If you think preparing for the Dallas Cowboys on the field is tough to do twice in a three-week span, try thinking of original things to write about them. I'm being a bit facetious of course, but I didn't really want to break down a lot of the same schemes that we just looked at two weeks ago.
I analyzed at the Cowboys' stretch run game, the way they attack defenses with multiple personnel groupings, as well as a look at their Tampa-2 coverage on the back end as well in my Cowboys preview leading up to the Thanksgiving game in Week 13. I would expect to see more of the same in all three of those respects this Sunday night.
For this week's preview, I wanted to go back and look at the way the Eagles played in the secondary in Week 13. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis called a great game against the Cowboys and had answers for a lot of the plays Dallas ran offensively, specifically when it came to wide receiver Dez Bryant.
In the first series on the fifth play of the game, the Eagles had cornerback Cary Williams manned up on Bryant. Williams did a great job re-routing Bryant at the snap, staying on his hip and breaking up the pass at the catch point.
Six plays later on the same drive, it was cornerback Bradley Fletcher who was on an island against Bryant with a single-high safety. Fletcher did a nice job against the fade ball, shooting his hands through Bryant's hands and getting the ball to the ground for the incomplete pass to force a punt.
Later in the game, in the third quarter, Davis called a play with two-man coverage on the back end, but with Bryant in the slot it will be up to Nolan Carroll II to handle the Pro Bowl wideout on his own. He allowed a reception on a pivot route, but tackled the catch and got Bryant on the ground for a minimal gain to bring up third-and-long.
Again, the Eagles did a great job of not just winning their one-on-ones with Bryant, but playing with discipline on the back end, executing their roles within the scheme and playing to their help to take away some of his favorite routes. Let me show you what I mean.
This came against the Cardinals a few weeks ago. It was second-and-10 in the fringe area just outside the red zone. Bryant ran a post route for a 12-yard completion and a first down.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving. It was second-and-6. Bryant again was looking to run a post route. But the Eagles have it bottled up. Williams played with outside leverage, forcing Bryant's inside release and playing the receiver to his help inside in safety Nate Allen. Quarterback Tony Romo wanted that throw, but ate it. With double coverage to the top of the screen as well, he was forced to dump it off to DeMarco Murray, who was tackled in space by linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
Let's go to back Week 10. It was second-and-5. The Cowboys again were knocking on the door in the fringe area outside the red zone. Bryant was lined up with a minus split inside the numbers. He ran a drag route across the field, a shallow crossing route. He got the ball in stride, ran through the maze of Jacksonville Jaguars and finished in the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown.
A couple of weeks later, it was third-and-3. Bryant lined up in a tighter split than normal (not inside the numbers, but still closer to the middle of the field). He's trying again to run this drag route across the middle of the field, but ran into a surprising double-coverage concept. Allen, lined up near the line of scrimmage as if he was blitzing, turned and faced up Bryant, forcing him off his route. Romo was forced to go away from Bryant and threw an incomplete pass to Witten near the sticks. It all started with great coverage from Williams and Allen.
Back to the Jaguars game, where it was 1st-and-10 and the Cowboys were aligned in a 3-X-1 set with Bryant as the X receiver to the boundary. The Jaguars were playing Cover 3. Bryant ran a go route down the sideline, so the corner to his side of the field was essentially locked up in man coverage on an island (this often happens in Cover 3 to the boundary - or the short side of the field - against a vertical route). The safety to that side rolled down as a hook defender, but is in no place to help the corner, who lost at the line of scrimmage, failed to recover and allowed a 68-yard touchdown. Bad technique at the line paired with an unfortunate play call to defend the route concept resulted in this big play for the Cowboys.
It's the third quarter on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys lined up in a 3-X-1 set on first-and-15 with Bryant to the boundary. Again, he ran a go route. The Eagles were in a different coverage, as Fletcher had help over the top in the form of safety Malcolm Jenkins. But look at how Fletcher played this. He didn't allow an outside release, got his hands on Bryant to steer him toward his help and deterred a throw from Romo who is forced to look to the other side before throwing an incomplete pass.
Last week on Thursday Night Football, it was first-and-10 in the third quarter. Romo hit Bryant on a brilliant stutter-and-go down the sideline. In this single-high safety look, it was a death blow to the Bears, who allowed a huge reception after Bryant high-pointed the ball like few in the league can for the 43-yard gain.
Against the Eagles in a similar area of the field near the 50-yard line, Bryant tried the stutter-and-go route. But the Eagles were in two-man coverage, with two high safeties and man coverage across the board. The corners played the routes perfectly, sitting in trail technique underneath the receivers because they had the help over the top. The rush affected Romo, who was forced to chuck it up to his favorite receiver, but Fletcher and Jenkins were able to converge on the ball to get it to the ground for an incomplete pass.
Now, the Eagles' ability to repeat this strategy hinges on multiple factors. By deploying extra defenders either over the top or in double coverage on primary options in the passing game, you are removing defenders from the box, so you must be able to consistently stop the run. This is easier said than done against Murray and that stretch running attack, but the Eagles defense is absolutely up to the challenge.
This is also dependent on the offense being able to score points early and often, making the run game less of an option by putting the Cowboys in catch-up mode. Regardless, the Eagles' defense did a great job at stopping Bryant in a variety of ways on Thanksgiving and they will be primed to do so again this Sunday night.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.