I'm not going to mince words here. If you're an Eagles fan, there aren't many things sweeter in the regular season than beating the Dallas Cowboys in convincing fashion on the road, on Thanksgiving Day, with the division lead on the line entering the month of December. The Eagles came out and played a complete game on Thursday afternoon, and if not for a couple of stalled drives in the red zone, the point differential could have been even greater. Let's take a closer look at the 23-point victory on tape to see what lead to the huge win ...
All week long, and all season long, this matchup centered on the Cowboys' offense. Whether it was DeMarco Murray's rushing totals, the offensive line's mauling personality, Tony Romo's toughness or Dez Bryant's you-can't-stop-me ability, the Cowboys' offense was the talk was about on every national network as well as here in Philadelphia. Not much was made of the Eagles' defensive line, the pass rush or even how Mark Sanchez, LeSean McCoy and this Chip Kelly-led offense would fare against a Dallas defense that was giving up yards in bunches whenever they were on the field. Well, the defense certainly held up their end of the bargain after a week where they were clearly looking for some respect, as they showed up in a big way against the run.
When it came to the Dallas run game, how would the Eagles defend the stretch play, a run play the Cowboys have had a ton of success with against pretty much everyone they've faced this season. In this space, the Eagles' success against the stretch play throughout the season has been well-documented. None of those teams have offensive lines that had been playing to the level of Dallas' to this point in the year. No opponent has been as steadfast at sticking to the run game as the linchpin of the offense like the Cowboys have, but this was going to be the biggest matchup of the game. Let's see how the defensive front stepped up to the challenge.
This was the first play of the game. Keep in mind the success the Cowboys have had on the ground on first down this season. They have been a HUGE first-down run team in 2014, and they looked to assert themselves in the trenches early on in this game as well. In the first half, the Cowboys ran 11 first down plays (not counting the kneeldown to end the second quarter). The first 10 of those plays were runs. Six of them were stretch run plays.
Murray's vision and the movement up front by the Dallas line has typically allowed this team to pick up yards in bunches, but that was not to be against the Eagles. On the first play of the game, they attempted to run to the left. Look at the wall the front builds (Head coach Chip Kelly pointed to the importance of the "wall" against the stretch play a few weeks ago). Murray was forced to just duck his head and fall forward for 4 yards. Bennie Logan wasn't giving ground. Fletcher Cox wasn't giving ground. Casey Matthews was pressing the line of scrimmage. The entire defense was flowing to the ball consistently. This is why this defense has been as good as they have against the run this year.
Here's the Cowboys' next first-down play. Again, it was a stretch play to the left. Again Cox, Logan and Matthews were where they needed to be. They did not lose their gap integrity despite being on the move. Cox and Logan anchored down and Cedric Thornton made the play from the backside for a 3-yard gain.
Here's their next first-down play. The Cowboys started to matriculate the ball down the field. Cox vaulted left guard Ronald Leary into the backfield off the snap to cut off Murray's path and force him back inside to his help from the backside. Logan stayed alive from the cut block by right guard Zack Martin. This one resulted in a 2-yard gain.
Fast forward to the next series. It's second-and-5. This time the Cowboys ran a stretch play to the right with reverse-action in the backfield as a misdirection element. Cox completely shut down this play too, as he knifed into the backfield to force Murray inside into the waiting arms of Mychal Kendricks (who was really, really good in this game by the way). Look at all the white jerseys flow to a football like water to a drain. This unit came to play on Thursday and it was apparent early on.
Same drive, two plays later. The Cowboys again ran a stretch play to the right. Logan stayed alive against the cut block to chase the action. He's ended up being the one cleaning up the tackle. Brandon Graham set the edge and made first contact with the ball carrier at the point of attack in what amounted to a 2-yard run by Murray. There are certain themes that are consistently found across this front. The edges are set consistently. Players anchor down against double teams, defeat cut blocks with athleticism, chase plays from the backside and utilize sound tackling. It's no wonder the Eagles held Murray to a season-low 73 yards on the ground.
So what did the Cowboys do? They came back with the very same call on the next play. They ran stretch to the right, directly at Cox, who manhandled Martin and brought Murray down for a 3-yard gain.
I've shown you six of the Cowboys stretch plays in Thursday's game. All in all, they finished with 11 stretch runs for a total of 42 yards at 3.8 yards per carry. In the first half, they ran nine stretch plays for just 29 yards at 3.1 yards per carry. This was the signature play of Dallas' offense, and the Eagles' defense took it away all game long. Cox and the rest of the defensive front emerged on top in the biggest "game within the game."
Typically a quiet presence in the locker room, Cox was brought to the forefront this week after he voiced his displeasure with the amount of praise being thrown at the Cowboys' offensive line. Well, he walked the proverbial walk on gameday. He was a dominant force throughout the afternoon as he continually wreaked havoc on the Dallas offense.
On this third-and-3 toss play early in the second half, Cox created a new line of scrimmage, pushed the first-round pick Martin into the backfield and brought Murray down for a 1-yard gain to bring up a punt.
Cox's presence was felt in the pass game as well. He exploded out of his stance on this second-down play, made quick work of Leary and brought down Romo for one of the unit's four sacks on the day. After so many questioned Cox's fit in the 3-4 scheme because of the lack of sack production (which is a discussion for a different day), he now has three in the last four games, as he has been on a tear bringing down opposing quarterbacks in the last month.
The coverage on the back end was as sound as any fan could've hoped for against the Cowboys' talented group of receiving targets, allowing minimal plays down the field and holding Romo to his second-worst outing of the year from a yardage standpoint. On this play down in the red zone, the coverage took away Romo's intended target, as he is forced to hold on to the ball ...
... and take a sack. This went down as a sack for Casey Matthews, giving him a career-high 1.5 on the season. Seven different players on defense have set or tied career highs in sacks this year, a number that may continue to grow over the final four games.
Last year, the Eagles did a really good job of deceiving Romo at the line of scrimmage to keep him guessing as to when and where pressure was coming from on any given play. On this third-down call, the Eagles had seven players near the line of scrimmage as potential rushers, giving Romo and the protection no clues as to who may or may not come. Five of those seven defenders attacked (Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll drop in coverage) and the rush forced Romo to his left where he made an ill-advised throw down the field for an interception.
From the sideline view, you can see the job that Cary Williams did in man coverage against second-year receiver Terrance Williams. Cary shadowed Williams down the sideline, so close he could steal his wallet and when the ball came out the way it did he's able to make a play on the ball for the big turnover.
Williams was very good against Dallas all game long, and it wasn't just against Williams. The Cowboys ran boot action to that side and attempted to hit Bryant on a comeback route, one that Williams broke up for a big defensive play.
It was a very good day for the Eagles' offense. Mark Sanchez was nothing if not efficient and decisive up and down the field, getting the ball where it needed to go and (perhaps most importantly) without turning the ball over. He even contributed on the ground, but we'll hit on that in a bit. First, I wanted to get to LeSean McCoy and the run game. Shady eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark on Thanksgiving, getting within an explosive run's reach of setting a new franchise record for most yards rushing all time. The run game hit on all cylinders against Dallas, perhaps moreso than at any point in 2014, and that could be a sign of big things to come down the stretch. Let's see how they got it done.
The Eagles burst out of the gates sprinting to start the game. On the fourth play, they hit on a 36-yard run from their inside zone counter run that we've seen in earnest over the last few games. This time, James Casey was brought into the formation from his slot position right before the snap. He blocked the force defender in the run game responsible for the edge. Notice, however, that the defender covering Casey in man coverage kept his eyes on him, failing to defend the edge until it was too late. McCoy sprinted by for a huge gain and a first down to set up a touchdown.
The offensive line, in my eyes, certainly had one of their best games of the season against Dallas. They consistently opened up holes for McCoy in the run game, and for the most part kept Sanchez clean in the passing game as well. On this third quarter inside zone run, look at the job Jason Peters and Evan Mathis did getting a double on the 3-technique and working up to the linebacker. Next look at Jason Kelce, who rode the nose tackle out of the play. Andrew Gardner did a great job on the playside linebacker at the second level. Brad Smith got a piece of his man downfield as Shady went 38 yards for his longest touchdown of the season and the dagger that really ended the game for the Cowboys.
The first run I showed you from McCoy on that inside zone counter helped put the Eagles within scoring range, leading to this touchdown play inside the 5-yard line. It came on a zone-read play. Sanchez read the 5-technique. Look at the job that Sanchez did on this play, carrying out the mesh point in true "ride and decide" fashion. Look at the extension of his arms all the way through the mesh point with McCoy, pulling the ball at the very last second after the Dallas defender committed to the running back. Sanchez kept the ball and plunged into the end zone for a touchdown to get the Eagles on the board.
On the next series, you can see the effect Sanchez's athleticism had on the Dallas defense. This may have been a read, it may not have, but regardless of whether it is or not look at Sanchez again carry out the ball fake. His arm extension helped freeze the 3-technique and kept him from chasing McCoy from the backside. In essence, Sanchez "blocked" the 3-technique by keeping him honest and holding him for even that brief second allowed McCoy to take off on a sweep play for a 19-yard gain.
In the fourth quarter, the Eagles ran another zone-read play with Sanchez, this time with Darren Sproles. Sanchez rode through the mesh point, decided to pull it after reading the defensive end and sprinted down the right sideline for a 13-yard gain.
On the very next play, the Eagles ran another zone-read. The hesitation from the defensive end allowed McCoy to gain 9 yards on first down. Sanchez's mobility certainly is an asset, and as he gets more and more comfortable after missing an entire season a year ago, the Eagles will continue to use it to their advantage.
Another area where Sanchez's mobility helps is on all of the boot-action pass plays in the Eagles' arsenal. We saw Sanchez and Jordan Matthews hook up on pretty much the same exact play a couple of weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers, and it worked again to perfection against Dallas. The run action to the right got the Cowboys' second-level defenders to flow to that side of the field. Matthews was able to get free into the secondary. Thanks to a safety rotation (a pre-snap 2-high look turned into Cover 3), there was a nice void for him to run into as they hooked up for a 27-yard touchdown.
You had to feel good for Jeremy Maclin on Thursday as he reached the 1,000 mark for the first time in his career. On his longest catch of the day, this 58-yard catch, the Eagles got him the ball on a vertical route down the sideline in the "Turkey Hole" against Tampa-2. The Arizona Cardinals gained yards on a very similar play against Dallas. Maclin's abilities in the open field, as well as effort late in the down from several of his teammates (hello Zach Ertz flying downfield for a block), he was able to go for the long gain and a first down to put the Eagles in scoring range.
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