Despite the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys, the offense all22 post felt largely positive. This one will not be. If you dislike Jonathan Gannon, then this one will be for you. The defense did not play well against the Cowboys and there are a number of reasons why. I’ll try and explain them all and provide some examples of what I mean.
The EPA is not a surprise. The Eagles aggressively tried to stop the Cowboys' running game and they did! The issue they faced was unusual for them this year. They were extremely bad on late downs. Good defenses get off the field on the 3rd down and the Eagles did not do this. Giving up a 1st down on 59% of late downs is not good.
I might be unusual here, but I am not ‘too’ concerned about this game on defense. I’ll explain why throughout the article. I feel like those who dislike Jonathan Gannon will point to this game as a clear example of bad coaching but this game was way more than just bad coaching. Yes, Gannon did not have a good game. But he was far from the only one.
Although I always separate these sections for ease, remember that the two are linked. Defenses have to make a schematic choice on what they want to try and shut down. The Eagles in recent weeks have decided they are going to stop the run. That has worked, but it has undoubtedly caused their defense some issues. The Eagles played a lot of 5-man fronts in this game, and in very simple terms, it means they have 1 less player in coverage on most plays. @denizselman33 charted the Eagles’ defense (great follow FYI) and the Eagles basically spent 50% of the game in 5-man fronts.
#Eagles defense against Dallas:— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) December 25, 2022
31 snaps 4-2-5 nickel (42%)
23 snaps 5-1-5 nickel (32%)
14 snaps 5-2-4 base (19%)
4 snaps 4-1-6 big dime (5%)
1 snap 6-3-2 goal line (1%)
>50% in 5-man fronts was effective vs run for sure, but have to ask how sustainable it is against good QBs.
I am not commenting on whether this is a good thing or bad thing (as everything does, it has pros and cons) but it’s something you have to keep in mind when judging the defense this week.
Let's start with the first 3rd down of the game. If you read my stats preview, I speculated the Cowboys would do this. The Cowboys' offense is really good. They used no-huddle to keep the Eagles in their 5-man fronts and prevented them from getting into the usual 3rd down defense. This made it relatively easy for the Cowboys on 3rd and medium to pick apart the Eagles' coverage and get these easy first downs. This is really good offensive game planning and it’s something the Eagles need to expect to face in the future.
Eagles defense all22 vs Cowboys. #1 A big issue with the 5 man front is that you lose a man in coverage. Cowboys go no-huddle which leaves the Eagles with this personnel on 3rd and medium and the Cowboys take advantage. The Cowboys used no-huddle very effectively in this way. pic.twitter.com/m15h9mdl28— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
It was not all bad on defense. Josh Sweat made a ridiculous play on this interception, but this was a rare bad play from Dak Prescott in this game. Even this play call was really good by the Cowboys, it was just a bad throw.
#2 Lovely play design by the Cowboys, but a poor throw from Dak and a fantastic play by Sweat. Sweat makes this look easy but it certainly is not! Sadly, this was one of Daks only mistakes all game. pic.twitter.com/KvNdtQMuzC— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Another good play! This was a perfectly timed and well-executed blitz from Gannon. The Eagles how blitz from White which means the Cowboys will shift protection to their left-hand side. The Eagles drop White and Reddick and blitz Maddox from the slot and TJ Edwards from the right-hand side which results in a free rusher despite only sending 5 rushers. This is a perfect call. The play should be called dead but it isn’t and the Cowboys pick up a huge 3rd down because White busts his coverage (as he did way too often in this game).
#3 This play still annoys me. Feels like a sack may have been a turning point. The Eagles rush 5 but they get a free rusher. It's a lovely design and call and Gannon must have been very frustrated w/ the result. I love blitzing DBs against reduced splits as it's hard to pick up pic.twitter.com/Y67L9uCH9o— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
The Eagles also struggled with Dak Prescott escaping the pocket and he picked up a few key 1st downs with his legs. The Eagles lineman seemed to lose contain a few times and Prescott made the Eagles pay. This play shows two things. Firstly, I have no idea what on earth Patrick Johnson is doing and he needs to be far more aggressive and instinctive than this if he wants to keep getting snaps. Secondly, another issue with the 5-man front is that you often end up rushing without an edge defender if you drop him into coverage. This can create an easy lane for the opposing quarterback to escape.
#4 No idea what Patrick Johnson is doing here but it's way too passive. Dak had a few important scrambles and the Eagles seemed to allow him too much space. An issue with dropping an edge from a 5 man front is you don't really have anyone who can contain the QB. pic.twitter.com/qO7w6tt0ZH— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
After I raved about how good Maddox was last week, of course, he got hurt this week. I am gutted. Injuries have ruined this season for him and the Eagles' defense is going to really miss his aggressiveness downhill. This is a fantastic play.
#5 It will be a real shame if this is the last play we see from Maddox this year. He's been excellent. This is a great read from him and it's also excellent discipline on the back end from the Eagles to not give up a big play here. pic.twitter.com/2hCWK8Nqch— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Contrary to popular belief, the Eagles did at times bracket CeeDee Lamb in their zone coverage and he wasn’t always open. He was open way too much, but we will get to that. You cannot blame Gannon for everything. This was a huge 4th and 8 and the Eagles have the perfect call for the Cowboys' play, but Darius Slay ends up giving up pass interference. This is just an uncharacteristic bad play from an excellent player. This game was full of uncharacteristically bad plays from Eagles’ defenders, which makes it feel better about the game in some way. A lot of these plays just feel like bad luck and not structural deficiencies.
#6 Eagles play zone but play very close attention to Lamb in the slot (you don't have to play man to adapt) but sadly their best CB this year gives up a massive penalty on 4th and 8. You can't blame Gannon for everything... The Eagles defense was bad but it was also unlucky pic.twitter.com/xnzTbi6MZ7— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Speaking of bad mistakes, this was the theme of the Eagles' defensive performance. They made way too many mistakes in the secondary. How many times this season have I noted how good the Eagles’ communication is in the secondary? For whatever reason, they had a disaster this week. It can’t happen against good teams. You can blame Gannon for calling too much zone and not enough man (which would be a fair criticism), but you have to criticize the players a lot too for making too many errors. This is unlike the Eagles’ defense we have seen this year. I refuse to blame 1 individual for each error because unless you know the exact call and how the Eagles are taught to play this coverage, you do not know who is at fault. The Eagles rotate to cover 3 and this route to Lamb should not be open. Either Slay or Scott must drop back into the deep 1⁄3 of the field but someone either forgets or there is a lack of communication. No one knows exactly what went wrong but it cost them hugely. This isn’t poor scheme, it’s poor execution from the players.
#8 Clear 2-high rotation into a form of cover 3 and someone busts the coverage. Someone clearly should have the deep 1/3. You'd guess Slay but it could easily be Scott too. It's so rare to see this from the Eagles this year but it's a disaster and leads to a game changing play. pic.twitter.com/oPxl4bOofI— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
The other huge play to Lamb was also a coverage bust. You can shout at Gannon for not playing more man coverage, but the Eagles should be taking away these routes. The Eagles will have a specific call against trips and I am pretty sure Marcus Epps busts here. I expect Bradberry to be in MEG coverage (man-to-man on the outside) and Epps should get over to the seam from the inside slot but he is late. It is possible that it’s someone else who is at fault and Epps is reacting late because he can see that no one is carrying Lamb, but this is just bad communication and execution from the Eagles' secondary. They are normally so much better than this and the injuries have obviously impacted the communication in the secondary.
#10 I also think this is a bust. Someone has to follow Lamb down the seam or Epps has to come across much quicker and just leave Bradberry in MEG coverage (man). Impossible to know whose at fault without knowing the call but I think it's another rare bust from this secondary pic.twitter.com/4QmOTlG6aK— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Please do not comment that I’m simply excusing Gannon of all blame. I am not and he had some bad calls in my opinion. I hate second-guessing coaches, but on some plays, it was clear that Kellen Moore and the Cowboys’ offense had the perfect call for the Eagles’ defense. This is great game planning from the Cowboys to put Lamb opposite trips which leaves Lamb one-on-one based on the way the Eagles handle trips. I do think Gannon could be better here and the Eagles could use a cone bracket or something where the deep safety and nickel cornerback basically double-cover CeeDee Lamb. I think they should have done that more in situations like this because it was too easy for the Cowboys. If the Eagles play the Cowboys again, I would like to see some more man looks or at the very least some more cone bracket where they double Lamb because he is clearly the Cowboys biggest threat on offense.
#11 Excellent gameplanning by the Cowboys to put Lamb opposite trips to get him 1on1. This is where I'd like to see an adjustment and Epps/Scott have more of a 'cone' bracket on Lamb (1 inside/1 outside) which the Eagles should be able to do as Slay can handle himself outside pic.twitter.com/NdhYIlRHgy— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
As much as it pains me to say this, I thought the Cowboys gameplan was really good and I thought this was the best game I have seen from Dak Prescott in a long time. Sometimes, good players just make ridiculous plays. This is a fantastic touchdown and sometimes you have to just credit the other team. Except for the interception, Prescott was locked in and made a lot of really good plays.
#12 Sometimes, good teams will just make excellent plays. This is one of those moments. This is just a fantastic play by Dak and Gallup on 3rd down. It felt like all the main plays (except the Sweat INT) went the Cowboy way in this game. pic.twitter.com/oWCFczFRVy— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Before we look at the 3rd and 30 and we all go mad, the Eagles did get unlucky in this game. Just 2 plays before, Reddick has a sack-fumble that the Eagles should recover. As bad as the Eagles were in this game, it felt like all the luck was against them. If the Eagles recover this they probably win the game and the 3rd and 30 never happens. This game was so frustrating.
#13 Speaking of excellent players making plays, this sack fumble from Reddick could have been a game changer. It's an outstanding rush and the secondary does a good job forcing Dak to hold the ball. If the Eagles recover this fumble it feels like the momentum would have changed. pic.twitter.com/LQckMz3OT8— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Right, let’s get into the 3rd and 30. Both of these things can be true. 1) This is bad execution. 2) This is a bad call from Gannon. The Eagles are rotating coverage post-snap to try and disguise the Tampa 2 look they are playing. This means a backup nickel cornerback, Josiah Scott, has to run back to the deep safety position and he doesn’t get his head around in time to stop the vertical shot. If he does his job, he probably breaks up this play. But, this is a bad example of Gannon trying to outsmart himself. It is 3rd and 30. You don’t need late safety rotation. You don’t need to play Tampa 2 and ask your backup slot cornerback to run backward. Just play prevent defense. It’s 3rd and 30! This can’t happen. It’s inexcusable and it cost the Eagles the game. Lastly, this is a hell of a throw and catch too. Nothing went for the Eagles' defense in this game.
#14 This is clearly an error from Scott in a sort of Tampa 2 coverage. It's an execution error, but I absolutely hate the call from Gannon on 3rd and 30. Feels completely unnecessary to only have 3 deep and Slay ends up covering no one anyway. He'd love to have this call back. pic.twitter.com/ZuCRJqpavk— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Both of CeeDee Lamb’s biggest plays came on coverage busts, and I think his 2nd touchdown may have been a bust too. I’ve seen so much about how Lamb burned Scott and whilst he did, it was not the cause of most of his big plays. His big plays were not one-on-one on Scott. If you want to blame Gannon for everything CeeDee Lamb did well, what can you criticize here? Bradberry has Lamb and he has inside safety help yet for some reason he plays with obvious inside leverage and Lamb burns him. It’s bad defense and the Cowboys took advantage of it. I have no idea what happened with the Eagles' secondary this week.
#15 This also feels like a mental error from Bradberry. He's playing outside leverage despite having a safety inside and it ends up being an easy TD for Lamb. The idea Lamb only beat Scott is ridiculous and a lot of his success came from errors from the Eagles secondary. pic.twitter.com/xREjssrRpC— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
As I’ve already spoken about, the Eagles’ defense committed to stopping the Cowboys' early down run game. And they absolutely did! It all began upfront with the defensive line. Two players, in particular, stood out to me. Firstly, Milton Williams seems to make a ridiculous play every single week at the moment. I expect him to take a starting 3 technique role next season and I think he will be able to handle it. The speed and quickness he shows here is outstanding.
#7 The last month I'm pretty sure I've posted a ridiculous play from Milton Williams each week. I'm not sure whether he was hurt at the start of the year but he's been so good of late. I think he'll be a starting 3 technique for the Eagles next year and he deserves it. pic.twitter.com/oWJiL1ha2f— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
But I thought the real MVP of the defense this week was Linval Joseph. My goodness, did he play well. If the Eagles had won this game and the secondary had played well, I am convinced you would read more about Joseph this week. I haven’t seen many people mention it, but I thought he was excellent against the Cowboys. There were 3 or 4 plays like this but I could have posted. Joseph has been a fantastic signing by Howie Roseman and he is a crucial part of their early down run defense.
#9 I thought Linval Joseph was outstanding. The best game since his debut. He was a major reason why the Eagles were excellent against the run and I could have posted a few other clips too of him blowing up running plays. He's been a great signing by Howie. pic.twitter.com/sOmctj1Z6O— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) December 27, 2022
Overall, this has been 2000 words already so I need to finish but I have so much to say about this game! Gannon absolutely deserves huge blame for playing too much soft zone coverage and allowing CeeDee Lamb way too many easy catches. But, this is sort of the philosophy of the defense. Whether you like it or not, the Eagles do not mind giving up short completions. They probably aren’t just going to start playing press man on every snap and asking Slay to move into the slot because that will cause other issues. There is not a solution that will fix everything. When the Eagles did go to man coverage, we saw TJ Edwards struggle to cover Dalton Schultz. Every coverage has pros and cons.
This defense is built on preventing explosive plays and the Eagles completely failed to do this against the Cowboys. The biggest issue in this game was the communication errors that the secondary made and the awful 3rd and 30 call from Gannon. The secondary just played terribly. The injuries to CGJ and Maddox have obviously hurt them, but it’s no excuse.
I may be overconfident in this unit, but I do not expect the Eagles’ defense to be this bad again moving forward. The biggest positive in my opinion is the Eagles now have film on what the Cowboys want to do against this defense. If Eagles/Cowboys play again in the playoffs, I expect Gannon to probably use more brackets to double CeeDee Lamb from either man or zone coverage.
Personally, I really want this matchup in the playoffs and I want to see the Eagles’ defense learn from this game. If they don’t, this team will face some major problems on defense in the playoffs.