Eagles-Cowboys is always going to be a fun game to study, especially when both teams are competing for the division title. What will it take for the Eagles to stop this Cowboys offense? First off, despite the addition of Amari Cooper, it all starts with the run game and Ezekiel Elliott.
For my money, Elliott is the best back in the NFL. He has great vision, he’s competitive, he’s elusive, he gets tough yards, and breaks off big gains. I know the numbers aren’t quite as good as they were in his rookie season, but I believe that to be more of a fashion of that offensive line and not of his ability. Zeke is a problem for defenses. He is a blue-chip player who the Eagles must stop on Sunday night.
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Schematically, the Cowboys love the zone run game. They try to get defenders in the front seven to move east and west instead of flying downhill. When they get on the move, the offensive line creates seals and alleys up front. Elliott just has to stick his foot in the ground and get north to pick up chunks of yards. That is the foundation of what they do. Whether it’s outside zone or inside zone, expect to see plenty of these types of runs in this game. It will be important for the Eagles' defensive line to set strong edges and force the action back inside. At the second and third levels, defenders must stay disciplined in their gaps and not overrun plays. That’s what the zone run game can do to a defense. If everyone does their job, the Eagles can keep him grounded, but that is often easier said than done.
The other schemes the Cowboys rely on are different varieties of "G" (guard), where the offense uses both the left and right guards as pullers to the play side of runs. This allows Elliott to have large lead blockers out in front. The Cowboys have the athletes to pull it off up front. Dallas is missing Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, who hasn’t played a down this season, but Zack Martin is one of the best in the league at what he does. He’s the right guard and will see plenty of Fletcher Cox in this game. That’s a big matchup to watch in the trenches. At left guard, rookie Connor Williams has been up and down in his first season, mainly struggling with power inside as he makes the adjustment from left tackle (where he played collegiately at Texas) to left guard. Tyron Smith is still one of the best in the league at left tackle. Back injuries have taken their toll, but he is still a force up front with his combination of size and athleticism, as well as technique. Right tackle La’el Collins is a tough road grader who plays with a mean streak. He can be had off the edge in pass protection, but he will get after people at the point of attack.
The run game always comes back to Elliott though. He’s a player who the Eagles obviously must account for at all times. The Cowboys rank fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per carry (4.94) and rushing yards per game (136.9). Stop Zeke on the ground and it goes a LONG way toward stopping this offense and keeping it out of the red zone.
The Eagles have to worry about Elliott in the passing game as well, and not just on screens. One of the things the Cowboys have put more of on film this year is moving Elliott around and using him in the slot to find favorable matchups in space. Elliott will also run vertical routes out of the backfield. This will be a test for Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham in this game.
Now let’s get to the rest of this passing game. The Cowboys have done a lot of different things over the last 12 months to get Dak Prescott more weapons. Dak is not a perfect quarterback. He holds on to the football too long at times, doesn’t always look confident with what he’s seeing, can be erratic as a passer, and needs to do a better job of taking care of the football. His overall confidence and poise in the pocket have been very up and down this year, and he’s run into a lot of bad sacks. Prescott is capable of playing winning football when everything is right around him. The injuries along the offensive line have not helped, but the lack of top-end weapons affects him negatively as well. Right now, the Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL in 20-plus-yard completions (16). That’s what makes the addition of Amari Cooper so important for Prescott's potential development.
Cooper has the skill set to be a quarterback’s best friend because of his abilities as a route runner. He’s one of the best in the business in that area, as he consistently finds ways to toy with cornerbacks in the middle of the route, getting their hips flipped or heads turned to the quarterback before he breaks away and separates to make a seemingly wide-open reception. Cooper can work vertically, in the middle of the field, and win quickly outside as well in the three-step passing game. He is a tough cover one-on-one for any corner in the league. He’s had issues consistently catching the football, but he is a threat on the outside.
While Cooper creates that instant separation outside the numbers, Prescott’s guy for that inside the hashes is Cole Beasley. The slot receiver is playing some of the best football of his career right now and is as pesky as they come when you talk about third-down options in the league.
Beasley is a crafty route runner who wins with quickness and savvy inside. He is a tough cover one-on-one. The Jaguars, one of the best defenses in the league, had no answers for him as they cycled three or four different defenders over him throughout the course of their game a few weeks ago. He will present a challenge for the Eagles' secondary and whoever is lined up in the slot in this game, particularly on third down as well as in the red zone. Outside of Cooper and Beasley, the Cowboys have struggled to get things going, but here are the players to be wary of in this offense.
Michael Gallup, a rookie third-round pick from Colorado State, was the Cowboys' most prolific outside the numbers receiver before the Cooper trade. A big-bodied kid who can go up and get the football, Gallup can win at the catch point and offers solid ball skills along the sideline.
Career possession receiver Allen Hurns, who burned the Eagles in the very first game of his career as a rookie in 2014, was signed to be a starter on the outside. He’s a relatively savvy route runner and is a solid option in the passing game, just not at the level they were hoping for him to be. Hurns is also an important part of their offense because of what he does as a blocker, as he’s often motioned in tight to the formation, almost as an extra tight end.
Tavon Austin was acquired in a trade on draft weekend to be a do-it-all weapon for the offense. Austin was being viewed as a receiver-running back hybrid for the Cowboys entering the year, something he did at West Virginia, and he has the speed to work vertically as well.
The Cowboys, trying to find a spark, have also used second-year corner Jourdan Lewis on offense as well as a gadget-type of player on jet sweeps. He has speed and is a playmaker with the ball in his hands on defense. It helped lead to a big catch for Elliott on Monday night against Tennessee.
I didn’t include any shots of him, but tight end Geoff Swaim has done some nice things for this team and is solid across the board at the position. Dalton Schultz is a rookie from Stanford who fits into that same mold, as does Blake Jarwin, their third tight end. A wild card to watch out for is Rico Gathers, a former college hoops player from Baylor who is an athletic, big-bodied kid. When he’s on the field, he’s going to be involved in the passing game. I haven’t run the numbers on it, but my guess is that he has one of the best snap-to-pass target ratios in the league. If No. 80 is in the game, keep an eye out on him.
Lastly, you have to account for Dak with his feet, especially in short-yardage situations or in the red zone. His ability to get outside the pocket and make plays with his arm and his legs should not go unnoticed.
Whether it’s designed or not, Prescott can make defenses pay. The Eagles have given up runs in the last couple of games to Blake Bortles and Cam Newton, so keep an eye on how much the Cowboys try to put Prescott in similar situations, whether it’s the boot-action pass game or in the zone read run game.
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.