Eagles-Cowboys: Breaking down Sunday’s rematch in Big D
Breaking down Sunday's important NFC East battle between the Eagles and the Cowboys.
A team and a coach with their backs to the wall. The 4-9-1 Eagles need to win out to have a shot at their fourth straight playoff berth. Doug Pederson may need to win out to keep his job.
The Eagles beat the Cowboys, 23-9, in Week 8. But deer-in-the-headlights rookie Ben DiNucci was the Cowboys’ quarterback that early-November night. On Sunday, it will be 11-year veteran Andy Dalton, who hasn’t thrown an interception in 94 pass attempts.
And, oh yeah. The Eagles haven’t swept the Cowboys since 2011.
Here’s a breakdown of Sunday’s game:
When Eagles run
Jalen Hurts has had a profound impact on the Eagles’ run game. They averaged 32.5 rushing attempts per game in his two starts. In the previous 12 games, they averaged 23.3. Hurts has rushed for 166 yards on 29 carries and has 11 rushing first downs in his two starts. Three of his 29 runs were kneel-downs. Of the other 26, nine were zone-reads (for 58 yards), nine were scrambles (for 83 yards), and eight were designed runs (for 32 yards). He is a different kind of runner than Lamar Jackson. Jackson is a tailback playing quarterback. Hurts is a fullback. On his 7-yard touchdown run Sunday, he picked up the final 3 yards while dragging safety Budda Baker. The Eagles had been one of the worst first-down rushing teams in the league this season. But in the last three games, they averaged 5.1 yards per carry on first down. Hurts is averaging 7.0. Miles Sanders had 31 carries in the last two games. His 17 carries against Arizona were his most since Week 3. But he had just 64 yards. The Cowboys own the worst run defense in the league. They’re giving up 161.8 yards per game on the ground. They’ve been gashed for 200-plus yards four times and 300-plus once. To make matters worse, they’ve struggled against running quarterbacks. Kyler Murray ran for 74 yards and a TD against them on 10 carries in Week 6. Lamar Jackson had 94 yards and a TD on 13 carries in Week 13.
When Eagles throw
Hurts had a 102.3 passer rating against the Cardinals, including three TD passes and no interceptions for the second straight game. He completed 24 passes to nine receivers and had eight completions of 18 yards or more. That’s the most in a game by the Eagles this year. Three of those eight completions came on screens – 26 yards to running back Miles Sanders, 23 to wide receiver Jalen Reagor, and a 32-yard touchdown catch and run by wide receiver Quez Watkins. The Eagles’ screen game had been largely nonexistent until Sunday. After not getting sacked a single time in his first start against New Orleans, Hurts was sacked six times Sunday, including three times in four plays on the Eagles’ next-to-last possession. Right tackle Matt Pryor, who played poorly against the Cardinals, is going to need help against the Cowboys’ top pass-rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence. The Eagles used 12-personnel on 56.6% of their offensive plays Sunday. Tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz were targeted a combined 15 times and had six catches for 108 yards. Hurts has quickly developed chemistry with wide receiver Greg Ward, who had three TD catches from the rookie in the last nine quarters. The Cowboys are eighth in pass defense (221.8 yards per game) but last in TD passes allowed (31). They’ve given up two or more TD passes in seven of their last nine games and have just seven interceptions. The Cowboys are 20th in sacks with 26. They had nine in the last six games. Lawrence leads the Cowboys in sacks with 5½ but had just 2½ in the last six games. Aldon Smith, who is the only other Cowboy with more than 2½ sacks, didn have any in the last six games and just one in the last 11.
When Cowboys run
Like the Eagles, the Cowboys have been hammered by injuries to their offensive line. The Cowboys, who finished fifth, 10th and second in rushing the last three years, are 19th this year (109.2) and tied for 21st in rush average (4.1). Two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, who averaged 96.5 yards per game his first four seasons, is averaging just 64 this year. He’s had one 100-yard game (103 against the Vikings in Week 12) and is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. In the Cowboys’ 23-9 Week 8 loss to the Eagles, Elliott was held to 3.3 yards per carry (19-63). Elliott is averaging a career-low 16.2 carries per game this season, down from 18.8 last year and 20.3 in 2018, when he won his second league rushing title. Elliott sat out Sunday’s eight-point win over San Francisco with a calf bruise, but he is expected to play Sunday. His backup, Tony Pollard, had 69 yards and two TDs on 12 carries against the 49ers. The Eagles are 24th in run defense (125.6), but that’s mainly because opponents are averaging 30 carries per game against them. That’s the fourth-most in the league. They are 11th in rush average (4.2) and held opponents to 3.9 yards per carry in the last five games. They held the Cardinals to 3.4 on Sunday. The Eagles held their last three opponents to 3.3 yards per carry on first down. That’s the third-best first-down rush average in the league over that period. The Cowboys are 26th in first-down rush average (3.8).
When Cowboys throw
Andy Dalton missed the Cowboys’ Week 8 loss to the Eagles with a concussion. They’re 3-2 in his five starts since he returned. He had a 96.1 passer rating in those five games, including a 66.1 completion percentage, 10 TDs, and three interceptions. Dalton was sacked just nine times in the last five games and hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 94 attempts. Dalton is averaging only 172.1 passing yards per game. The only quarterback averaging less is Dolphins rookie Tua Tagovailoa (169.9). Dalton has three dangerous wideouts in Amari Cooper, rookie CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Gallup, who had seven catches against the Eagles in Week 8 with Ben DiNucci at quarterback, injured his hip last week in the Cowboys’ win over San Francisco, and his status for this week is uncertain. Cooper has a team-high 82 receptions for 952 yards and five TDs. He averaged just 9.4 yards per catch in the last three games but had two TD catches. The Eagles have had a slew of injuries in the secondary. They were missing three back-end starters last week against Arizona. Two – cornerback Avonte Maddox and safety Rodney McLeod – are out for the season. But they will be getting their top corner, Darius Slay, back this week. He’ll likely spend most of the game covering Cooper. Rookie Michael Jacquet is expected to make his second straight start. He gives the Eagles a big-body corner to match up against the 6-foot-2 Lamb.
The biggest concern for the Eaglesis the health of punter Cam Johnston. He suffered a concussion Sunday against Arizona and still is in concussion protocol, which could force the Eagles to bring in another punter. Johnston also was kicker Jake Elliott’s holder. Zach Ertz filled in for him Sunday on a PAT. But Rick Lovato’s snap was low, and Ertz couldn’t handle it. The punting situation is particularly important because the Cowboys have a dangerous return man in rookie CeeDee Lamb. Lamb has averaged 8.0 yards per return on 21 attempts, with a long of 47 yards. Johnston had a punt blocked last week by the Cardinals. The Cowboys switched punters in November. Chris Jones (core muscle surgery) was replaced by Hunter Niswander. Niswander, a rookie out of Northwestern, has the league’s fifth-best net average (43.6). The Eagles are trying to get Jalen Reagor, who had a 73-yard touchdown return against the Packers three weeks ago, more return opportunities. But he tweaked his ankle last week. He’s expected to play, but they may not want to have him returning punts. Greg Ward has sure hands. He’s just not the home run threat that Reagor is. Elliott has missed 5 of 18 field goal attempts, including 22- and 29-yarders. He has also missed a pair of PATs. Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein has missed seven field goal attempts this year, but six of those misses were from 50-plus yards.
The Cowboys have won two in a row and three of their last five and will have the benefit of a home crowd of about 30,000 fans. The Eagles have lost five of their last six but are 7-1 in the final two weeks of the regular season under Doug Pederson.
Eagles 30, Cowboys 27
» READ MORE: Jalen Reagor shows glimpses of promise, but will the Eagles rookie receiver get up to speed? | Film analysis
Eagles RT Matt Pryor vs. Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence: Pryor is the Eagles’ biggest liability up front. He gave up seven QB pressures last week, including two sacks.
Eagles CBs Darius Slay and Michael Jacquet vs. Cowboys WRs Amani Cooper and CeeDee Lamb: Getting Slay back is big. Jacquet’s size matches up well with Lamb.
Eagles DTs Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Javon Hargrave vs. Cowboys C Joe Looney, LG Connor Williams, and RG Connor McGovern: Cox and Hargrave each had seven QB pressures in the first meeting, though Andy Dalton will be getting the ball out quicker than Ben DiNucci.
Keys to the game
Play from ahead. The Eagles have led after the first quarter just four times this season. Last Sunday, they fell behind, 16-0, before the game was 13 minutes old. They scored just three points in the first quarter in their last five games. They’re 28th in first-quarter scoring (48 points) and 25th in first-quarter scoring margin (minus-27).
» READ MORE: Not special enough: Dave Fipp’s Eagles units, a disaster at Arizona, haven’t been a strength this season
Win the turnover battle. The Eagles have forced five turnovers in the last two games after having just 17 in the first 12 games. Had a plus-3 turnover differential against the Cardinals and plus-1 against the Saints. They’ve had interceptions in consecutive games for the first time this season.
Run success. The Cowboys have the worst run defense in the NFL. They’re giving up almost 162 yards a game on the ground. They couldn’t contain Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson. Doug Pederson needs to zone-read them to death.