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Nick Sirianni’s game plan backfires in blowout loss to Cowboys

The Eagles offense looked listless, particularly when falling behind in the first half.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni reacts after his team was penalized during Monday night's game against the Cowboys.
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni reacts after his team was penalized during Monday night's game against the Cowboys.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

ARLINGTON, Texas — Nick Sirianni was bracing for a shootout.

The Eagles coach said the game plan going into Monday night’s 41-21 loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium was to lean heavily on shot plays and underneath passes in an effort to maintain pace with Dallas’ explosive offense.

“We wanted to make sure we were able to keep up with them,” Sirianni said after the primetime loss. “We knew they were an explosive offense. We wanted to be able to push the ball down the field and hit some of the underneath zones that we saw while also obviously mixing the run game in there and the screen game. You fall behind a little bit, you have to get off that game plan a little bit. We knew we had to score with this team because we knew they were able to score and score quickly.”

That plan backfired. Garbage time stats skew the end totals a bit, but the Eagles offense looked listless, particularly when falling behind in the first half. The group turned the ball over twice, went 4-for-12 on third down, and ran just 18 first-half plays while falling behind, 20-7.

Sirianni’s intentions were apparent early in the game. The Eagles’ opening drive ended in Jalen Hurts’ first interception of the year, coming on a shot play to Jalen Reagor streaking down the sideline and into the end zone. Hurts’ pass was under-thrown — a trend early this season — and Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown picked it off at the 1-yard line.

» READ MORE: Jalen Hurts has one of his worst performances in the 41-21 loss in Dallas | Analysis

The defense responded with a forced fumble recovered for a touchdown, but the Eagles offense followed that with four consecutive drives ending in punts to finish out the half.

The Eagles spent the rest of the game trying to overcome the deficit, which led to them calling just one conventional running play. Miles Sanders had two carries for 27 yards in the first half, but wasn’t called upon in the running game again. Kenneth Gainwell’s 2-yard run in the fourth quarter was the only second-half rushing attempt outside of Hurts’ scrambles.

Sirianni said the noticeable lack of called runs was due to the lack of plays the offense had in the first half.

“The first half, just with how that went, not getting a lot of plays, those [rushing] numbers get skewed sometimes,” Sirianni said. “I know they are what they are, but when you don’t have that many plays in the first half, whether you have penalties that stop drives, the defense was on the field quite a bit and then you’re in a position in the second half where we’re down two scores the whole time and that’s where that kind of comes into play. I know we were trying to get him the ball on some screens and stuff like that, but obviously he’s a good playmaker and we wanted him to touch the ball more. Just the way the game went, we weren’t able to do that.”

The group gained traction at times in the second half, but substituted running plays with screens, RPOs, and underneath routes. It’s worth noting the Cowboys snuffed out several screens and Dallas rookie linebacker Micah Parsons took away a few Hurts runs on zone-read plays by keeping Hurts from getting to the edge.

The Eagles defense had a strong first quarter, scoring a touchdown when Javon Hargrave forced a fumble that Fletcher Cox recovered in the end zone and then stopping the Cowboys on the goal line the following drive. As the first half wore on, though, the group seemed to be negatively affected by the amount of snaps it had to play. Dallas ran 45 plays in the first half compared to the Eagles’ 18.

» READ MORE: Blame Eagles’ defensive embarrassment vs. Cowboys on Jonathan Gannon, but also Nick Sirianni’s offense

Sirianni said it’s fair to second-guess whether his decision to abandon the run in the first half had a negative effect on the defense.

“When your game plan doesn’t work and you lose by 20 points, you’re obviously going to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do the opposite thing,’” Sirianni said. “That’s for after the game and for you to see after the game, but, when it doesn’t work and you lose like that, you think to go the other route. That’s just the nature of this business.”

The Eagles also committed 13 penalties Monday night, which puts them in the league lead for total infractions committed this season with a franchise-record 35. For the second time this season, the defense was penalized for having 12 players on the field. Derek Barnett also committed a costly penalty for the second week in a row, this time jumping offsides to give the Cowboys third-and-3 instead of third-and-8.

Sirianni said the team’s early track record of being undisciplined, especially with pre-snap penalties like encroachment, false starts is on him.

“We gotta get that fixed,” Sirianni said. “The ones that you don’t like and the ones that are most troublesome are the pre-snap penalties. We gotta take care of that, that’s just us being disciplined and we gotta go back to work and get better at that. It’s obviously unacceptable and we’re all in this together. It starts with me and it’s unacceptable on my part. We’ve got too many penalties.”