The goal for a defense that is looking to get its groove back against a high-powered Dallas Cowboys offense is to be "clean." What that means, coordinator Jim Schwartz says, is to tackle well, play fundamentally sound football, communicate well, and limit penalties.
It's something the Eagles have been missing in recent games against Miami, the New York Giants (for a half, anyway), and Washington. In those games, the Eagles have given up big plays, allowed scores after Carson Wentz and the offense put points on the board, and missed tackles and assignments.
In a very short period of time, Schwartz has to put in a great game plan, try to stay one step ahead of the Cowboys on Sunday, and trust that his players will rise to the occasion of what is essentially a playoff showdown.
"When you face an offense that's like the Cowboys, you're going to have to play good, clean football," Schwarz said on Tuesday at his weekly press briefing at the NovaCare Complex. "You can't give them anything for free. They're going to make enough on their own without giving them a defensive holding (penalty) or defensive pass interference or anything else that you can imagine that moves the sticks."
Dallas ranks first in the NFL in yards per game (434), yards per play (6.5), first downs per game (24.4), and the Cowboys score 27 points per week. In Sunday's 44-21 win over the Rams, Dallas rolled to 263 rushing yards and quarterback Dak Prescott had a stress-free day with 212 passing yards, two touchdowns, and nary a sack taken.
What's the plan, then, to contain an offense that features a beast at running back in Ezekiel Elliott, a strong offensive line, a receiver in Amari Cooper who has 21 catches, three touchdowns, and 19-plus yards per reception as a Cowboy playing against Philadelphia?
"This is a game for the division and they're going to line up with their players, we're going to line up with ours, and we got to fight to come out with a win," Schwartz said.
Clearly, the Eagles need to play a whole lot better defensively than they've played since the four-game stretch against Buffalo, Chicago, New England, and Seattle that lifted expectations. The defense has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush throughout the season and in turn the coverage hasn't been as high-grade as needed. The Eagles have just six takeaways in the last seven games. Seven times in the last three games the Eagles have allowed points on the ensuing drive after scoring points, including four times against Washington.
It's tough to sustain any momentum when the defense can't get off the field following an Eagles offensive score, as the Eagles have experienced for much of this season.
Against Washington, the Eagles failed to get to quarterback Dwayne Haskins a single time for a sack or a quarterback hit in the pocket until the game's final play. Washington directed Haskins to get rid of the ball quickly, but on the plays when he sat back in the pocket, he had time as the four-man pass rush just couldn't get home.
The Eagles didn't have end Derek Barnett, who is again a question mark for Sunday. Fletcher Cox was a non-factor at tackle. Brandon Graham was quiet at end.
Collectively, the defense has to be on point on Sunday.
"We can all do a little bit better. I think it's not just about one individual person, it's about the team," Schwartz said when asked about Cox. "Everybody makes it about stats and everything else. We're trying to do whatever we can to come out with a win, and whether you make the play or your teammate makes the play, the play gets made."
Sunday offers a very simple challenge, then: Win, or the playoffs are gone. The only way to stay alive is to topple Dallas and somehow knock an offense that is wall-to-wall talented off its rhythm. This begins with being "clean." Everything else follows.