I don’t know how they’re going to do it.
The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a desperately needed, commanding victory of the Rams last Sunday, a win in which they piled up the offense and looked like the team they should have been all season long.
It was a worrisome sight, watching Dak Prescott complete 65% of his passes against L.A., throw for two touchdowns and put up a passer rating of 123.8, and it was disheartening to see Ezekiel Elliott rush for 117 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns and add 43 yards on three receptions as well. The Dallas line opened up big holes for Zeke and protected Dak well in their 44-21 win, and given the struggles of Jim Schwartz’ crew to stop mediocre offensive units like New York and Washington in recent weeks, it’s easy to envision a similar scenario taking place this weekend.
Over his last three games against the Birds, Prescott has put up QB ratings of 102.8, 104.9 and 100.5. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been pretty good, and Schwartz has got to find a way to slow him down on Sunday. (Assuming Prescott still plays, that is.)
So how does the Eagles’ defense stop the Cowboys’ offense?
For the season, #DallasCowboys WB Dak Prescott has a 109.5 passer rating with no pressure to throw...— Ron Jaworski (@JawsCEOQB) December 17, 2019
Drops to 76.5 when under pressure/duress... #JawsStats #Week16 #FlyEaglesFly #DALvPHI #NFCEast @PFF #DallasWeek
Given these numbers, the answer is obvious — pressure Dak, but that’s easier said than done, because Pro Football Focus says Prescott has a 95.2 passer rating this year against the blitz this season. However, when Prescott has struggled this season, specifically in their recent three-game losing streak, his decision-making against blitz pressure was not great.
So, Dak has a tendency to do bad things when facing pressure, and if the blitz can get to him, good things can happen for the defense. Unfortunately, the Eagles struggle to blitz effectively and, that three-game losing streak aside, Prescott has done well against the blitz.
Against the Giants, their first touchdown to Darius Slayton came on a 3rd and 13 play in which the Eagles rushed six and played man-to-man on the outside. Slayton, predictably, torched Ronald Darby for a long touchdown catch-and-run.
Notable that Schwartz didn't blitz again on 3rd down for the rest of the game. https://t.co/VwgeOCXqI5— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 11, 2019
Eagles cornerbacks have struggled in similar situations this year and with playing man-to-man in general. They rarely play up on the line of scrimmage on the outside, instead preferring to give wide receivers cushion so they don’t get burned deep. That’s all well and good in theory, but that also allows opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly, much like Dwayne Haskins did last week when he put up a 121.3 passer rating and didn’t feel so much as a breath on his neck until the final Hail Mary.
The D-line, without Derek Barnett, could do nothing (zero sacks, zero quarterback hits) against a suspect Washington offensive front, so how are they going to generate pressure by themselves against one of the better offensive lines in the league this weekend?
Big games from Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham would certainly help, and the return of Barnett to the lineup would be most welcome, but if Prescott is going to sling the ball out in 2.3 seconds every dropback, that doesn’t give the D-line much time to get home. Which means the Eagles would need to blitz to get pressure, only Dak has largely done well against the blitz in 2019 and the Eagles have gotten burned by it repeatedly this season.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The Eagles also have to worry about Elliott, who in five career games against the Birds has averaged 114.8 yards per game on the ground and 48.2 yards through the air. He’s rushed 4.86 yards per attempt, and he’s gone over 100 yards in each of the last four games he’s played against the Birds (he rushed for 96 in his first game against them in 2016).
Dallas has never lost a game to the Eagles in which Elliott has played, and we all know how much Schwartz wants to stop the run, frequently loading up the box to do so. He’s rightly been criticized by some for being overly concerned about the run game in the era of the pass, but with Zeke, stopping him may indeed be job No. 1.
During their three game losing streak, Elliott ran 21 times for 86 yards, 12 times for 71 yards and 19 times for 81 yards. Last week, in their victory, he ran 24 times for 117 yards.
Of course, game script has a lot to do with it. The Cowboys led the Rams throughout, so Elliott ran a lot while the game was in hand. But their three losses to the Patriots, Bills and Bears were all one-score games, and Dallas’ abandonment of the run was part of their problem. In their loss to New England, Prescott attempted 33 passes, and then he chucked it up 49 times in back-to-back weeks against Buffalo and Chicago.
That’s not what they want to do.
If the Eagles are going to slow down the Dallas offense, their best hope is for their players to just play better.
That’s obviously simplistic, but blitzing more doesn’t seem like the answer, and sitting back and letting Prescott have a clean pocket isn’t any better. If Schwartz is going to blitz, it’s going to have to be creative. He’s also going to have to figure out ways to free up his best rushers for one-on-one opportunities when bringing just four, and those players are going to have to win more of their individual reps.
The defense will hopefully be helped by a knee injury to Amari Cooper that has limited him to just 225 receiving yards in his last five games. However, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin give Dallas some additional deep threats and any one of those guys could burn the Eagles with a long touchdown.
The Eagles’ offense is the one with all the injured players, but it’s the relatively healthy defense’s ability to stop Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense that will be the key factor in whether the Birds stay alive in the NFC East race, or see their season end one week early.
How they’re going to pull it off is anyone’s guess.