Make no bones about it, when the Cowboys played the Eagles on Thanksgiving day, they got their rear-ends handed to them, the Eagles fast-paced offense was able to move the ball at will both on the ground and through the air despite playing Mark Sanchez at the most important position in all of sports. Now, a mere 17 days later, the Cowboys will travel to the city of brotherly love, with an opportunity to exact some revenge on the Eagles, and take the lead in the NFC East with two games to go.
If they want to win, they’ll have to play better on defense, and they can take a few hints from the defending champs to help them get there.
The Eagles are a team that famously spreads a defense out using multiple WR sets, meaning defenses are forced to play Nickel (5 defensive backs) or Dime (6 defensive backs) personnel almost every snap. This naturally increases the team speed on defense, but the Seahawks took it a step farther.
They played defensive end Michael Bennett inside at the three technique (outside shoulder of the Guard) defensive tackle position, and played their starting SAM (typically strong side) outside linebacker, Bruce Irvin, at defensive end a majority of the game. They made the conscious decision to go small with the goal of generating extra penetration.
In Sunday’s game, Michael Bennett was an absolute menace from the three technique, living in the Eagles backfield much of the day. His stat line? Three tackles including two for losses, a sack and a QB hit. In addition, he was credited with 2 additional QB hurries per Pro Football Focus. Meaning he impacted the QB with a sack, hit, or hurry on 17% of Mark Sanchez’s drop backs. There are many technical reasons why inside penetration is so disruptive, especially against an offense like Philadelphia’s, and we have seen how much a quality veteran QB in Tony Romo struggles when defenses can generate that inside pressure consistently, and this pressure impacted Sanchez, as well as the Eagles’ running game throughout the contest.
The one place where the Cowboys have the most promise along their Defensive Line is the three technique. Tyrone Crawford has been a disruptive presence and Henry Melton has produced 5 sacks from that spot, and these two will have to come with their A game if the Cowboys defense is going to improve on their Turkey Day performance.Everyone knows the Seahawks M-O on defense, especially in the secondary, their goal is to beat up on opponents' WRs and make it difficult for them to run their routes. This philosophy is perfectly suited for their personnel not only in the secondary, with Corners Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman, as well as Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, but also with line backers like Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright who run very well. In this game the Seahawks stuck to their guns, attacking the Eagles pass catchers both at the line of scrimmage and at the point of the catch.
While the Eagles are difficult to defend from a talent, and tempo standpoint, they are not all that complex from a scheme perspective. One thing Chip Kelly does very well is use simple route concepts and combinations that will manipulate the integrity of zone coverages, especially when combined with the tempo they play with. However, if you play man coverage, you know you’re going to see lots of crossing routes and low percentage go routes from this team.
Again, the Cowboys don’t have the personnel in the back 7 that the Seahawks do, but they have been the type of team that tends to play better when they are asked to man up and play their guy. If they can disrupt the crossing routes, and play J.J. Wilcox 5-8 yards deeper than normal in the middle of the field to give him better angles to deep balls to the outside, they should be able to force Mark Sanchez to unload the ball underneath, and drive the length of the field.
One side effect of playing man coverage is a lot of one on one tackling situations. The Eagles depend on their guys winning these matchups, and making runs after the catch to convert third downs and create explosive plays. Guys like Maxwell, Chancellor, and Wagner were able to close on guys in space and make tackles short of the sticks, which played a big part in the paltry 2 for 11 on third down. In addition to the third down situations, the Eagles two primary running backs, LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles, are both “space” players that thrive on making tacklers miss in one on one situations. In games where opponents succeed in minimizing those opportunities by rallying multiple guys to the ball, and make tackles when they are isolated, the Eagles have struggled to get anything going in the run game.
The Cowboys are going to need good tackling performances from their whole defense, particularly the guys in the back end. In the two best defensive games of the year, against New Orleans and in Seattle, the defense tackled very well on third downs, and were able to get off the field because of it. They will need a similar effort on Sunday if they hope to contain McCoy, Maclin, Sproles, and Company.