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November 11, 2018

First half observations: Cowboys 13, Eagles 3

The Dallas Cowboys may be a terrible football team with an uncreative coach and a bad quarterback, but division rivalry games have a tendency to stay close in spite of any separation between both sides. The Eagles were sleepwalking for most of the first half on offense, and they're trailing Dallas 13-3 as a result.

Here's what I saw during a dismal first half for the Eagles. Good news — Dallas also gets the ball out of halftime.

The Good

• One snap on the defensive side of the ball, one sack for Brandon Graham. That's how you get off to a fast start and make the Cowboys play outside of their comfort zone.

The pressure and takedown of Dak Prescott on series No. 1 led to Dallas throwing on third-and-nine, and that's not where Prescott is comfortable operating from. He showed it on the eventual incompletion — he threw the ball high in the air to find his man down the sideline, and Corey Graham came and knocked Michael Gallup out of bounds in the air with no chance to complete the catch.

Philadelphia's offense came out flat, but the defense was ready to lay the lumber. Once Zach Martin went down for the Cowboys, it was open season down the middle of Dallas' offensive line, and the Eagles got consistent pressure in the pocket when he was on the sideline.

Graham came up with another big play near the end of the half, combining with Chris Long to bring down Prescott and open up an opportunity to get the ball again before halftime.

(The bad news: the coverage on third down allowed Dallas to pick up huge yards and keep their own chance to score alive.

• Fletcher Cox is just an incredible player and athlete. Most defensive linemen would look silly trying to cover a mobile quarterback in space, but Cox practically invited Prescott to try to run on him on a rollout late in the first quarter. The hesitation prompted in Prescott all but ended the play and forced him to throw the ball out of bounds.

• Josh Adams looks good when he is handed the ball in conventional ways. Stop trying to toss it to him on the outside and pretend he is someone he's not. The kid has some talent but has limitations, so use the former and mask the latter.

On his first big gainer of the evening, there was also a beautiful crackback block from Zach Ertz to spring the play. For a guy whose reputation in that area was poor for years, he has come a long way as an all-around weapon.

(Of course, shortly after I typed this, Ertz blew his assignment on the fourth-down play Philadelphia failed to convert. The lesson is to never praise anybody, it's harder to be disappointed that way.)

• If not for a bunch of ridiculous roughing the passer penalties he has picked up this season, I think we'd be talking a lot more about the season Michael Bennett is having. He has been a force on third down for the Eagles, pressuring and sacking quarterbacks right when the Eagles have needed it most.

The play of the defensive line was the highlight of the first half. Those guys made life hell for Prescott whenever he tried to stand in the pocket.

• Big shout out to Jake Elliott for banging one home from 50+. At least someone responsible for scoring points decided to do their job.

The Bad

• If I ever see the Eagles run another toss play to Josh Adams I am going to lose my effing mind. Stop this crap.

• Carson Wentz's first-quarter interception is probably the worst one he has thrown as an Eagles player, and might comfortably be in the lead there. He just did not see Leighton Vander Esch over the middle of the field, and threw it directly at the Cowboys' linebacker for a crushing INT and return.

It was especially deflating coming off a great first series for the defense, and served to take Philadelphia's raucous crowd down a notch before any time could even pass. It's a throw he cannot make, and if the offense is ever going to take off this season, they need Wentz to lead the charge. He certainly has the weapons around him to do it.

• While Wentz deserves his share of the blame for offensive ineptitude this season, the offensive line play in front of him has taken a nosedive over the last 12 months. And with Lane Johnson out, Jason Peters' age catching up to him was even more glaring during an ineffective first half for the Eagles.

Philadelphia was sending periodic help on the line to deal with DeMarcus Lawrence on the right side, a pretty reasonable assessment of where help is needed. But that strategy relies on Jason Peters not getting torched on the other side of the line, and Randy Gregory was making him look every bit of 36 years old early on.

• Memo to Ronald Darby: maybe try wrapping up instead of trying to blow a guy up for a highlight tackle around the sticks. Tackle power is not exactly a strength in the first place.

• "Sticks defense" has been a disaster for the Eagles all year. It was basically responsible for their end-of-game collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and the Cowboys nearly picked up a third-and-long to close the first quarter because of the passive, cowardly approach to coverage Schwartz decided on.

It hasn't worked pretty much all season. It gave the Cowboys an opportunity to go for it, and if not for Dallas shooting themselves in the foot with a false start, the drive possibly gets extended. Man up and get a stop.

And let me emphasize this further: the Eagles played passive coverage on third down and long late in the half, and it burned them to the tune of a touchdown for Dallas before the half was over.

• No idea what Doug Pederson was thinking on the playcall they ran on fourth and one in Dallas territory. Slow developing in the backfield is not going to get it done. Run a play with a purpose, or just sneak with your quarterback right up the gut.

In fact, Pederson's gameplan in the first half left a lot to be desired in general. Outside of the design on Adams' nice run, it was lot of vanilla offense, and they got vanilla results. 

Consider this: Jason effing Garrett and Scott Linehan were more ballsy and creative in Pederson in the first half. That's embarrassing.

• Thank goodness Prescott stinks or the Eagles would be in trouble. Look at this nonsense:

• One of the signature features of last year's Eagles team was their knack for coming up with big plays and big turnovers to change the momentum of games. This year's team has done the exact opposite, squandering most major chances they've had to flip the script.

This week's culprit: Kamu Grugier-Hill, who dropped what would have been a surefire pick six without any pressure or Cowboys interference to prevent him from making the play.

• The Pederson challenge late in the first half was ultimately "rewarded," but what in God's name are you doing throwing the flag to dispute roughly a yard and a half of territory?

• The pass breakup on Dallas' end was a pretty tremendous individual play, but there's no reason Wentz's throw to Alshon Jeffery late in the half should have been in danger for a breakup. Jeffery beat his man down the sideline and was en route to six if the ball was put in front of him.

Instead, an incompletion, and another wasted opportunity for Philadelphia.

The Ugly

• I am sure wherever the, "Keep politics out of football!" crowd goes during the game, they are just as mad about George W. Bush doing a pre-game interview as they were/are about players protesting.

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