This Dallas Cowboys offense will present challenges for the Eagles on Sunday night, but don’t ignore an improved Dallas defense. This is a group with legitimate NFL talent at all three levels, especially in the front seven. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has been in the league for a long time and is one of the most respected defensive coaches in football, but the addition of defensive backs coach Kris Richard (previously with the Seattle Seahawks) gives this unit some new spice.
This group plays fast, they’re young, and they’re aggressive. They play man and zone on the back end, typically from single-high looks, and they’re a pretty deep group up front. The best player on that defense, for my money, is pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence, the left defensive end in the 4-3 scheme.
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Lawrence can win off the edge with speed and power. He can win with inside counter moves and be effective against guards in Dallas' stunts and twists. He works in a handful of go-to pass rush moves that are all effective for him. He’s also an underrated run defender, where his length and athleticism come into play. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and will be a test for whoever lines up at right tackle for the Eagles in this game, as Lane Johnson is questionable.
It’s not just Lawrence up front, however. The three starters on that line with him are former first-round pick Taco Charlton on the other side at right defensive end – a player who wins with strength but probably hasn’t developed into the pass rusher they envisioned to this point – and defensive tackles Tyrone Crawford and Antwaun Woods. Crawford has a defensive end background and has been a longtime starter and contributor there. Woods has a good first step, so having him line up over the center as the nose tackle presents blocking schemes with issues because he can change the line of scrimmage quickly in the run game.
Like the Eagles' defensive line a year ago, it’s not necessarily about who starts but who comes off the bench as well. Former second-round pick Randy Gregory fills in for Charlton on passing downs, and he definitely has more juice when getting after the quarterback. Gregory has a quick first step, freakish flexibility, and can win with surprising power off the corner. David Irving, a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid, is one of the most physically imposing linemen in football. He plays both defensive tackle spots right now. His combination of length and movement skills presents a challenge for any offense on a down-to-down basis. Maliek Collins, a former starter who now comes off the bench, plays both defensive tackle spots and looks fresher now that he’s not an every-down player. Collins can win as a pass rusher inside as well.
The good news for the Eagles is that Charlton and Irving are out, and Gregory is questionable.
This is an athletic, deep front that can take over a game. The numbers may not play out that way on a weekly basis, but the Eagles must be ready for this group in the trenches because – when healthy – it is probably one of the more talented groups on the schedule along the defensive line.
One notable schematic change with Richard is the additional use of pressure. The Cowboys blitz more than they have in previous years with Marinelli, and they get after the quarterback in multiple ways.
Whether it’s with linebackers or slot corners at the second level or safeties at the third level, Richard and Marinelli appear to be blitzing more often this year. The Eagles have had some issues with stunts and blitzes this season, so it wouldn’t shock me at all to see the Cowboys send a variety of pressures at Carson Wentz and this offensive line to see how they react. That is something to watch for in this game.
At the second level, the Cowboys will be without Sean Lee in this game, and that used to spell disaster for that defense. That’s not the case anymore because of two young players in that linebacking corps – Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
Smith was a blue-chip talent coming out of college and would have been a high first-round pick had he not suffered a devastating knee injury in his final career game. Vander Esch, a one-year starter with excellent film last year at Boise State, was Dallas' first-round pick this year. Both guys can play downhill in traffic to attack the run and are also quality coverage players as well. Lee and Vander Esch had been rotating heavily anyway, so Lee’s injury just makes Vander Esch an every-down player alongside Smith. Damien Wilson is the starting strongside linebacker on base downs.
The Cowboys currently rank second in the league in yards per carry (3.57) and have only allowed 17 runs of 10-plus yards (which ranks third in the NFL). Their linebackers have a lot to do with those numbers.
In the secondary, the Cowboys are mostly a single-high team these days, meaning that they play with a designated free safety and strong safety. Xavier Woods, a second-year player from Louisiana Tech (who I really liked in college), is the free player and is typically in the deep part of the field. Veteran Jeff Heath is the strong safety. He’s a player the Eagles have attacked in the past and I think they’ll look to do it again if given the opportunity on Sunday night.
At cornerback, the Cowboys have a converted safety in Byron Jones at right corner, and he’s their best cover guy. He’s long, physical, and athletic with plus ball skills. On the other side, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown have been the starters, with Brown typically as the nickel corner in their subpackages. Jourdan Lewis, who has moonlighted as an offensive skill player as well, gets time on defense. Their "big nickel" package with three safeties includes young veteran Kavon Frazier in the slot.
These may not seem like household names, but no defense in the league has allowed fewer big plays in the passing game this season than Dallas. The Cowboys have only allowed 17 receptions of 20 yards or more. This is a tough defense, to be sure, and one that the Eagles have to be fully prepared to handle on Sunday night, particularly up front.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.