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Beating the Cowboys will be all about third-down success for the Eagles

The Eagles haven't been very good on third down this season. They need to change that Sunday if they're going to beat the Cowboys and keep their playoff hopes alive.

Miles Sanders (left) and Jalen Hurts will be the keys to the Eagles' run game Sunday against the Cowboys.
Miles Sanders (left) and Jalen Hurts will be the keys to the Eagles' run game Sunday against the Cowboys.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Today’s point of emphasis, boys and girls, is third down. The Eagles have not been very good on third down this season, as you’ll see from the numbers below. If they can change that Sunday against a Cowboys defense that is really, really bad at stopping teams on third down, well, the Eagles just might win this game and sweep their season series against the Cowboys for the first time since 2011, and maybe, just maybe, move another step closer to an improbable playoff berth.

Let’s go to the numbers.

Third down is the money down

  1. The Eagles have converted just 37.0% of their third-down opportunities this season. That’s the fourth-lowest third-down mark in the league and the lowest by the Eagles since 2009. They converted just 36.2% of their third downs that year. They still managed to win 11 games, but that was largely because of a defense that forced 38 turnovers and held opponents to 21.1 points per game. The Eagles have forced just 16 turnovers this season, and five of them have come in the last two games.

  2. The Eagles converted 48.6% of their third-down opportunities (36 of 74) in their first five games but have converted just 29.5% (34 of 115) in their last nine games.

  3. Third-and-long has been a real problem for the Eagles. In their last nine games, they’ve converted just five of 52 (9.6%) third downs of eight yards or more. In their first five games, they converted 11 of 33 (33.3%) third-and-8-pluses.

  4. Jalen Hurts has completed just 11 of 24 third-down pass attempts but is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. Against Arizona last week, he completed 7 of 13 third-down passes for two touchdowns and six first downs.

  5. Carson Wentz has a 76.4 third-down passer rating this season. That’s his lowest rating since his rookie season (67.0). He had a 96.0 third-down passer rating last year, including 11 touchdowns and just one interception on 164 third-down attempts. Wentz has thrown just six interceptions in his last 480 attempts on third down.

  6. Wide receiver Greg Ward leads the Eagles in third-down catches with 16. But 14 of them came in the first eight games. He’s had just two third-down receptions in the last six games. Both of them came last week against Arizona, including one for a touchdown (his other touchdown catch against the Cardinals came on a fourth-and-3).

  7. The Cowboys are 29th in third-down defense. Opponents have converted 49.2% of their third-down attempts against them. The 49ers converted just 6 of 15 third-down tries in the Cowboys’ 41-33 win last week, but the Bengals converted 9 of 16 the week before (a 30-7 Dallas win). The Bengals’ Brandon Allen completed 8 of 9 third-down passes for 80 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys.

  8. The Cowboys defense has just nine third-down sacks. The only players with multiple third-down sacks are DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith, both with two.

Just run, baby

  1. The Cowboys own the worst run defense in the NFL, and they will be missing one of their best defensive players Sunday, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. They’re giving up 161.8 yards per game on the ground and 5.0 yards per carry. They’ve been gashed for 200 rushing yards four times, including 300-plus yards once.

  2. They have struggled to contain running quarterbacks. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against the Cowboys in Week 13. The Cardinals’ Kyler Murray had 74 yards and a TD on 10 carries in Week 6.

  3. The Cowboys have given up 58 runs of 10 or more yards this season. That’s the second most in the NFL.

  4. Jalen Hurts has 29 rushing attempts for 169 yards, 11 first downs and a touchdown in his first 2 starts. A breakdown of those 29 runs: nine scrambles for 83 yards, nine zone-reads for 58 yards, eight designed runs for 32 yards, and three kneel-downs for minus-4 yards.

  5. Miles Sanders has 31 carries in the last two games. His 17 carries Sunday against the Cardinals were his most since Week 3 when he had 18.

  6. The Eagles have run the ball 65 times in the last two games. That’s 32.5 rushing attempts per game. In their first 12 games, they averaged 23.3.

  7. Sanders leads the Eagles in rushing with 810 yards. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry, which is the second-highest rush average in the league among running backs (the Browns’ Nick Chubb is averaging 5.6). But 230 of Sanders’ 810 yards have come on three carries. That’s nearly 30% of his 2020 rushing total. He’s averaging an OK-but-not-great 4.0 yards per carry on his other 146 rushing attempts.

  1. Sanders didn’t play in the Eagles’ Week 8 win over the Cowboys. He was sidelined with a knee injury. The Eagles averaged 4.6 yards per carry in that game. Boston Scott rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Corey Clement had 24 yards on five carries. Clement has carried the ball just two times since that game.

  2. The Eagles have averaged 5.1 yards per carry on first down in Hurts’ two starts. Hurts had five carries for 33 yards on first down against the Saints and six carries for 40 yards Sunday against the Cardinals.

Some other stuff

  1. The Eagles are 23rd in takeaways with 16 but are tied for 5th in red-zone takeaways with four, including two Sunday against Arizona. The Browns lead the league in red-zone takeaways with six. The Colts, Dolphins and Steelers are tied for second with five.

  2. The Eagles have five takeaways in the last two games. That’s their most in a two-game span since last October when they also had five against the Jets (3) and Vikings (2).

» READ MORE: Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson expected to play against Cowboys on Sunday

  1. Jim Schwartz’s defense has five interceptions this season. That’s the second-fewest the league. Houston has just three. Carolina also has five. The Eagles had just 11 interceptions last year and 10 the year before. That’s 26 over the last three seasons. Only four teams have fewer: the 49ers (25), the Cardinals (24), the Cowboys (23) and the Lions (21). The Patriots have the most with 59.

  2. Something to keep an eye on: Hurts completed 10 of 14 passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns Sunday on throws of 0 to 10 yards. Carson Wentz’s poor performance on throws from that distance are a big reason why he’s on the bench and the Eagles are 4-9-1. He had a 66.4 completion percentage on 0-to-10-yard throws this season, well down from 74.3 in 2019 and 75.8 in 2018. He had five TDs and seven interceptions on 0-10-yard throws. Last year, he had 18 TDs and one interception.