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Eagles dusted off the blitz to beat the Cowboys and their rookie quarterback

Jim Schwartz doesn't like to blitz much, but the Eagles defensive coordinator used it effectively Sunday night in the Eagles' needed NFC East win over the Cowboys.

Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards (57) comes on a blitz and forces a critical fumble late in Sunday night's win over the Cowboys.
Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards (57) comes on a blitz and forces a critical fumble late in Sunday night's win over the Cowboys.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As you may have heard, Jim Schwartz doesn’t like to blitz much. The Eagles' defensive coordinator prefers to rely on his front four to get pressure on the quarterback and his back seven to cover.

But there are exceptions. And usually, it involves an inexperienced quarterback.

The Cowboys' Ben DiNucci entered Sunday night’s game against Schwartz’s sack-hungry defense with a resume that included all of three regular-season pass attempts and 29 college starts at FCS school James Madison.

Much like he did last season against the Jets' Luke Falk (16 blitzes on 36 pass plays), the Giants' Daniel Jones (11 on 51), and the Bears' Mitch Trubisky (6 of 24), Schwartz frequently dialed up the blitz against DiNucci in the Eagles' harder-than-it-should-have-been 23-9 win.

The Eagles blitzed DiNucci on 12 of the Cowboys' first 31 pass plays, and 13 of 44 overall, plus five zone-blitzes in which they dropped a lineman into coverage and sent a linebacker or safety after the rookie.

Those blitz numbers might not sound like a lot, but for Schwartz they are.

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The strategy worked. DiNucci completed just 21 of 40 passes for 180 yards with no touchdowns. He was sacked four times, including the game-clincher by linebacker T.J. Edwards with 5 minutes left in the game and the Eagles clinging to a six-point lead.

“We wanted to mix up our looks a lot,” safety Rodney McLeod said. "Give them some new blitzes that we hadn’t put on film. I felt like they were effective.

“They started picking up on our pressure by going on a quick count. But the D-line did an amazing job. They’ve been awesome all year. They continue to apply pressure. It was good to see our pressure being effective tonight.”

On a third-and-6 at the Eagles 21, Schwartz called a zero blitz, sending seven rushers — his four linemen, linebackers Edwards and Duke Riley, and McLeod — after DiNucci.

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McLeod ran up to the line just before the snap, which forced Cowboys center Tyler Biadasz to block him, which opened up the “A” gap for Edwards. Edwards, who had missed the previous three games with a hamstring injury, went in untouched and flattened DiNucci. The ball came loose and eventually was picked up by McLeod, who took it 53 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

“Jim called a pressure man [coverage],” McLeod said. “He’d been calling a lot of pressures all night. But that was the first time he called that particular one.”

Edwards had been used as a pass rusher just three times on 118 snaps this season before his injury. On a second-and-14 play right before his sack of DiNucci, Schwartz sent the linebacker on a zone-blitz, dropping defensive end Josh Sweat into coverage. But the Cowboys picked it up and Edwards was effectively blocked by Cowboys left guard Connor Williams. DiNucci ended up completing an 8-yard pass to tight end Dalton Schultz on the play, setting up the third-and-6 play.

“It was a pressure that we had in and we just executed it really well,” Edwards said. “I was able to get the ball out [of his hands]. It was a big play for us. We needed a little spark there at the end. I was just happy to be part of that play.”

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The Eagles forced another DiNucci fumble in the first quarter. A Carson Wentz fumble gave the Cowboys excellent field position at the Eagles 25. But on a second-and-goal at the 7, defensive end Brandon Graham, who is on course for his first double-digit sack season and his first Pro Bowl invitation, notched his seventh sack of the year, getting around rookie right tackle Terence Steele and using his left arm to knock the ball out of DiNucci’s hands. Graham also recovered the fumble.

A week earlier, Graham had a strip-sack on the Giants' Jones with 29 seconds left in the game to preserve a 22-21 Eagles victory.

Graham’s sack came on a four-man rush.

The 11-year veteran said the Eagles' defensive strategy Sunday was “just make sure we stayed in [DiNucci’s] face, especially up front. And make sure we played tight coverage. I felt like we did those things.”

The Eagles’ 29.5 blitz percentage against the Cowboys was their highest blitz percentage of the season. They had blitzed Bengals rookie Joe Burrow on 14 of 52 pass plays (26.9%) in Week 3.

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Asked about Schwartz’s aggressive strategy with respect to blitzing DiNucci, Graham said, “We trust Coach. You never know if it’s a blitz day or not. But we trust Coach to make the right calls. He always puts us in a position to win.”

The Eagles entered the Cowboys game with one of the lowest blitz percentages in the NFL. In the first seven games, Schwartz had sent five or more rushers after the quarterback on just 44 of 262 pass plays (16.8%).

When he had been blitzing, it wasn’t working all that well. Opposing quarterbacks had a 126.1 passer rating in the first seven games against the Eagles blitz, including a 75.0 completion percentage, an 8.8 yards-per-attempt average, and three touchdowns. The Eagles entered the game tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 24, but only four of them had come on blitzes.

On Sunday, DiNucci was just 7-for 12-for 56 yards, with no TDs and the lost fumble on Edwards' sack, when the Eagles sent extra rushers.