Brandon Graham, Sean Lee among 10 key players to watch in PHI-DAL
When the Eagles travel to AT&T Stadium on Sunday for a much-anticipated meeting with the Cowboys, most headlines will focus on the battle between the two rookie quarterbacks for supremacy in the NFC East. In reality, this game features so many more-intriguing matchups and individual performances that will influence the result.
Here’s a look at five players for each side that could have pivotal roles in determining Sunday night’s victor:
Jordan Matthews, WR, 73.3 overall grade this season
Carson Wentz has been excellent this season, and even more impressive when you consider that the players he is throwing to are far from the league’s top receivers. Jordan Matthews leads the team with 38 targets so far this season, and for Wentz to be at his best, the WR needs to win regularly against the Cowboys, who all of a sudden have a secondary full of players performing at a high level. Matthews will see a lot of Anthony Brown in the slot; Brown has been up and down this season, having already allowed two touchdowns and a passer rating of 124.7, while still making some plays.
Brandon Graham, DE, 88.4
Brandon Graham is the team’s best pass-rusher, going up against arguably the weakest link on the Dallas offensive line in RT Doug Free. Against the Vikings, Graham was destructive, beating whoever lined up at right tackle for Minnesota, notching a sack, four hits and, two hurries, while forcing a fumble in his sack of Bradford. Free’s weakest area is pass protection, as has surrendered four sacks through six games, including two in one game against Washington back in Week 2. How well the Dallas RT can hold up against Graham will go a long way to determining what kind of pressure Dak Prescott is under.
Fletcher Cox, DT, 84.4
Arguably the best one-on-one matchup in the game, Fletcher Cox against Zack Martin is a dream for anybody that loves good trench warfare in the NFL. Martin is the league’s second-highest-graded guard, with an overall mark of 88.1, while Cox is the fifth-highest-graded interior defender, at 84.4. Cox has 22 total QB pressures this season, while Martin has allowed only four pressures of any kind across six games. Both players are also excellent in the run game. On paper, the slight edge goes to Martin, but if Cox can step up and have a good game, that would be huge for the Eagles.
Jalen Mills, CB, 39.3
Rookie CB Jalen Mills has been thrown to the lions a little as a rookie, and only 10 players have allowed more receiving yards at the position, despite him playing only 232 snaps so far. He is currently being beaten for 14.3 yards per catch, and is allowing 61.0 percent of all passes thrown his way to be caught. The cornerback position is generally an issue for the Eagles, but they need Mills to limit big gains and play a little tighter to his man in order to shore up that Philadelphia secondary.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, OT, 39.9
In his first NFL action against Washington, Vaitai was a disaster, presenting a colossal drop-off at right tackle from the All-Pro level Lane Johnson had been at before his suspension kicked in. In that game, Vaitai surrendered two sacks, a hit, and a hurry, but against Minnesota he was better, allowing just two hurries all game. Dallas doesn’t have an elite pass-rush, so if Vaitai can maintain even a below-average level of play, Philadelphia should be okay. If, however, he reverts to the turnstile performance he had in his first NFL action, it could be bad enough to give the Cowboys a pass-rushing performance they haven’t had all year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, 75.9 overall grade this season
The Dallas offensive line has been doing much of the heavy lifting for the running game this season. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the league with 703 rushing yards, but only five backs have a lower percentage of their yardage coming after contact through seven weeks. 10 RBs are averaging more yards after contact per carry than Elliott’s 2.8, but in college, that was a strength. If he kicks it up a gear at any point, this Dallas running game could go from formidable to unstoppable.
Dez Bryant, WR, 76.7
In the preseason and before he was sidelined by injury, Dez Bryant provided Dak Prescott with a safety-net outlet. Whenever he was in doubt, and Bryant was single-covered, the rookie could just throw it up and Bryant go to work. The Cowboys’ top WR has the ability to make the plays that nobody else on the team does, and getting him back could potentially result in the big passing plays the Dallas offense has been missing. He will likely be covered largely by Nolan Carroll, who is allowing 17.3 yards per reception this season, but will also see some of Jalen Mills. Either encounter looks like a big mismatch in Bryant’s favor if he is anywhere near 100 percent.
Sean Lee, LB, 82.8
Sean Lee hasn’t been quite at his best this season, but he remains one of the league’s top coverage linebackers and has excellent instincts, along with the ability to quickly diagnose plays and react to them. In particular, he will be all over the short-passing game that the Eagles have been leaning on more over recent weeks. Carson Wentz is now averaging 8.0 yards in depth of target for the season, which is 24th in the NFL. If Lee and the Cowboys’ defense can extinguish many of the yards after the catch from those short throws, the Eagles’ offense will need to find bigger plays downfield to move the ball.
Morris Claiborne, CB, 82.3
A former No. 6 overall selection in the draft, Morris Claiborne hasn’t had a season in which he allowed a completion percentage lower than 61.5 when targeted heading into this year, but he currently sits at 52.5 for 2016. The lowest passer rating he had allowed over a season when in coverage was 94.3, and he was over 100.0 for three of four seasons, but this year he is yielding one of just 55.3, and has yet to give up a score. Morris Claiborne is playing the best football of his NFL career by some distance, but there are four years of poor tape on file that must beg the question of whether a lapse is possible.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE (2016 grade N/A due to small sample size)
Dallas has been without a pass-rush for most of the season, but they have also been without Demarcus Lawrence—their best pass-rusher a year ago—for almost all of it, too. Lawrence returned in Week 5 against the Bengals, but only played 17 snaps in that game. He notched three QB hurries despite that low snap count. The following week against a far better pass protector, he had just one hurry on 29 snaps versus the Packers; now coming off a bye week, we should see a player closer to 100 percent. Can he provide the kind of impact the Cowboys need to support their coverage unit? A year ago, Lawrence racked up 46 total QB pressures and 29 defensive stops.