The Dallas Cowboys enjoyed an impressive win over a tough New Orleans Saints squad over a week ago on Thursday Night Football. The big story out of that game was how the Dallas defense shut down Drew Brees and that high-flying offense. How did they keep Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas, and the rest of that crew in check? It came down to two different things. First, the Cowboys' offense controlled the game for the Cowboys, milking the clock with the run game, and being efficient on third down. Second, the defense played assignment-sound football up front and was physical and competitive in the back seven. Let me show you examples of how the defense came to play.
Stopping the run was a big part of grounding the Saints' offense, and really that came down to two things. First, players like Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Antwaun Woods, and company won their one-on-one battles. Crawford, in particular, was impressive in this game with his ability to set the edge as a defensive end and even hold the point against double teams when he lined up inside at defensive tackle.
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It's also notable that Dallas' scheme lends itself to creating issues against running teams. Rod Marinelli likes to use a lot of stunts and twists up front, with defensive linemen slanting inside, creating the potential to disrupt blocking schemes and confuse offensive linemen. Whether the offense is running a zone scheme up front or a man scheme, a bunch of moving targets can create havoc during a run play, and that can create negative plays in the backfield. That happened too often for New Orleans last Thursday.
These issues have popped up in the past when these two teams have met, so keep an eye on how the defensive line for Dallas slants in this game and how the Eagles pick it up on the fly.
Let's get to the next level, where linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith seemingly improve every week as they continue to play next to each other. Smith is explosive downhill and violently pursues plays from sideline to sideline, while Vander Esch is the more fluid, instinctive of the two and always seems to be in position to make a play.
I said in my preview of this defense the last time these two teams met that Smith and Vander Esch form one of the best young linebacker pairs in the NFL. If you didn't believe me then, you probably believe me now. This is a good duo.
Against the pass, this was a pretty typical game for Dallas. They're fairly simplistic schematically in the secondary in that they play mostly single-high coverage (meaning a defined free safety in the deep middle of the field and a strong safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage). Against the Saints, Dallas utilized a lot of straight man-to-man defense with the timely use of zone. Up front, the Cowboys didn't blitz a lot, relying on that four-man rush to get home, and it did.
Lawrence is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. Randy Gregory, who doesn't start but plays on passing downs opposite Lawrence, is a player Doug Pederson categorized as a potential "game-wrecker" earlier this week. Crawford can impact the quarterback as an interior lineman. Maliek Collins, who is back in the starting lineup at tackle, can win with quickness inside as well. Dallas leans on this four-man rush to get home, and against the Saints the linemen were able to consistently get to Brees. The Eagles cannot let that happen.
In the secondary, Byron Jones really had himself a night. The former first-round pick is in his first year at corner on a full-time basis as he played safety to start his career. He looks like the guy he did in college. He's long, athletic, and competitive, and he matched up with Michael Thomas all night long. Jones held Thomas to just 40 yards on eight catches, one of the worst outings of his productive season.
Long story short, this Dallas defense is talented. The Cowboys are disruptive up front, where they rely mostly on that four-man rush to get to the quarterback, leaning heavily on Lawrence to wreak havoc while Gregory is good for splash plays every week. They are active against the run, where Crawford continues to be impressive at the point of attack and Woods tries to change the line of scrimmage with his first step. The linebackers are playing at a high level. The secondary is young and aggressive and plays with a chip on its shoulder. The Eagles have a tough test on the road this Sunday.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow 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.