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Crunching The Numbers: Week 14

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Will the Eagles avenge their Week 10 loss to a red-hot Cowboys team?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another installment of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly, stats-based game preview I do for Bleeding Green Nation. For more about the stats I use (and why I use them) to make my “armchair coach” observations, check out an archive of previous posts in this series here.

Week 13 In Hindsight

It took 12 games, but the Eagles finally have consecutive wins. Granted, it came against a Washington team hit by the injury bug worse than the Eagles, but a win is a win. There were things to like and criticize on both offense and defense.

Offensively, this was probably their most consistent performance, which is an incredibly low bar to clear in 2018. It still had its fair share of hiccups - the play in the red zone was hit or miss (or picked) and they tried as hard as they could to turn the ball over on that first scoring drive. I was very pleased with the overall gameplan: a heavy dose of the running game, quick passes, and a sprinkling of play-action strikes down the field (those weren’t always on target but the opportunities were there). All of that led to their second-highest scoring game of the year, and it was also coincidentally closely aligned with my suggestions from last week’s post.

I’m not sure how much to read into the defensive performance. Obviously holding a team to 29 yards in a half is excellent production, but they were playing against a banged up offensive line trying to protect Mark Sanchez, who was a free agent just a few weeks ago. Schwartz didn’t blitz as much as I would have liked, instead opting to rush 4 and let the secondary play cleanup with the short passing game. It worked, but it was also risky, in my opinion: 1 crisp route and 1 missed tackle, and suddenly you have Jamison Crowder or Jordan Reed off to the races. I think when you’re playing against a third string quarterback you bring more heat and refuse to let him get comfortable. But that’s just me.

In any case, they acquitted themselves nicely against a waning Redskins team, but they’ll have a stiffer test on Sunday when they play a rested Cowboys team that’s hitting their stride. What does that matchup look like? Well I’m glad you asked, because I’ve got the numbers right here! Bold-faced statistics indicate that team has the advantage, while numbers in parenthesis are the league rank.

Game Preview: Dallas Cowboys

The stats show that even though the Cowboys have been hot lately, they’re far from a juggernaut. Make no mistake, the Eagles will have to play clean, disciplined football to walk out of Arlington with a win - but the game is winnable. Let’s dive in to how that might happen on each side of the ball.

Eagles Offense

When the Eagles are on offense their main priority (outside of scoring points - duh) should be helping out their defense. This means starting strong and repeating what happened in the Redskins game. It’s hard to trust them considering how they’ve played all season (27th in Y/PT), but I’d honestly seriously consider accepting the opening kickoff if they win the coin toss, which is something I normally hate. But scoring first puts the heat on the Dallas offense early and may sway them away from the running game. In the first game, the Eagles started flat, barely touched the ball in the first half, and then let Zeke gash a tired defense in the second half. That cannot happen again. They need to will themselves to scoring first, even to the point of attempting fourth downs on the first drive if the situation feels right.

The Eagles generally try to get Zach Ertz lined up on linebackers, which is a huge mismatch 9/10 times. This is the 1/10 time that you do not want to do this, as the Cowboys’ young linebackers are blossoming into studs, and it was a strategy that cost them dearly in the first meetup. I think this is the type of game where you bring out some more exotic formations to try and get defenders out of position. I’m talking about things like 12 personnel with both Ertz and Goedert split out wide, maybe some option plays with both Sproles and Adams in the backfield, or perhaps a bit more jet and orbit motion. A lot of pre-snap movement to force the defense show their hand is something I’d dial up for this game as well, which can have the added bonus of slowing a pass rush ranked eighth in the league (7.73 SACK%). The Cowboys may have talent on their defense, but they’re not the Legion of Boom. They can be beaten. The Eagles just need to be smart about it.

Eagles Defense

As I mentioned before, the Cowboys wore down the Eagles’ defense in the second half of the first game. A great deal of blame goes to the offense for that one, which could not sustain drives and forced Jim Schwartz’s unit to play a significant part of the first half. Assuming that the offense plays even marginally better this time around, the defense needs to bring more heat than they did against Washington (the caveat being they stay far, far away from the ol’ Cover 0 “engage eight”). They simply do not have the talent to keep up with Amari Cooper for an entire game, so they need to disrupt the passing game from behind the line of scrimmage and consider taking away the free releases that Schwartz inexplicably hands out like dinner mints. This is even more crucial considering the talent they’re working with in the secondary. Rasul Douglas showed a lot of fire on Monday, and if he brings that intensity next game he needs to be up at the line playing press where he is most effective. They’ll never have the speed or quickness to get coverage sacks against Cooper or Beasley, but if they can give the pass rush that extra fraction of a second to force an errant throw from a decidedly mediocre Prescott (6.6 YPA) that won’t matter.

As for Zeke, keeping Jenkins deep might be the play there. He’s one of the team’s surer tacklers and allowing him to diagnose the play from the back end should help contain the red-hot running back. The pass rush can also help in a backwards way - if the Eagles can force the Cowboys behind the sticks on early downs, it makes handing the ball to Elliott a less attractive option. I’m not sure if Dallas would abandon Zeke the way the Giants abandoned Barkley 2 weeks ago, but he would at least see fewer carries.

All in all, the unifying theme here is pressure. It’s the Eagles’ only thing resembling an ace-in-the-hole with such a banged up defensive backfield, and it might be the one thing that can save their season.

Closing Thoughts

I got a lot of flak last week for having a “pessimistic” outlook on the Eagles’ season, which I prefer to view as “pragmatic.” That view has improved a bit after their encouraging win over the Redskins, but we’ve now come to the last four games and the Eagles still lack that signature win. Well, this is their opportunity right here. Win, and they’re in the driver’s seat for a consecutive NFC East crown just in time to play the NFC-leading Rams. Lose, and the season is likely (but not mathematically) over. While I am personally struggling to objectively see a likely path to the playoffs from here - the Cowboys schedule is laughable compared to the buzzsaw the Eagles are facing - I will say that the fan in me is excited to be playing meaningful December football. If they put a dominating performance against the Cowboys in their home stadium, I could see an upset against the Rams being more than feasible. That will be crucial, because I think they’ll have to win out to win the East (those losses to the Titans and Panthers look excessively awful right now), and that all starts with a huge showdown against Dallas.

Let’s get on a roll.