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October 17, 2019

Eagles vs. Cowboys: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles NFL
101719BrandonGraham Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Graham has turned it on of late, but the Eagles need him the most this Sunday against Dallas.

The Philadelphia Eagles have their biggest game of the 2019 season to date upcoming against the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys swept the Eagles a season ago in a pair of close games, one aided by, well, this, and hold a three game winning streak overall, if you count Dallas' 6-0 Week 17 meaningless win over the Eagles' JV team.

Here are our five matchups to watch.

1) LT Andre Dillard vs. DE Robert Quinn

With Doug Pederson revealing Wednesday that Jason Peters is "week-to-week" with a knee injury suffered during the Vikings game on Sunday, Dillard will be getting his first ever NFL start against the Cowboys. The primary player he'll be facing will be veteran DE Robert Quinn, who has 5 sacks in 4 games played this season.

I was curious what those five sacks looked like, so I took a look. Since you might be curious too, I gif'd them.

• Sack No. 1: Quinn gets the edge on Michael Deiter, a rookie third-round guard. I don't know what happened in Miami that this guy had to play LT, but he shouldn't be out there on the edge at the NFL level.

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• Sack No. 2: The Saints really try to sell the play action here, with the RG pulling across the formation, but Quinn isn't fooled. He gets around the RG, is held by the RG, and still gets the hustle sack.

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• Sack No. 3: The Saints' center snaps the ball before any of his teammates are expecting it, and Terron Armstead is still in his stance when Quinn speeds by him.

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• Sack No. 4: Coverage sack.

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• Sack No. 5: Sean Lee runs up to the line, yells "Ooga booga booga," and gets both the LG and LT to block him, and nobody pays any attention to Quinn, who goes unblocked to the QB.

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OK, so, Quinn appears to still has some explosiveness and I like his motor, buuuuuut it's not exactly as if he's dominating left tackles mano-e-mano.

As for Dillard, I watched all of his snaps against the Vikings. My takeaway: Not good, not awful.

In the context of the game, the Eagles really asked a lot of Dillard:

He entered the game initially in the beginning of the second quarter, got steamrolled by Everson Griffen, and gave up what should have been a sack. But, Carson Wentz did Carson Wentz things, when he spun out of the sack, and completed a short pass to Alshon Jeffery. This was ugly, for sure. 

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Dillard was only in for two snaps on that drive, which ended with a FG, and Peters re-entered the game. After a pair of Vikings TDs, making the score 24-3, Peters came back out with his knee injury, and Dillard was back in.

From there on out, Dillard was put in an extremely difficult situation. Let's note what he had working against him:

  1. Again, he's coming in cold off of the bench.
  2. He's facing not just Griffen, but now the Vikings are also showing looks where Danielle Hunter is rushing off of Dillard's side as well. So now he's facing one of two stud edge rushers with very different styles on any given play.
  3. The Eagles are giving him zero help. No chips from a tight end or running back, and very little in the way of moving the pocket to try to keep the Vikings' defense off-balance. They're mainly just dropping back, and letting Dillard fight or flight on an island.
  4. The Vikings, meanwhile, have zero concern about the run game, and their edge rushers are ignoring the possibility of it. They are just pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback.

Dillard gave up a sack to Hunter, as well as some occasional pressure, particularly on bull rushes. Apparently Pro Football Focus had him down for 9 "pressures." That is a subjective stat, but I counted 7. Obviously, neither is good, but again, context. I doubt a single offensive lineman in the league had a more difficult challenge on Sunday.

And yet, Dillard won far more of his one-on-ones than he lost. In the context of the situation he was put in, again, he wasn't good, but also really wasn't that bad.

Assuming the Eagles don't quickly fall behind by three scores on Sunday (which, you know, is possible), I would expect Dillard to look much better this Sunday, and would expect the Eagles to put him in a better position to succeed.

2) The Eagles' banged-up receivers vs. the Cowboys' banged-up corners, and the Cowboys' banged-up receivers vs. the Eagles' banged-up corners

It's looking a whole lot like the Eagles will be without their best and most important wide receiver in DeSean Jackson on Sunday:

If Jackson can't go, the Eagles are going to have to live in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, where the Cowboys have a pair of super-athletic linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, and they won't be able to attack the weakness of the Cowboys' defense, the safeties, as effectively.

It's also looking like the Cowboys will be without their best and most important wide receiver in Amari Cooper on Sunday. If Cooper can't go, that will be a major load off of the Eagles' reeling corners, who, well, do we really need to beat that dead horse any further?

The focus of the Cowboys passing game will then shift to 87-year-old Jason Witten, and Michael Gallup, a promising young receiver with a career yards per catch average of 15.7.

3) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith (and Sean Lee I guess, too)

When the Eagles had success against the Cowboys in 2017, they were able to run it all over their small-ish front. That changed a bit in 2018 with the emergence of Jaylon Smith and the addition of then-rookie Leighton Vander Esch, who helped contain the Eagles' rushing attack. In the two Eagles-Cowboys games last season, the Eagles averaged 52.5 rushing yards.

"They're big, they really run well, they tackle really well, they're strong," Mike Groh said of Smith and Vander Esch. "Both are capable pass rushers. They do a good job in their scheme and utilize them in that way.

"They have a good scheme. These guys do a good job covering the lineman up and allowing these linebackers to run sideline to sideline and make tackles. We know it's important for us to get these guys covered up and give our backs some creases."

4) Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett vs. whoever plays at LT and RT for the Cowboys

Hey look, it's another game that the Eagles' defensive line should win in the trenches! Against the Jets Week 5, they did. In Week 6 against the Vikings, they got some pressure, but it wasn't enough against a downright bad offensive line.

This week, the Cowboys could be with offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, like they were in their loss to the Jets last Sunday. Cameron Fleming filled in for Smith, while undrafted rookie Brandon Knight started in place of Collins.

The Cowboys showed how much they trust those two guys protecting the edges last Sunday when they fell behind 21-3 in the first half and still gave Ezekiel Elliott 28 carries.

Graham has turned it on of late, as he has 4 sacks in the last 2 games. The Eagles will need Barnett to step up at some point as well. Doug Pederson was asked about Barnett's production (2 sacks) on Wednesday.

"He's doing a lot," Pederson said. "He's playing hurt, he’s practicing hurt, he’s busting his tail. He's doing everything he can for this football team, for himself. You look at these games and the explosive plays have come off play-action pass. The fact that you ask why the lack of production, when the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands so fast, you take two steps and the ball is gone, there is no production, now you have to turn and chase. So that's a lot of it, too. The ball is out of these guy's hands. They know the type of pass rushers we have."

Whether it's a not 100 percent Smith, or Fleming, or a not 100 percent Collins, or Knight, the Eagles must take advantage of a favorable matchup on the edges.

5) And oh, by the way, the Eagles still do also need to stop Ezekiel Elliott

The Cowboys don't try to hide the fact that they want to run the football, which they typically do very well with Ezekiel Elliott. As noted above, Elliott got 28 carries last week even though the Cowboys were trying to come back from a big deficit all day. 

Again, as noted above, whether it's backups at the offensive tackle spots or their gimpy starters, the Cowboys are going to want to run the ball effectively to take the pressure off of their pass protection.

The Eagles have done a great job against the run all season, perhaps at the expense of a terrible pass defense. They could use another strong effort in this game, particularly on the early downs, so they can put Dak Prescott into unfavorable downs and distances.


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