Cowboys’ New Identity is Defense
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott may generate the headlines but the identity of the Dallas Cowboys has shifted sides in the post-Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten era.
After years of languishing in the shadow of one of the league's most dynamic and star-studded offense, a revamped Dallas defense which has shifted a bit into the mold of a Seattle Cover-3 heavy unit enters the second half of the 2018 campaign as the fourth-ranked defense in the entire NFL.
And when it comes to efficacy things have been a tick better than that with the Cowboys ranked third in the league in scoring defense.
There are difference makers at every level even without usual star linebacker Sean Lee, who injured his hamstring against Tennessee last week.
Up front is game-wrecker DeMarcus Lawrence, while linebacker Jaylon Smith is turning into the star people once projected before a catastrophic knee injury in his last game at Notre Dame derailed things for a bit. On the back end, the athletic Byron Jones has turned into one of the better corners in football.
"They've done a good job in holding points down," Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh noted. "They've got some talented players up there. They're good up front. They can create some pressure, particularly on the edges with their D-line. They've got speed at linebacker and they're covering well on the perimeter. We're going to have to put a good plan together to get ready to beat these guys. They’re definitely having a good season."
The scheme change comes from the addition of passing game coordinator/secondary coach Kris Richard, the ex-Seattle DC who is now handling many of the defensive play calls.
"You see a little different style than what we've seen the last -- since I've been head coach here and going against the Cowboys the last couple of years with [Cowboys Defensive Coordinator & Defensive Line Coach Rod] Marinelli," Eagles coach Doug Pederson explained. "You see a little different structure. You still see Rod's influence with the defensive line, linebackers. But schematically it's more in that Seattle [Seahawks], Jacksonville [Jaguars], [Los Angeles] Chargers type of -- guys that have come out of that system, you kind of see that influence just a little bit with this defense."
According to quarterback Carson Wentz, the main difference is the starting point.
"Overall, they do a lot of similar stuff but their starting point is a little bit different," Wentz told 973espn.com. "You know a lot more one-high coverage this year but again, it's a similar players. They still fly around, they have an extremely sound players that are coached well. You can tell overall its very similar but just a little bit different with their starting point and some of their coverages but the way they play up front and everything is very similar."
It's almost like Marinelli handles the front seven with Richard coaching up the secondary and melding things together on game day with the final say.
It's unconventional but it's worked pretty well to this point.
For the Eagles, the main concern is Lawrence, who has 6 1/2 sacks, nine tackles for a loss and a strip sack this season, for a number of reasons. Typically lining up at left end Lawrence and Philadelphia right tackle Lane Johnson is normally a matchup pitting strength vs. strength but Johnson is going to try to play through a Grade II MCL sprain.
If Johnson struggles with the knee or has to exit at any point that would pit Halapoulivaati Vaitai against Lawrence, who will be taking aim at a QB whose lone peccadillo this season has been fumbling the football.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen