What happens when you mix a spooked, unsure quarterback with an unimaginative offensive coordinator and a thinning offensive line? Those are the ingredients in the Dallas Cowboys’ cocktail and it’s a major problem. Making matters worse, the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and their buzzsaw front four gets to exploit these weaknesses in front of a raucous home crowd under the bright lights of prime time football.
I often make the case that the Eagles rack up pressures and hits but not sacks with the same frequency due to the opposing offenses’ gameplan. Per Pro Football Focus, Only one quarterback has had a time-to-throw slower than an average of 2.40 seconds against the Eagles’ defense. That quarterback was Blake Bortles (2.66). He was sacked four times.
Fighting in the other corner, weighing in at a league leading 10.5% allowed sack rate, are the the Cowboys. They’re battling with a number of issues along their offensive line that has led to that ballooning number.
The last meaningful win for the Cowboys over the Eagles was Week 8 in 2016. Their starting lineup along the line, from left-to-right:
Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free
Entering their first matchup this year, the line-up will look something like:
Tyron Smith, Xavier Su’a-Filo (?), Joe Looney, Zack Martin, La’el Collins
I count four downgrades: Free to Collins, Frederick to Looney, Leary to whoever, and Smith is two years older and beat up (still pretty doggone good though). That’s a far cry from what is often touted as one of the best units in the league. But not all of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of the offensive line.
Dak Prescott is in the trenches of a mental war. He’s hesitant and seemingly hopeless under the weight of the pressure mounting up around him. His gun refuses to come out of its holster and he doesn’t trust anything. Prescott is the 37th slowest time-to-throw quarterback in the league, coming in at a sloth-like 2.83 seconds.
Even with reinforcements arriving in the form of wide receiver Amari Cooper, Prescott’s average time-to-throw in the loss to the Tennessee Titans was still a slow 2.78. So how do you exploit this if you’re Jim Schwartz?
Weeks ago I broke down a method that Schwartz uses when constructing his rush plan.
“We didn’t look at your stances, we didn’t look at the individual techniques or anything else because it didn’t have as much to do with [the offensive line] as it did that quarterback.
What we wanted to see is where is the quarterback? Because it didn’t matter if you could beat the offensive tackle on an outside move if the ball wasn’t there, if the quarterback wasn’t there. We started talkin’ a little bit more about rushing spots and rushing a quarterback rather than rushing protections and individual techniques of offensive linemen. And lookin’ and sayin’, ‘if this guy escapes where is he going?’” - Jim Schwartz
When watching Prescott, there’s a clear tendency. Against defensive line “games”, he will drop his eyes and dart into the space the opening action of the stunt creates. Amplifying the impact of this tendency is his footwork, which gets out of whack when he moves within the pocket. This leads to him not being ready to throw.
I spoke about this with Mark Schofield on The QB Scho Show on the Bleeding Green Nation podcast network, you can listen to that here, and he also wrote about this flaw in Prescott’s game for Big Blue View.
“Many times the quarterback himself plays a big role in a sack, whether by putting himself in harm’s way or failing to get the ball out on time within the structure of the play. This third quarter sack from the Panthers is an example of a QB running (or in this case, climbing) into pressure.”
Simply put, Prescott invites pressure. Per Sports Info Solutions the Eagles are getting 30% hurries/sacks with four man rushes. They don’t need to blitz Prescott. They can stunt any which way, especially to his ball-hand side, and let him come to them like a moth to a flame.
The other key to accumulating sacks is anticipating the weakside play-action boot and playing disciplined football against it. Last year in Week 11 Derek Barnett did this and it resulted in a sack. Teams that have a plan for that action have been able to get similar results.
Schwartz shouldn’t shy away entirely from bringing the blitz though, as the Cowboys have shown some weakness in picking up delayed blitzes and defensive backs in pass protection. He had a creative rush plan that bore fruit against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8 and if it hits early for him, he might start to bring some serious heat.
He also had some success overloading Bortles’ ball-hand side with blitzes, which the Jaguars also utilized against the Cowboys and Prescott.
The best part for Schwartz is that he likely doesn’t have to do much of anything different with his coverage schemes. Yes, he can add cone brackets like he did against Odell Beckham Jr. to combat isolation concepts to Cooper, but Prescott has lost the battle against cover 1 and cover 3 this year. Per Sports Info Solutions, Prescott is 30th EPA per attempt and 35th in positive play rate (40%) against those staple Eagles’ coverage deployments.
Unless Prescott and Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan change their stripes, which they couldn’t manage coming out of a bye against the Titans, this looks like a slam dunk for the defense. Cooper brings a new, enticing element, but on the whole Prescott is who he is and the Eagles front four is in a prime spot to take over the game.