The Eagles gave up 27 points in each of their first two home games this season, but since then, they’ve played five times at Lincoln Financial Field and allowed a total of 71 points – 14.2 points per game.
Jim Schwartz’s defense plays with more swagger at home. The Linc crowd probably helps, but there seems to be more to it than that – Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, whose teams managed just 17 points apiece against the Eagles recently, have played in loud stadiums before, and pretty much done OK.
If you’re looking for something to hang your battered Super Bowl LII hat on this week, as the Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys and their No. 1-ranked NFL offense with first place in the NFC East on the line, well, there is that.
“It's more than the noise affecting the game. I do think that our players feed off of the energy of the crowd, and in a big game like this, it will be a playoff atmosphere,” Schwartz said, on a soggy NovaCare Tuesday, when Doug Pederson gave the players a day off, after they traveled to Washington on a short week. “Our guys know the stakes of this game and I'm sure our fans do, too. They'll know what time it is.”
Maybe home-field advantage will keep you from dwelling on Amari Cooper’s five catches for 106 yards in a 37-10 Dallas victory when the Eagles visited the Cowboys back on Oct. 20. Or on Ezekiel Elliott’s 22 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown that evening, plus six catches for 36 more yards. (Those weren’t outliers for Elliott against the Eagles, they were right around his averages in five meetings, all of them Dallas victories.)
But, hey, double agent Orlando Scandrick doesn’t play here anymore, and the Eagles’ secondary is much healthier, not that you have seen anything great from the regular starters the past three weeks.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott brings with him as impressive an array of weapons as the Eagles have faced this season, against a defense coming off Washington rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ best NFL outing. On paper, this is a mismatch, but Schwartz has some thoughts on how he and his players might make that less true.
“When we’re at our best, we’re stopping the run, we’re playing clean football, we’re playing good in the red zone, we’re winning on third down,” Schwartz said. “I think you can probably point to each of those as contributing to some of the plays we gave up in that [Washington] game.”
Schwartz referenced penalties that kept Washington drives alive, at poor Eagles pursuit on Adrian Peterson’s 10-yard touchdown run, and at opportunities for interceptions that weren’t seized.
All of that has to change this Sunday, for the injury-hobbled home team to have a chance.
“This last game I don’t think was our best tackling game, and we’re going to have to get it back pretty quick. … When you’re pursuing well as a team, you don’t notice missed tackles,” Schwartz said. He said that on the touchdown run, “we had Adrian Peterson jammed up on the front side, really did a good job on the front side. Ended up folding too quick on the back side, and all of a sudden, he was bouncing out the back door. That’s not really bad tackling, that’s poor pursuit.”
Slowing down Elliott is going to require excellent pursuit.
“He’s a strong, contact runner. We’re going to have to put a lot of hats on him,” Schwartz said. “It’s not going to be one-on-one tackling.”
Also, they have to do a much better job getting pressure on Prescott than they did with Haskins. Washington focused on getting the ball out quickly, and the rookie QB was hardly touched, let alone sacked, in completing 19 of 28 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns. He compiled a 121.3 passer rating, double his mark for the season before Sunday.
Maybe if defensive end Derek Barnett (ankle) indeed returns this week, as has been hinted, the pass rush will look better. It was not encouraging to see rookie Washington guard Wes Martin bottle up Fletcher Cox for much of Sunday’s game.
Schwartz was asked Tuesday how he feels Cox is playing. Schwartz, who doesn’t go for public criticism of his players, went with the tried-and-true defense about how the player in question is contributing just by being there for the opponent to focus on.
“There have been a lot of plays his teammates have made as a result of him either getting extra attention or being disruptive,” said Schwartz, who was not asked if teams generally hand out six-year, $102 million contracts to players who make it easier for their teammates to make plays.
The Eagles turned the ball over on their first two drives in the earlier Dallas meeting, and the Cowboys scored two quick touchdowns. They are not a team to which you can spot a 14-0 advantage.
"One of the signs of good defense is, you play complementary football with your offense,” Schwartz said. “Your offense isn’t going to hit on all cylinders. Sometimes your defense isn’t going to hit on all cylinders.
"[The Eagles offense] turned the ball over a couple times in that game, we gave up two quick touchdowns, and that’s probably the thing I was most disappointed in that game. Hold them to field goals right there, give us a chance. We did that in [the fourth quarter of] this last game against Washington. We turned the ball over, we got a quick stop, got the ball back for offense, our offense went down and scored and won the game.
“And we didn’t do that [against Dallas] in the first game. I think that’s probably the biggest takeaway. Then … I think we had two third downs in that game that we kept alive with penalties, [negating] stops that we had.
“When you face an offense that’s like the Cowboys', you’re going to have to play good, clean football. You can’t give them anything for free. They’re going to make enough on their own, without giving them a defensive holding or defensive pass interference, or anything else that you can imagine that moves the sticks.”