What to Watch for in Eagles-Cowboys
The scary part of the Eagles’ season is how the team has been able to move ahead without major parts of the team due to injury.
Cornerback Ronald Darby is set to return tonight, after missing the past eight games with a dislocated ankle. Linebacker Jordan Hicks and left tackle Jason Peters are both out for the season with a torn Achilles and running back Darren Sproles was lost for the season back in Week 2 with a ACL tear, along with a broken arm.
The team has also lost key players like Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Zach Ertz, Rodney McLeod and Caleb Sturgis have all missed time this season and the Eagles kept winning.
What makes things tougher still is the schedule over the next five weeks of the season — the Eagles face multiple teams looking to secure playoff berths, with Dallas, Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams all on the road. They also will host the Oakland Raiders on Christmas night, and will face the Dallas Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott in the season finale.
Meaning a win tonight is pretty important in the big picture - securing home field advantage.
"Four out of the next five weeks we're traveling," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson explained. "It's kind of like the start of the season. This is sort of a tough stretch, but at the same time, it's one that we welcome. If we want to separate and become a good football team and a consistent winner in this league, these are the stretches that you have to go through and find ways to win games. It kind of goes back to your comments or your statement about learning from last year and this time of the year, and the way the guys prepare."
"But we've got to take them one at a time. Again, it starts this weekend."
Along with the suspension to running back Ezekiel Elliott, injuries are starting to become a major issue for the season, and the Dallas Cowboys have felt that sting as much as the Eagles have, but have not been able to overcome them as well as the Eagles have.
Let’s look closely at their upcoming game against the Cowboys:
The loss of Tyron Smith vs Brandon Graham
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport confirms Cowboys LT Tyron Smith won't play Week 11 against the Eagles, and even if he ended up playing he would not be 100% for the game. Last week in a loss tot he Falcons, Chaz Green and Byron Bell were dominated, giving up six sacks to Falcons defensive end, Adrian Clayborn. will spell Smith at left tackle against the Eagles. The Cowboys are hoping that replacing Green with Bell will stabilize the line and take care of Brandon Graham and the Eagles pass rush. Overal, the Cowboys line was dominated by the Falcons to the tune of eight sacks, and face an Eagles pass rush that ranks 10th in the league with 25 sacks.
"Tyron Smith gives them the ability to do so much with their pass protection," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "To have a guy that doesn't require any help or doesn't require chips, there's a lot of little nuances that play within their offensive line that he allows them to play because he can lock a guy down. He's an outstanding player. Obviously, it changes when he's not in there. It affects their run blocking. It also affects their play action. It affects their drop back. It affects their empty packages. It filters through all that stuff. We'll be ready for him if he does get back, and we'll have a plan and be ready if he doesn't."
The Cowboys without Ezekiel Elliott
The Eagles not only will face a backup left tackle, they will face a backup running back with Ezekiel Elliott suspended for the game. Not only are the Cowboys losing Smith's blocking, they are losing 783 yards rushing, 210 yards receiving and nine total touchdowns and his ability to pick up the blitz.
Schwartz commented this week the Eagles faced the Cowboys in Week 17 last season without both Smith and Elliott, and they will see them again tonight without both those key pieces.
"Elliott -- they run the same runs and you have to defend the runs the same way, but Elliott's a strong back that has great vision. He's good in the pass game as well as the run game, and he is a key part of their offense. They can plug the other guys in, and I speak for ourselves on defense, there is nothing like having your starters in there, and I'm referring to Darby. Other guys can fill in and you can accomplish the scheme, but it's nothing like having the guys that you want out there.
While replacing Elliott isn't so easy, the Cowboys are facing an Eagles defense that ranks No. 1 in the league, giving up just 66.4 yards per game, the next best team gives up 80.6 yards per game.
They do have veteran Alfred Morris, who had 11 carries for 53 yards in Week 10 against the Falcons. He's a three-time 1,000 yard rusher during his time in Washington and could have a bigger game this week now that he is more accustomed to being the lead back for Dallas.
Don’t underestimate Dak Prescott.
While Prescott had a rough first week without Smith and Elliott, completing 19-of-29 passes for 176 yards, and running for a season-high 42 yards and a touchdown in Week 10 against the Falcons.
But if anyone has doubts about his case to lead the Cowboys to a upset tonight, look at these numbers: He takes care of the ball and makes plays, tossing 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. He has also ran for five touchdowns, while completing 63% of his throws.
He had a streak of three straight games with three touchdown passes earlier this season and came make plays both in and out of the pocket.
"I've been around the NFL for a pretty long time now," said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. "I don't know if I've ever seen a better thrower on the run than Dak Prescott. He can throw, scrambling to his left. He can throw scrambling to his right. There are not many quarterbacks that can do that. He can threaten the whole field on the run. He doesn't have to reset the throw, and he's very accurate on the run. I think that’s probably – and there are a lot of mobile quarterbacks, a lot of guys that can throw from the pocket. He can do both of those. But as far as throwing on the run, and I'll go back, there are a lot of guys that can run read option, he can do that. But I think what really makes him stand out is that he can throw on the run. He's accurate throwing on the run. For a young player, he makes very few mistakes, and that's impressed me also."
With Sean Lee out, Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, the Eagles one-two punch could excel.
The Dallas Cowboys give up 104. 7 yards per game on the ground, 12th best in the league. However, linebacker Sean Lee will miss the game with a hamstring injury, its a huge blow to the Cowboys defense that gives up 4.3 yards per carry on the ground.
"It's obviously tough to lose a great player like Sean, just like it is for [LB] Jordan hicks for us, leader of the team," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said on Friday. "But they'll move some guys around. They still have a good complement of linebackers. They do play a lot of different personnel groups, so he is definitely a leader of that team, and a leader of that defense. For them, too, it's probably the same thing: next man steps up."
Blount rushed nine times for 37 yards in the Eagles' Week 9 win over the Broncos, while Ajayi added eight carries for 77 yards and a touchdown. Expect Ajayi to get even more work this week in the game vs Dallas. Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said this week that he expects Ajayi to take on a bigger role against the Cowboys.
"When I look at our game plan for this week, I honestly look at it, and there's probably not a play on there that I wouldn't feel comfortable putting his number on as far as him learning it and knowing what to do. So I just think that speaks a lot about him as a player."
Pressure on the Cowboys.
After going 13-3 last season, critics predicted the Cowboys would again be at the top of the NFC East.
Overall, this season, the Cowboys have been a mediocre team. A Dallas loss would put them at 5-5 and they’d be in a tough spot to try to make the playoffs. This is a must win game for them.
The Pick: Eagles 33, Cowboys 17