For Eagles Answer to Elliott’s Dominance Could be Prescott’s Health
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Week 7 was arguably the low point of the Eagles' 2019 season.
After getting trounced in Minnesota, 38-20, Philadelphia headed to North Texas to face the Cowboys and got boat-raced again, 37-10. In the bigger picture, though, that win moved Dallas to 4-3 on the season and put the Eagles at 3-4, a scenario that would have remained the same whether Doug Pederson's club lost by one-point or that "embarrassing" margin.
Mediocrity found a way over the ensuing weeks with the Eagles going 4-3 over the next seven games and the Cowboys being a step behind at 3-4, setting up a Week 16 matchup of the ages for two 7-7 teams, the first time two divisional opponents were at .500 or lower this late into a season yet still in the mix for the division crown since Dec. 26, 2015, when the then 6-8 Eagles played the 7-7 Washington Redskins.
The Cowboys do have a leg up from that earlier meeting and can clinch the NFC East by beating the Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field while Philadelphia needs to beat Dallas and the New York Giants in Week 17 to reach the postseason for a third consecutive year.
Pederson, however, is putting nothing extra on what was the worst performance of the season.
"I think one of the biggest things is we have to protect the football. We didn't do that as an offense and when you're down 14-nothing to a good football team, it's hard to overcome," Pederson said of the first game between the two foes. "It kind of gets you out of your rhythm and what you're trying to do as your game plan unfolds."
On paper the Cowboys simply have more playmakers starting with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper before moving to solid complements like Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Jason Witten. Prescott, though, is dealing with a myriad of injuries, the latest perhaps being the most serious, a shoulder injury that kept him limited at practice on Wednesday.
Elliott, the Cowboys' All-Pro back, has been the biggest issue for the Eagles and Philadelphia has never beaten the Cowboys with the Ohio State product in the lineup.
"What they did last week against the Rams, we know that's kind of what they do and give Elliott the ball as much as they can," Pederson said. "You would hope to have your D-line and linebackers in place to help stop that."
The past is not prologue in that sense.
Since Elliott entered the NFL in 2016 the Eagles are 2-5 against Dallas but their only two wins have come without Elliott in the lineup for the Cowboys. In the five games Elliott has played in he's amassed 163 scrimmage yards per game and Dallas has won them all.
"He's a good, strong running back," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz admitted.
Malcolm Jenkins took that baton further.
“He’s one of the best backs in the league for a reason,” the veteran safety said. “We understand the challenge that’s ahead of us. We’re not just going to step off the bus and stop him. I think you see it on tape vs. pretty much everybody. So for us, we take a lot of pride in stopping the run and that will be no different this week.”
From Schwartz's perspective, though, Elliott isn't a magic elixir. More like the straw that stirs the drink on the Cowboys offense.
"They have a good offensive line, they have good blocking tight ends. They got a quarterback that's mobile, that will run the ball also. They run some option-type stuff," Schwartz explained. "So it's not just him, but there's a lot of other stuff. They got some big-play receivers. But he's a strong contact runner and we're going to have to put a lot of hats on him. It's not going to be one-on-one tackles. It's going to have to be gang-tackling, team defense in order to limit his yards and limit his effectiveness."
Typically, stacking the box to limit Elliott would put cornerbacks prone to getting beat deep on a true No. 1 receiver in Cooper as well as a No. 2 in Gallup who serves as a great deep threat averaging more than 16.0 yards-per-catch. Cobb, meanwhile, is a proven, veteran slot option who can own the middle of the field with Witten, the master of the Y-option route even at this advanced stage of his career.
All of that is why the Cowboys will enter Lincoln Financial Field as the No. 1 offense in the NFL.
The equalizer, though, could be the health of Prescott, who is dealing with an AC joint issue in his throwing shoulder stemming from being driven to the turf by Clay Matthews last week.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett confirmed that Prescott had an MRI Monday and noted "everything seems to be OK" but also couched that with some more ominous language.
“I know he hurt his arm in the game the other day, was able to function for three quarters after he got hit on it and it just was sore the last couple of days so he wasn’t able to practice today,” Garrett said on a conference call. “So, we’ll take his situation day by day and just see how he’s able to improve over the course of the week and hopefully get himself ready for the ball game.”
Dr. David Chao, a former team doctor with the then-San Diego Chargers, noted that Prescott likely suffered a rotator-cuff contusion from his elbow being jammed upward toward the shoulder. According to Chao, Prescott was able to finish the game against the Rams because swelling does not occur immediately.
Now that the swelling has set it explains why Prescott was unable to "function" at practice and the race is on to get the swelling under control by Sunday.
According to a source in Dallas, Prescott is not expected to take any meaningful snaps in practice this week but try to play on Sunday and he was indeed held out from throwing again on Thursday.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the Eagles are focused on what they can control.
"You just have to continue to work," Pederson said. "This week is important from just our detail, our preparation. We can't focus on Sunday."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen