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Solid ‘backing -- the Cowboys’ fast, talented group could make it hard on the Eagles’ run game

The Eagles' linebacking group, juggled this week, is much less accomplished.

Dallas Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch (55) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate a tackle against the Detroit Lions on September 30, 2018, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Jim Cowsert/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)
Dallas Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch (55) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate a tackle against the Detroit Lions on September 30, 2018, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Jim Cowsert/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)Read moreTNS

The most vivid contrast between the Eagles and the host Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night might be at linebacker.

Dallas has two of the very best young linebackers in the game, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, complemented by solid veteran Sean Lee when the Cowboys play their base defense.

The Eagles will be missing their best linebacker, Nigel Bradham, who suffered an ankle injury last Sunday at Minnesota. Zach Brown, the starter next to Bradham, was released Monday, partly because he wasn’t playing well, and partly, indications are, because he wasn’t considered a good teammate.

This means Kamu Grugier-Hill will get his first start of the season, as Grugier-Hill works his way back from a knee injury suffered in training camp. He’ll be flanked by Nate Gerry, who has two starts this season, five in his three-year career.

In base, they apparently will be joined by undrafted rookie T.J. Edwards, who played the first dozen defensive snaps of his career over the last two weeks.

The Eagles are going to want to run the ball, on the road against a defense that has allowed just five touchdown passes this season. Vander Esch and Smith, especially, complicate the achievement of that goal.

“They’re great players. They’re going to sniff things out. They make a lot of plays, they fly around,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said.

“This isn’t a game where, just kind of taking care of the first level, you’re going to have a successful run day; you’ve really got to make sure you’re accounting and getting up to the second level, if you’re going to have any success running the ball, for sure,” he said.

Kelce said the Dallas defensive front sets the linebackers up for success.

“You can try and do some things schematically [against them], but they do a good job, for those guys. They’re going to slant and angle the front, they’re going to try and make sure that they’re making it difficult for you to get on the linebackers,” Kelce said.

Right guard Brandon Brooks conceded that the Cowboys linebackers are fast and “they play downhill, too,” but he said that shouldn’t keep the Eagles from doing what they need to do.

“Same mentality, no matter who’s playing,” Brooks said. “What you have to do doesn’t change. I think one of the biggest things is, do what you do well. Nobody should ever dictate to you what you do, because of what they do. You’re trying to dictate to the defense.”

The 3-3 Cowboys, like the 3-3 Eagles, entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations, and like the Eagles, they have struggled more than their fans expected – they go into Sunday night’s game having lost three in a row.

There has been a bit of grumbling that Vander Esch, in just his second NFL season, and Smith haven’t quite played up to their billing as sideline-to-sideline havoc-wreakers.

Dallas opponents average 4.2 yards per carry, 16th in the league. Pro Football Focus, which gave Vander Esch an overall grade of 85.7 for his outstanding rookie season, has him at 62.9 through six games this year.

The difference is in his run-game ranking, which has slipped from 82.1 to 44.5. Smith has gone from 84.5 overall to 59.2, but in his case, the problem has been pass coverage -- 40.1 this season compared with 80.6 in 2018.

“There’s times when they’ve been gashed early” by the run, Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Whenever that happens, it’ll stop a lot of their slanting and a lot of their stunts that they do.”

The apparent disparity in linebacking talent speaks to the difference in defensive schemes. In Jim Schwartz’s Eagles setup, the linebackers are the least important group – the pass-rushers up front are first, the secondary is second, the linebackers are the third priority when it comes to building the roster.

The Dallas scheme, though, runs through the linebackers.

“They can all run really well from sideline-to-sideline. They fit the defense that they have really well. They’re the ones that are in the biggest bind, in my opinion, on that defense,” Kelce said. “The fact that they have good players [at linebacker] really makes that defense go.”

Left guard Isaac Seumalo was among several Eagles who talked about how well the teams know each other, how strength at any certain position isn’t going to be a big surprise, either way.

“We play the Cowboys all the time, so we know kind of know what they’re about, what they’ve got. They always play us hard,” Seumalo said.

This is not true of everyone. Jordan Howard, the Eagles’ leading rusher, with 297 yards on 66 carries, came over from Chicago in a trade this past offseason. Howard, who will have to pick his way past the Dallas linebackers, said he has played the Cowboys exactly once in his four-year career, in the third game of his rookie season. He ran nine times for 45 yards, his most extensive NFL action at the time.

“That was like my first game that I really played in. My head was spinning,” Howard said. “They’re definitely going to concentrate on stopping the run, making us one-dimensional. We’re just going to have to keep battling, not get frustrated if we have a negative run or something like that, just stay positive.”

The Eagles’ juggled linebacking group, meanwhile, will have a lot to do with whether the NFL’s No. 2 defense against the run can stop or slow Ezekiel Elliott (491 yards on 113 carries.)

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” Gerry said. “The older guys prepped us pretty well, in case things like this did happen. I’ve been playing under Nigel, this is my third year now. I’ve learned a lot from him. I should be able to bring to the table what he can bring to the table.”

Gerry said he isn’t worried about Edwards, in what shapes up to be the rookie’s most extensive NFL action.

“He’s a good player. He’s way ahead of all the rookies that have come through [during Gerry’s tenure], including myself,” Gerry said. “He’s a smart guy, but he’s also a playmaker. … Obviously, it’ll be nice to finally have him out there.”