Andy Dalton or Ben DiNucci? Who plays quarterback for Dallas on Sunday night? That's the question Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz is asking as the Eagles prepare for their NFC East rival, and he's even gone back to watching DiNucci's film from his college days at James Madison just to get a feel for the seventh-round rookie.
It's not like going from the mobility of Dak Prescott to the more in-the-pocket style of Dalton, but you get the idea. Dalton has been in the league for 10 seasons and DiNucci has been around for seven games. Dallas is waiting to find out if Dalton, who was knocked out of Sunday's loss at Washington with a concussion, will be cleared to play for Sunday night. Schwartz's defense has an idea about Dalton, having played him in 2016 (when, by the way, Dalton lit up the Eagles for 332 yards and two touchdowns, completing 23 of 31 passes). DiNucci, not so much.
"We were on that tape yesterday watching some of his college film, just getting a feel for him more as an athlete and some of the throws that he made and things like that. Anybody that makes an NFL team is good enough to play, so I think you start there. That's going to get your respect right away," Schwartz said.
"You're good enough to make a 53-man roster, that deserves our respect, just watching him run some zone-read stuff when he was at JMU, our scouting staff has really helped us that way. Our scout, (Midwest area scout) Jim Ward, has watched him since he was at Pitt (University of Pittsburgh). Actually, saw him when he was a high school player. Just those kind of inputs and that kind of perspective helps us. You're right, Dalton does have a good body of work, but we'll be ready, whoever is out there at quarterback."
The defense has been fueled by a pass rush that has been nothing short of hungry the last few weeks. The Eagles rank fourth in the NFL with an average of 3.4 quarterback sacks per game (24 total) and end Brandon Graham is tied for third in the NFL with six quarterback sacks. Derek Barnett has 3.5 sacks and Josh Sweat has added three. Even when the Eagles don't get home, they're putting pressure on the quarterback. In addition to losing Prescott for the season with a gruesome ankle injury and potentially not having Dalton for Sunday night, Dallas has had injuries up and down its offensive line. Four starters didn't play in Sunday's loss to Washington.
Given that combination – the Eagles being relentless rushing the quarterback and Dallas having trouble protecting the quarterback, having allowed six sacks in the loss at Washington and three in the loss against Arizona the Monday before – adds up to a bit of an advantage for Philadelphia.
It's there for the taking. The Eagles, of course, have to take it.
"We are always up for the Cowboys, really doesn't matter who is out there at quarterback. We'll be ready to go," Schwartz said. "They have enough playmakers without the quarterback, even considering a quarterback, that's going to keep our full attention. When you're talking about those receivers (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb), they have got a good tight end group, obviously (Ezekiel) Elliott back there, even (Tony) Pollard, those guys can all make plays. They are not going to change their offensive game plan, whether it's Dalton or Ben in there at quarterback."
The Graham-Barnett-Sweat threesome has been dynamic off the edge, with Graham aiming for his first double-digit and potentially first Pro Bowl season in his outstanding career. Barnett is coming off a game against New York in which he dominated the edge, something Schwartz certainly noticed.
"The inside spin was obviously effective for him in this game. Got a sack on it and got some pressures, also," Schwartz said of the 2017 first-round draft pick. "And it's just a good complementary move. We have talked a lot about Sweat and his repeatable motion and things like that. I think one of the things with Derek that Matt (Burke, defensive line coach/run game coordinator) and Wash (Director of Player Personnel/Senior Defensive Assistant Jeremiah Washburn) have done a really good job with is his repertoire is sort of down a little bit, down in numbers. He doesn't need a whole lot. He's got an edge move. He's got a speed-to-power move, and he's strong with his speed to power. Derek is not the biggest guy in the world, but he does have good speed to power and he sets that up with an inside move.
"You really don't need a whole lot else, and he's been closing ground. He hasn't been wasting a lot of time in his pass rush."
As for Graham, well, he's been supercharged. A new diet has added to his game and Graham has been the team's emotional lightning rod on the field and in the locker room. He's playing with tremendous energy, fighting through a double-team on Thursday night, for example, to sack New York quarterback Daniel Jones and force a fumble that Vinny Curry recovered to ice the comeback victory.
The Eagles need Graham to continue to be great. Burke thinks Graham is one of the best in the league, even if nobody outside of Philadelphia is talking about him.
"I think he's playing at an elite level. I really do," Burke said. "I think sometimes Brandon gets overlooked a little bit. He's just kind of a steady guy and everyone expects him to be there and do what he does, but I think he's playing at a high, high level. At this point in the season, I'd put him up against any other guy in the league from production numbers, rush numbers, sacks, TFLs (tackles for loss), hits (quarterback hits), he's been very productive."
The goal is to continue the wave on Sunday night and send the Eagles into the bye week with a hold on first place in the division. No matter who plays quarterback for Dallas, he will have a target on his back. The Eagles are coming hard.