3TFO: Cowboys @ Eagles, Week 7
It doesn’t matter what their records are, whenever the Eagles and Cowboys square off it’s always a big game. The fact that both teams come in at 3-3 and deadlocked for first place in the NFC East further enhances the magnitude of this game. Both teams are coming off victories over inferior opponents and have taken very similar journeys to get to this point. They have both fallen victim to Denver, Kansas City, and San Diego, and both have defeated fellow division rivals Washington and New York. Neither team has come up with a signature moment or win to announce themselves as the team to beat for the division crown. Dallas has been ravaged by injuries in recent weeks and will need quarterback Tony Romo to lead them to some victories. Philadelphia hasn’t won a home game in over a year and will be turning to Nick Foles for the second straight week, in hopes that he can stay hot and lead them to a pivotal win. Other than the play of the two quarterbacks, there are some very important matchups to focus on for this contest.
Dez Bryant vs. Eagles Cornerbacks
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant came on strong at the end of 2012 and has emerged in 2013 as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game. On passes thrown to Bryant, Tony Romo has a QB rating of 129.4, which is the fourth-highest in the NFL. On the 53 passes thrown to Bryant he has 34 receptions, six touchdowns, and none of the balls have been intercepted. The charismatic wideout has also become a more reliable pass catcher. In 2012, he dropped 10.68% of the catchable passes thrown his way. So far this season, Bryant has dropped just two catchable passes, bringing his percentage down to 5.56. In order for Dallas to take the next step as a team, they will need Bryant to continue to develop into a game-changing player who can carry them in big games like this one.
Harnessed with the task of containing Bryant this week will be Eagles cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Philadelphia views these two corners as equals and uses Fletcher as the left corner and Williams as the right, meaning they will both be asked to cover the star receiver. While the Eagles’ secondary has been highly criticized, the two corners have played quite well. Fletcher was thrown at six times last week, allowing just two receptions and is currently allowing a reception every 12.1 snaps that he is in coverage for, which ranks him 24th in the NFL. Williams is ranked 34th on that same list, allowing a reception every 11.1 snaps that he is in coverage for. Something that Philadelphia should be concerned about is tackling Bryant after he makes a reception. Dez has forced five missed tackles so far this year and the two Eagles’ corners have accounted for seven missed tackles combined. The success of Fletcher and Williams limiting Bryant to minimal gains and not allowing him to have a big game will largely determine how the Dallas offense performs.
LeSean McCoy vs. Cowboys Front Seven
Much of the talk all week has centered on the potential quarterback controversy brewing in Philadelphia with Nick Foles replacing the injured Michael Vick, and while the quarterback is usually the most important player on an offense, you could easily make a case that in Philadelphia the most important player is running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy leads the league in rushing yards by nearly 100 and is on pace to shatter numerous team records. He has forced 24 missed tackles on running plays, third-most in the league, and has forced four other missed tackles after a reception. Despite a strong performance from Foles last week, the Eagles will need plenty from McCoy to topple Dallas.
The Cowboys come into this game with the 22nd-ranked run defense grade as a team. They will need to be much better than that to slow down the league’s best run offense, a task that got significantly tougher when they lost DeMarcus Ware to injury last week. Ware was not only the Cowboys’ highest-graded defender against the run, but also boasts the highest Run Stop Percentage in the NFL among all 4-3 defensive ends. With Ware out, players like inside linebacker Sean Lee, outside linebacker Bruce Carter, and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher will all need to take their play to the next level. Lee ranks fourth among inside linebackers at RSP, making 21 stops in 129 run snaps and will need to be great this week against the shifty McCoy. Carter and Hatcher both rank in the Top 15 in RSP at their respective positions and will also need to be very active. It will take a gigantic effort from the banged up Dallas front seven to corral McCoy, but if they can it could be the difference in the game.
Tyron Smith & Doug Free vs. Eagles Edge Rushers
When the Eagles switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive front this offseason they knew that there would be some growing pains along the way. What they didn’t expect is that one of their biggest deficiencies would be the ability to rush the passer from the outside. With pass rush specialists like Trent Cole and Brandon Graham combining with free agent addition Connor Barwin, the Eagles thought they had a promising group of pass rushing outside linebackers. Instead, only Graham has had some success getting after the passer and that has been in a limited amount of snaps. He has generated 10 total pressures on just 66 pass rushing opportunities, placing him 13th in Pass Rush Productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers. Cole and Barwin rank 31st and 37th respectively on that same list, generating a combined 32 pressures on 344 pass rushing chances. They will need to improve those numbers this week when facing a quarterback in Romo who has a PFF grade of -2.2 when facing pressure and +11.5 without pressure.
The men saddled with the job of protecting Romo from the Philadelphia edge rushers are offensive tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. Both are off to stronger starts than they played in 2012, and Free has been one of the better pass blocking tackles in the league. He currently ranks seventh in Pass Blocking Efficiency, allowing just nine total pressures and two sacks on 235 pass blocking snaps. Compare that to last season when Free ranked 40th in that same statistic, and he surrendered 51 pressures including six sacks on 640 pass blocking snaps. The ascent in performance hasn’t been as drastic for left tackle Tyron Smith, but he has shown improvement protecting Romo’s blind side. Smith has gone from being 32nd in the league in PBE, to 22nd and has allowed just one sack so far this season. As we stated earlier, Romo is a far better passer when he isn’t facing pressure so his success and ultimately the success of the Dallas offense will hinge on if Free and Smith can continue the slow start of Cole and Barwin.
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