There are lots of reasons to bet against the Birds on Monday night.
Brandon Graham’s explosiveness at defensive end and leadership in the locker room disappeared when one of his 33-year-old Achilles tendons ruptured Sunday. Brandon Brooks’ dominance at right guard is gone, again, this time the victim of a pectoral muscle strain.
On the other side of the ball, Dak is back: Dak Prescott, who missed the last 11 games of 2020, ranks sixth in the NFL with 320.0 passing yards per game.
The Eagles are on the road, they’re 3½-point underdogs, and Nick Sirianni, in his third game as an NFL head coach, has idea what it’s like to be the main enemy in the JerryDome and with Jalen Hurts making just his seventh NFL start, to boot.
Look closer, though, to find plenty of reasons why the Eagles, 1-1 like the Cowboys, could leave AT&T Stadium back on top of the NFC East.
Jonathan Gannon’s pliable defense is No. 3 against the pass, while the Cowboys’ passing defense is 31st. The Pokes currently have even more injury issues than the Eagles. And, of course, there’s Mike McCarthy.
1. Cowboys’ Big D is hurtin’
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence broke a foot at practice in the second week of the season, so he’s out. His replacement, Dorance Armstrong, sprained an ankle last week, which likely will cost him three games. Starting defensive tackle Carlos Watkins sprained a knee last week, and he’s been ruled out, as has backup tackle Trysten Hill. Middle linebacker Keanu Neal and backup defensive end Bradlee Anae both tested positive for COVID-19 last week and will not play.
2. Amari who?
This is the most significant subplot this week. No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper cracked a rib in the season-opening loss to the Buccaneers. He played last week, but he was targeted only five times and had just three catches for 24 yards. That’s well below his averages of 8.1 targets and 5.6 catches in his 42 other regular-season starts since he was traded by the Raiders to the Cowboys in 2018.
Cooper’s success against the Birds helped buoy those numbers. He’s averaged 8.5 targets, 6.0 catches, and 91.3 yards in his six Eagles games as a Cowboy. Moreover, he’s been an effective decoy. In Cooper’s two worst games against the Eagles, Michael Gallup caught a combined 12 passes for 157 yards.
Yes, Cooper will play Monday night, but if he finishes this week with numbers like last week’s — three catches for 24 yards — the Eagles’ defense will be elated.
Another thing: Gallup’s out until October with a calf injury.
3. Musical roles?
The defensive injuries complicate things for the Cowboys and their newfound pass rusher.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn cut loose rookie outside linebacker Micah Parsons to add ammunition to their weakened pass rush in last week’s win over the Chargers. Parsons’ ability to rush the passer at Penn State translated nicely to the NFL; he sacked Justin Hebert once and pressured him eight times.
However, Neal — a former safety — was expected to play a spy role on Eagles running quarterback Jalen Hurts. So, with Neal out, and with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch getting more snaps, will Quinn be reluctant to let Parsons roam again?
4. The kids were all right
Second-round rookie Landon Dickerson — a first-round talent who dropped in the draft because of lingering injury questions — debuted at right guard last week when Brooks left the first quarter of the Eagles’ loss to the 49ers. Dickerson got trucked on his first snap — a fact that went unnoticed since Hurts connected with Quez Watkins for a 91-yard bomb.
But Sirianni clearly didn’t trust DIckerson enough to run behind him during Sirianni’s play-calling debacle on first-and-goal at the 1.
As the game progressed, though, Dickerson settled in. Of course, he was playing between center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson, who have seven Pro Bowl nods between them, and that sort of company can make for quick settlement. He’ll be bookended by them again Sunday, he’ll have had a week to prepare for the job, and he’ll be facing a diminished defense, so the type of modest struggles he had against the 49ers with timing, communication, and technique should decrease.
“My play was not up to the standard we’ve set here,” said Dickerson — who, after all, was facing a standard established by Brooks, a three-time Pro Bowl player. Nevertheless, “I wasn’t happy with the way I played.”
Dickerson shouldn’t be so hard on himself, Johnson said: “Last week he was out there on the fly. This week he’ll have a full week of practice and probably feel a lot more prepared than last week.”
On the other side of the trench, third-round rookie Milton Williams has shown himself to be a sure tackler. Graham’s exit should afford Williams more playing time both at tackle and end.