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Spadaro: What can the Eagles learn from Round 1 vs. Dallas?

Zach Cunningham takes down Dak Prescott.
Zach Cunningham takes down Dak Prescott.

In some ways, it seems like only the other week that the Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field on November 5, 28-23, and headed into their bye week a heady 8-1 and looking forward to a great respite. In other ways, it feels like so much has transpired since that game and now, here we are, with another Dallas Week upon us.

This time the game is on Sunday night, a prime-time affair at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas and the stakes remain high: The Eagles (10-2) hold a one-game lead over the Cowboys (9-3) in the NFC East as well as for the No. 1 seed in the overall NFC playoff picture. 

Welcome to another big moment in a season-long string of them for the Eagles.

What worked last time for the Eagles that they can use this time around against Dallas? Let's take a peek back at a game that was, by all accounts, extraordinary in the way it unfolded and certainly in the way it ended.

1. The defense stopped the Dallas running game

Dallas has the 11th-ranked rushing offense in the league (117 yards per game) so it isn't a dominating phase in the offense. But the first priority for every defense in every game is to win against the run, and the Eagles limited the Cowboys to 73 yards on 21 carries, with a long of 15 yards. That's a great job by the run defense and it forced Dallas to load up and throw the football as quarterback Dak Prescott attempted a season-high 44 passes. The Eagles held a team that was averaging 28 points per game to just 23 in this win, and that was a big win for the defense – and the team. Note that Dallas has scored 40 or more points in three of the four games since that first meeting and 33 in the other. 

2. Philadelphia was dominant in the third quarter

There are moments that weren't successful from a Philadelphia point of view from the game from which the Eagles will learn – the fourth-quarter offense, for example – but the third-quarter performance is one the Eagles want to replicate for longer stretches on Sunday. The Eagles took the opening kickoff of the second half and, after a Dallas facemask penalty, started the possession at the 40-yard line. Using a nice mix of the run and the pass – the big play was a 29-yard pass to wide receiver DeVonta Smith for a touchdown, set up by the running game and an 11-yard completion to D'Andre Swift – and the Eagles took a 21-17 lead. The Philadelphia defense then held Dallas and the Eagles' offense came back on the field and put together an 11-play drive paired with 3 Dallas penalties to move 87 yards, consuming 6 minutes, 18 seconds. 

Keeping possession and making sure Prescott and the Dallas offense stayed on the sidelines was critical as the Eagles ate most of the third quarter with a precise, balanced offensive attack. That is a good formula for Sunday night. 

3. The Eagles kept their poise on defense late in the game

It was hectic and, at times, downright wild, but the Eagles never lost their composure. And they were able to keep their personnel up front fresh and ready to rush Prescott. It was a matter of great organization and communication with the coaches and the players and the focus was on wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and tight end Jake Ferguson. Now, the Cowboys moved the football and put themselves in position to score, but the Eagles held tough. Which leads to ...

4. The biggest difference: Eagles won the red zone

We all remember the way the Eagles played defensively in the red zone: a key stop by safety Reed Blankenship just short of the end zone to save one touchdown and then an end-of-game defensive stand that kept the Cowboys out of the end zone. Dallas scored touchdowns on 3 of 5 trips inside the 20-yard line, while the Eagles were 3 for 3. Boom. There is the statistic from the sea of analytics that matters the most. 

5. On third (and fourth) down, Jalen Hurts converted

Look, the Eagles talked after the game and in the days to follow about the fourth-quarter possessions that failed to produce a first down, so that is a teaching point and something to learn from (which the Eagles certainly did in the wins over Kansas City and Buffalo that followed). But prior to that, the Eagles were lights out on third down – 7 of 11 conversions – and they were perfect on two fourth-down opportunities (both on the opening drive of the game). That is so critical for Sunday night – keep possession of the football and win on first and second down to have third-and-manageable situations for Hurts and his offense. 

6. Pass rush reached Dak Prescott

Prescott had some success, particularly to Lamb (11 catches, 191 yards) but the Eagles were able to disrupt Prescott just enough to win the game. He was sacked twice in the first half and three more times in the fourth quarter, and the ability to get after Prescott and to keep the energy up was critical in the win. 

Philadelphia can't let Prescott sit in the pocket. The defensive goal is to, of course, stop the run and when Prescott drops back to pass, affect his ability to set up in the pocket and throw the football. Lamb has been extremely productive all season and he is the go-to wide receiver, so making sure he is accounted for is also important as the Eagles look to minimize the X plays.

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