Through three quarters, the Eagles' defense could say that it posted a pretty impressive performance. But as has been the case in a handful of games this season, the fourth quarter bit them in the end.
In weeks past, the passing game got the best of the Eagles in the final stanza, but against the Cowboys, it was Ezekiel Elliott and the running game that wore down the Eagles late. As Jim Schwartz said in his Tuesday press conference, the defense just hasn’t been able to make the plays when they’ve needed to be made – and you can say the same about the other side of the ball as well.
The biggest issue with the defense looking forward has to be with the secondary, as injuries continue to ravage the unit. It appears as if Sidney Jones and Jalen Mills are close to returning, but with Ronald Darby and Rodney McLeod on the shelf permanently, there will be an increased reliance placed on younger players on the back end. At one point, the defensive nickel package included Malcolm Jenkins and Tre Sullivan at safety; Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, and Chandon Sullivan at corner. That ... is not how we all envisioned the secondary looking in crunch time of pivotal division games. To be fair, that is part of football, especially in the NFL. The team has to find ways to overcome the injuries and move on.
Looking at this game, there were a couple of missed opportunities defensively that could have swung the final score the other way.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
If not for Kamu Grugier-Hill’s thumb injury, which left him with a club on his right hand, I believe he would have picked off that Dak Prescott pass and taken it for a quick touchdown. There's a miscommunication in coverage, allowing Elliott to sneak into the end zone late in the game. Tackling was also an issue throughout the course of the day for the Eagles, especially in the secondary, where everyone outside of Malcolm Jenkins seemed to have one missed tackle or another at some point.
The run defense was the most alarming takeaway from Sunday night.
This was the most yards allowed on the ground by an Eagles team in three years, and the best single-game performance by any running back during that time frame. There were misfits in the run, where players weren’t in their gap. There were occasions where players couldn’t get off blocks. There were also missed tackles. We saw examples of all of the above in this game. For most of the first three quarters, however, it was a typical performance by the run defense. It wasn’t until late in the game when things unraveled.
After seeing all of the blitzing in the previous game against Jacksonville, I was interested to see how the Eagles would pressure Prescott and the Cowboys. Would we see extra pressures? Or would they stick with the four-man rush? It was the latter, and we saw the dividends of that on the very first play of the game.
The four-man rush was productive all night for the Eagles, as Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, Chris Long, and others won their one-on-one battles up front and were able to get in Prescott’s face. The rush was able to get home and, for the most part, they kept Prescott from hurting the team with his legs.
Bennett continued a hot streak after posting a pair of sacks. That was the ninth multi-sack game of his career, as the veteran now leads the Eagles with 5.5 sacks, all of which have come in the last six games.
The defense has a huge test this week in New Orleans with Drew Brees in the Saints. There isn’t a lot of time to reflect on Sunday night’s loss. As you’re reading this, the coaches are neck-deep in gameplanning and preparing for one of the top offenses in football. The Eagles will need to bring their A-game to the Superdome on Sunday afternoon.
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.