The Eagles had only two sacks over that span.
Barnett is questionable for Sunday. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and company need to generate pressure because the back end can only hold up for so long.
Wentz needs to be great
While the notion that Wentz faces the biggest game of his career thus far has some truth, it is still just one game. A win doesn’t mean he’s headed for Canton. A loss doesn’t mean he’s headed for Camden. (Sorry, Camden).
But he does need to perform better than he did in the first game. He has some momentum after leading the Eagles to back-to-back comeback victories. The deficiencies at receiver shouldn’t be understated. But Wentz has raised the level of those around him over the last few weeks.
While ball security has been addressed, a little more accuracy would be nice. Had the following pass been completed, the Eagles were still likely to lose to the Cowboys. But Wentz must hit on more of these — when receiver Alshon Jeffery (No. 17) was open — than he misses.
He knows it’s probably the biggest game of his career to this point.
Wentz: You could probably say that. It’s definitely a big game.
And it can be won.