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What to watch in Eagles-Cowboys, Part II | Early Birds

Keys for the Eagles on Sunday, links to all our coverage, and much more.

Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott are part of a new wave of quarterbacks big enough to evade defenders.
Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott are part of a new wave of quarterbacks big enough to evade defenders.Read moreCLEM MURRAY

Good morning. This quick week comes to a close with an 11:50 a.m. practice today. Doug Pederson has a 10:30 a.m. news conference. The Eagles have an extensive injury list, so pay attention to updates throughout the day. The Eagles fly to Texas tomorrow for Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

Keys to the Eagles-Cowboys game

Which run defense shows up?

It wasn’t that long ago that the Eagles run defense was considered the strength of their unit. In fact, they were No. 2 against the run entering the Dallas game last month. Ezekiel Elliott didn’t seem to mind them during a 151-yard performance, and opposing running backs topped 100 yards during the next two games, too. It didn’t look good on Monday when Adrian Peterson had a 90-yard rush, but the Eagles kept Peterson to eight yards on his other eight carries. So which defense will show up on Sunday – the defense from the 90-yard rush, or from Peterson’s other rushes? It will be a key to the game. The Cowboys have shown more balance since the Amari Cooper trade, but Elliott makes them to go. The key for the Eagles will be staying in their lanes and tackling better than they did in the first game. It’s easier said than done with Elliott, but it’ll be essential to victory.

Be careful of Dak Prescott’s mobility

Jim Schwartz had an interesting way of describing quarterback Dak Prescott’s mobility, noting that Prescott has “taken a proactive stance when it comes to scrambling for first downs." Prescott rushed for only nine yards (and a touchdown) against the Eagles in November, but he’s proven to be an effective scrambler. He’s reached double-digit rushing yards in nine games this season, and he rushed for 82 yards in an Oct. 14 win over Jacksonville. It’s most dangerous on third downs when he can extend drives, as I wrote about Carson Wentz last week. Eight of Prescott’s 14 third-down rushes this season have moved the chains. When the Eagles pressure Prescott – which they did well last game, with 10 quarterback hits and four sacks – they must bring him down or force a bad pass that could result in a turnover. If he extends the drive, it will hurt the Eagles.

Protect Carson Wentz

This seems obvious, but it’s important to note because the Eagles offensive line has been the key to their past two victories. They’re starting to look like last year’s unit while getting healthier, and it’ll be a big boost having Lane Johnson at right tackle this week. He missed the last Cowboys game, and that’s the side that DeMarcus Lawrence rushes the quarterback. Wentz was sacked twice and hit six times in that game. Jason Peters has been dealing with an ankle injury, but there’s optimism he can play. Wentz moved the ball well in that last game, but he was doomed by a slow start. The first four drives were punt/interception/punt/turnover on downs. That’s why the scoring was so low. He’s a good quarterback in almost all circumstances, but if he has time to improvise, he’s most dangerous. And if he can do it in the first half, it’ll be even better.

A productive screen game

It’s hard not to be impressed by Dallas’ linebackers, and the way they swarm to the ball has stood out to the Eagles. Those linebackers do a good job chewing out screens, but the Eagles must find a way to be productive with screens. They’ve been effective in recent weeks, with Corey Clement using them for big gains. The return of Darren Sproles makes the Eagles even more dangerous. They can even use Golden Tate in the screen game. It was not effective enough in the first game. Leighton Vander Esch blew up a third-down screen to Clement that the Eagles needed to convert. “Their linebackers are extremely fast; they flow hard to the ball,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “We have to come up with some creative ways to try to keep those things alive in the game plan.” Doug Pederson knows he need to call them. They must be called at the right time, and the linemen must block them well.

Overcome the quick turnaround

The Cowboys are well rested after playing last Thursday. The Eagles are on a short week and going on the road. So it’s a major Cowboys advantage, right? Well, the opposite was true for that last game, when the Eagles were coming off the bye and the Cowboys played the previous Monday. Teams would always prefer to be rested and recovered and have time to install a game plan, but if there’s ever a game for a short week, it’s against a familiar opponent. There’s only 28 days between games, so it’s not as if the coaching staff must introduce the personnel and the schemes to the Eagles. And the Eagles have played well this year without the traditional practice weeks. The Thursday night game against the Giants was an example. So was Thanksgiving week. It’s far from ideal, but the Eagles must overcome the quick turnaround if they want the crucial win. Because if they lose, they can count on plenty of rest in January.


What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Carson Wentz prepared for the Cowboys less than one month ago. He’ll try to make this one result in a win.

  2. Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill both are playing with hand injuries. Les Bowen explores how.

  3. Jeff McLane examines how the offensive line has been so productive. 

  4. Paul Domowitch offers an Eagles-Cowboys scouting report.

From the mailbag

I won’t pick them to beat the Rams. I don’t think the advantage the Eagles have on the lines of scrimmage in some other games will be applicable against the Rams, and they have so many pieces elsewhere, too. But yes, the Eagles can win the division at 9-7. It would require the Eagles winning all the non-Rams games – not easy, considering the way Houston is playing – and the Cowboys would need to lose one game after the Eagles. So you should be a Colts fan. I’ll get more into the Rams next week, but I think the Eagles’ playoff hopes would likely include that scenario, because finishing 10-6 will be difficult. Of course, all of this doesn’t matter if the Eagles end up losing Sunday.

I actually like Nate Gerry at linebacker more than safety. He’s added weight and he knows the defense, so he can make that conversion from safety to linebacker. He’s not yet a finished product, but the Eagles are gaining trust in him and he has talent. Does he have enough? He needs to play for them to find out. Think about last season, when the Eagles didn’t consider putting him in there after Jordan Hicks' injury. That shows the progress he’s made.

He fits the type of safety who would make sense to convert to linebacker. The Eagles have been using him as the middle linebacker with Hicks out of the lineup, but he’s practiced in all three linebacker spots. They view LaRoy Reynolds more as a special teams player.

I’m not sure what you mean by Jim Schwartz’s scheme not working. The defense carried the team this season in the wins. The opponents’ average scoring in the Eagles’ six wins is 15.67 points per game. That’s good. They’ve been battered by injuries, but they’ve found ways to remain productive. They had an awful game against New Orleans; there’s no denying that. And they couldn’t get off the field late in two losses. That wasn’t good, either. But look at the whole product – they’re fifth in the NFL in third-down defense (36.2 percent) and fourth in the league in red zone defense (46.5 percent). Schwartz has his shortcomings and I’d expect improvements with better personnel, but I see a scheme that can and does work.