The final line last week read: This could get ugly.
Well, it was ugly.
This could fall under the same category.
The Eagles squirmed to a 28-23 victory over Dallas a month ago. The Eagles’ defense, now a far more tired unit than originally faced Dallas, will surely be squirming again having to face CeeDee Lamb. He torched the Eagles for 11 receptions on 16 targets for 191 yards receiving the first time these teams met—though, the Eagles kept him out of the end zone.
Does seeing Lamb a second time provide any advantages? What was learned?
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting around him, too,” Eagles’ defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “He had a lot of catch and run yards on us, underneath stuff and catch and run stuff. Make sure there’s bodies underneath that can help us. We did a good job overall in terms of limiting them in the red zone and keeping points off the board, but we’ve got to do a better job earlier and just get around him a little bit more.”
Against San Francisco, linebacker Nicholas Morrow literally bouncing off Deebo Samuel on his catch-and-burn 48-yard third-quarter touchdown. Morrow was actually in a position to make the play. He had Samuel lined up and did not deliver.
Missed tackles was an ongoing narrative after the 42-19 San Francisco debacle. It was an area Desai addressed with the media this week. Part of that was the 49ers out scheming the Eagles. Niners’ coach Kyle Shanahan did a good job on the Eagles’ coach staff and Nick Sirianni, who openly admitted he was outcoached.
Shanahan managed to get his skill players out in space, leaving the Eagles’ dubious second- and third-tier defense terribly exposed. When Morrow came barreling down on Sweeney, there was no one else around him after he missed the tackle.
If the Eagles let Lamb loose without swarming, they could face the same problems this Sunday against Dallas.
“They did a good job of scheming up some space plays, and I’ve got to do a better job of putting our guys in position to get tighter in corralling those areas,” Desai admitted. “It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting those guys in that position to get tighter when they’re trying to make it the space game on different levels.
“I think the effort at all levels, I’ve got to improve. I think every player knows we’ve all got to improve from an execution standpoint everything too. I’ve got to be able to help them also.”
The Eagles sacked Prescott five times for 41 yards in their first game, though the Cowboys’ veteran stung them for 374 yards passing, completing 29 of 44 and three touchdowns.
The other looming concern in keeping the Dallas offense off the field is maintaining drives offensively. The analytics show anytime a team faces a top-10 defense, as the Eagles did last year against a San Francisco team that ranks No. 6 in opponent yards per play, their offense sags the following week. The Cowboys’ defense ranks No. 4 in the NFL in sack percentage, and No. 5 overall in opponent yards per play.
The Eagles’ defense is ranked No. 29 in red zone scoring percentage (68.29%) and dead last in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (47.27%), which has gotten worse over their last three games (58%).
Situational football with Lamb in the red zone is a high priority. With the Eagle’ flagging ability to defend that area of the field, Lamb and the Cowboys pose big trouble.
“It’s a high focus, and it’s going to get even higher,” Desai said. “We’ve got to do a better job as a staff and coaches and myself leading the staff in those areas. And we will. We will do a better job there.
“It’s about being more consistent for longer. The last few trips down into the red zone, we’ve gotten them to third down. Then we’ve lost on third down. We’ve got to just do better and put our guys in better position to go ahead and execute down there.”
This could, the emphasis on could, be ugly again.
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.