For the final installment of this week's Eagle Eye in the Sky, let's take a look at the Cowboys' defense and their performance against New York. If you missed it, check out Thursday's piece featuring the breakdown of the Dallas offense without Dez Bryant in the lineup.
After being one of the worst defenses over the past couple of seasons, I came away pretty impressed with Dallas against New York. Sure, the Giants' offense wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders, but the longest pass play Dallas allowed came on the final play of the game in a prevent defense. They've added pieces here and there, and despite the fact that some of their best players won't suit up on Sunday (Orlando Scandrick is on Injured Reserve; Randy Gregory is injured; and Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy are both suspended), they're a well-coached unit with talent at all three levels.
Along the defensive line, I thought Gregory flashed in his first game last week against New York. When he and Hardy return, they'll have a pretty good rotation with DeMarcus Lawrence, Jeremy Mincey and rookie Ryan Russell. A former starter at defensive end, Tyrone Crawford, slides inside to defensive tackle this season, and he had a big impact on the game against the Giants.
Crawford is athletic. He's disruptive and for a team that needed someone to step up inside he'll be a good fit as that penetrating 3-technique in Rod Marinelli's defense.
At the next level, you've got SAM linebacker Kyle Wilber (who will also rotate down to defensive end on some passing downs), second-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens (a player whom I liked a lot coming out of Iowa) and veteran Sean Lee has returned from injury to play at a high level. Lee missed all of 2014, but the former Nittany Lion looks like he's picked up right where he left off.
Lee looked instinctive as ever. He made athletic plays downhill and in coverage, and he was physical against the run as well. I showed a play where you saw him drop back in underneath zone coverage against the tight end. Dallas covered the New York tight ends a number of ways on Sunday night, and using Lee was just the start.
Here is the key play of the game. Third-and-goal, with the ability to put the game away, many thought the Giants would run the ball. But instead they chose to pass, with tight end Daniel Fells running a corner route in the end zone. Safety Barry Church refused to let Fells off the line of scrimmage though, and Manning was forced to throw the ball away, stopping the clock and giving the Cowboys the ability to come back late in the game. Church was charged with playing over the tight end when Dallas was in base packages, but there was one other trend I noticed as the game went on as well.
In the games I charted of the Cowboys' defense a year ago, they played just three percent of their snaps in a dime package, with six defensive backs on the field. They used the nickel package (five DBs) a lot, but very rarely did I see the dime package.
Last week, Dallas played in dime on 19 percent of its snaps, a huge difference from 2014. All of their snaps in dime came on third down, and they did a good job mixing up coverage concepts and they weren't predictable at all. The one thing that stayed consistent, however, was that rookie corner Byron Jones played over the tight end. Whether the Cowboys were in man or zone, it was Jones who lined up over Fells or Larry Donnell.
On that play, Jones did a great job forcing the incomplete pass against Donnell and bringing up fourth down. With players like Brent Celek and Zach Ertz giving the Cowboys trouble in the past, I would expect to see a mixture of Lee, Church and Jones playing against both of those Eagles tight ends on Sunday afternoon.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast 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.