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Crunching The Numbers: Dallas Cowboys

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How do the Eagles stack up against their biggest division rival?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the bye week come and gone, it’s time for another edition of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly series in which I preview the Eagles’ upcoming opponent using a few select statistics. To read more about why I chose the statistics I use, and to see previous posts in this series, check out this hub.

As always, before getting to the Cowboys, I want to revisit what I wrote about the last team the Eagles played, the Denver Broncos. Philadelphia ended up absolutely dominating that game as they dropped a fifty burger on Denver for the first time in seven seasons. The three big points I made for the Eagles gameplan were:

  1. Be aggressive (if they establish the run)
  2. Use slants in zone coverage and matchup advantages in man coverage
  3. Stop the run and build at least a 7-point lead by halftime

With the first point, the Eagles definitely established the run (197 yards) on the day, and didn’t shy away from being aggressive. They attempted four 4th downs, some when the game was already out of hand, and converted two. While I technically saw some matchup advantages in man coverage (see: Trey Burton’s touchdown) and some underneath stuff in zone, I won’t really comment on it too much because the Eagles were firing on all cylinders. They were trying everything in the book, and it was all working. When you can literally do whatever you want, specific strategies kind of get lost in the shuffle. And as for stopping the run and building “at least” a 7-point lead by halftime... LOL.

My one big blunder was that I predicted the outside receivers wouldn’t do much, which I felt was a safe bet since they would line up against Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Then Alshon Jeffery went out and had his first two-touchdown game since 2014. Oops.

Okay, enough of the Broncos. That’s old news. Onto the Cowboys, who got slaughtered by the Falcons on national* television.

(*Unless you live in stupid Connecticut, where FOX felt enough Giants fans would tune in to show the New York-San Francisco abomination.)

Matt Takes

Now, before I get into the stats, I’m going to open this with a controversial statement: I like Dak Prescott. Not as a member of the Cowboys, of course - when he plays I hope he loses - but he seems like a nice enough guy and yes, he is a good quarterback. On the whole, good quarterbacks are good for the NFC East and good for football, as they make the sport more enjoyable.

As for the needlessly rabid “Dak vs. Wentz” debate, I think it’s a little silly how obsessed people get over it, but for the record I (obviously) think Wentz is better. I’ll admit that Cowboys’ fans’ point that “last season you complained Wentz had no weapons, but now crucify Dak when he has no weapons,” is fair. What sticks out to me, though, is how Dak absolutely melted down last week in the face of constant pressure, when he was sacked eight times and the Falcons routed them, 27-7. Interestingly, Wentz was in a similar predicament earlier this season, when he was sacked six times by the Chiefs and the defense also gave up 27 points.

The difference? Well, the Eagles managed to score 13 more points (even if 7 came off a late touchdown) and were a hail mary pass away from overtime. Additionally, the Eagles totaled 440 yards of offense, with Carson passing for 333 and rushing for 55 more (388 yards total). That’s 88.2% of the Eagles’ offense that day. Meanwhile, against the Falcons, the Cowboys only managed 283 yards of offense, with Dak passing for 176 and rushing for 42 more. That’s 77.0% of the Cowboys’ offense, which is still a considerable number, but nowhere near the volume or the results Carson managed to get. Simply put, both quarterbacks can “put the team on their back,” but Wentz is more likely to actually keep you competitive in that situation.

Now that I’ve preached to the choir enough about this, what should the Eagles actually do when they play against Dak?

When The Eagles Have The Ball

It appears Sean Lee will not suit up for this game, which means that I think the Eagles should lean on the run game a LOT in order to set up play-action passes down the field. The Cowboys are very good at limiting big plays, as they are third in the league with 9.3 OY/CMP. Couple this with the fact that the Cowboys can score early on in games (4th overall at 14.8 PTS/1HLF), and you end up with somewhat of an urgency to push the ball downfield and score quickly. The play-action pass is a great tool to help accomplish that.

This brings me to my next point. The Cowboys currently rank 24th in OY/PT. Every opponent the Eagles have faced since I debuted this feature in Week 5 have ranked 20th or worse in this category. In fact, the average rank during this time span is 24th, and the Eagles have also failed to score fewer than 28 points during this span. It is this stat that leads me to seemingly always say that the Eagles should be aggressive, as “points are there to be had” and so far this assertion has held up. Will the Eagles score 28+ points against the Cowboys? We don’t know for sure, but as long as they continue playing as well on offense as they have so far this season, there’s good reason to believe they will against this breakable Dallas defense.

They should also savor these times while they last. They will face a few teams down the road that won’t give up points so easily.

When The Cowboys Have The Ball

I’ve touched on how the Cowboys score early already, but as we saw last week that feature of their offense seems to rest entirely on whether or not Tyron Smith is playing. If he’s not, this will make the game all that much harder for Prescott, who is averaging a pedestrian 6.5 YPA this season. He is quite simply not getting the ball downfield, making it much easier for opposing defenses to play the run. Since Schwartz has an affinity for two-deep looks in the secondary this season, the Eagles should run a lot of their “big nickel” package in this game, where they bring Jenkins down into a pseudo-linebacker position and bring Corey Graham onto the field as the other safety. I wouldn’t be surprised if Graham played more than 50% of the snaps on Sunday night. Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden are talented running backs, but if the Eagles are in a position to play flexibly in the secondary and challenge Dak to beat them deep, they won’t get much.

The wild card here, of course, goes beyond the stats: Tyron Smith. The Cowboys showed a national audience last Sunday that they have zero depth at tackle. If journeyman Adrian Clayborn can have a field day against the Cowboys’ backups, Curry/Barnett/whoever lines up at RDE are going to feast. They will still have to be careful to set the edge, which is a critical part of the Wide 9. Letting Dak turn the corner would go a long way to neutralizing the pass rush and the run defense, to an extent. I also expect the Cowboys to incorporate more rollouts and naked bootlegs into their gameplan this week, so Graham and Long will have to remain disciplined.

Closing Thoughts

While the Eagles have the advantage in almost every category here, this is still a division game. Dallas is facing a must-win situation as a loss will severely hurt even their wild card chances, since the NFC is surprisingly competitive this year. If both teams play mistake-free football, I think the Eagles squeak out a close one. But even one or two mistakes could give Dallas the life it needs to pull out the win.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

GO BIRDS.