Cheat Sheet: Eagles Offense Vs. Cowboys ‘D’

You know the drill. Here are 10 things to know about this matchup.

1. Nick Foles will make his second straight start, leading a unit that ranks near the top in many statistical categories. The Eagles’ offense is second in Football Outsiders’ rankings, behind only the Denver Broncos. The Birds are averaging 27.7 points per game (fourth) and have put up 67 in the last two weeks combined. They’ll be going up against a Cowboys defense that ranks 21st – both in Football Outsiders’ rankings and scoring (allowing 25.3 points per game). In their last outing, the Cowboys held the Redskins to 16 points for their third win of the year.

2. Foles has played at a high level the last two weeks. Overall, he’s completing 67.2 percent of his passes and averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. He’s thrown six touchdowns, run for one more and has yet to turn it over. There were questions about Chip Kelly’s passing concepts when he first joined the NFL ranks, but the Eagles have the fifth-ranked passing offense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. Foles has not thrown it deep as much as Vick did. Per Pro Football Focus, 11.5 percent of Foles’ attempts have traveled 20+ yards downfield. That number was 15.9 percent under Vick. But Foles has connected on five of seven of those throws. A small sample size for sure, but encouraging nonetheless after he struggled with the deep ball last year. There was much talk about the “get the ball out quick” passing game under Kelly, but the Eagles have 34 pass plays of 20+ yards. That’s tops in the league. No other team has more than 27.

3. The Eagles are the top rushing team in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. The Cowboys rank 15th against the run. Opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per carry against them (T-23rd). LeSean McCoy is the NFL’s leading rusher with 630 yards. Among the 20 running backs who have at least 75 carries, McCoy is the only one averaging 5.0 YPC or better (he’s at 5.1). The Eagles’ scheme and blocking also deserve credit. I asked Todd Herremans this week if he’s ever performed better as a run blocker. He said no and credited O-Line coach Jeff Stoutland. Really, all five offensive linemen have gotten the job done in the run game. The Cowboys run a 4-3 and have tackling machine Sean Lee at middle linebacker. The Penn State product is fourth in the league with 60 tackles. Eagles offensive linemen have done a terrific job of getting to linebackers after their initial double teams. That’s something to watch in the run game against Lee.

4. Up front, DeMarcus Ware said he’s a game-time decision. Initial reports had Ware out three-to-four weeks with a thigh injury, but he plans on traveling to Philadelphia to see if he can go. The Cowboys have less talent in their front seven than many of the teams the Eagles have faced this year. Without Ware, their pass-rush is unimpressive. One player to watch is defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. The eight-year veteran already has a career-high five sacks. Jason Kelce has been good in pass protection. Herremans has been up and down. Evan Mathis has been solid. Without Ware, Hatcher becomes Dallas’ best pass-rusher.

5. The Cowboys’ other defensive linemen are George Selvie (LDE), Nick Hayden and Kyle Wilber (if Ware can’t go). Again, the Cowboys have a mediocre pass rush (13th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders) with Ware on the field. Without him, there’s not a lot there. Selvie has three sacks on the season. He’ll be matched up with Lane Johnson who was up-and-down vs. the Bucs. Jason Peters suffered a shoulder injury vs. Tampa, but is expected to play. The Eagles should be able to control the game up front on offense.

6. The Eagles have the fifth-ranked passing offense, per Football Outsiders. The Cowboys rank 22nd in pass defense. DeSean Jackson leads all wide receivers with 589 receiving yards. He is the only player in the NFL with 500+ yards, five touchdowns and a YPC average greater than 17.0. Jackson is on pace for 91 catches, 1,570 yards and 13 touchdowns. All three of those numbers would shatter his previous career highs. Jackson has lined up in the slot 28.7 percent of the time, per PFF. On 14 targets in the slot, he has 12 catches for 188 yards. Riley Cooper had his best game of the season (by far) against Tampa, catching four balls for 120 yards.

7. The Cowboys have invested in their secondary, but are not seeing results. Their top cornerback is Brandon Carr, but 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne has been demoted in favor of veteran Orlando Scandrick. Claiborne comes into the game in nickel situations, and Scandrick slides inside. The safeties are rookie J.J. Wilcox and veteran Barry Church. Opponents are completing 65.6 percent of their passes against Dallas (24th), and the Cowboys are giving up 7.9 yards per attempt (also 24th). They have allowed 23 completions of 20+ yards (tied for fifth-most) and a league-high 14 touchdown passes. The Cowboys don’t play all Tampa-2 with new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. They play a healthy amount of man coverage with a single high safety. Kelly, Foles and the Eagles feasted on the Bucs’ zone scheme, incorporating a series of packaged run-pass option plays. Don’t be surprised if we see the Cowboys go with a lot of man coverage on Sunday.

8. Lee is one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL, but teams have still had success throwing to tight ends against the Cowboys. Per Football Outsiders, Dallas ranks 29th against opposing TEs. Kelly has gone out of his way continuously to praise Brent Celek. Celek has improved as a run blocker, but on pass plays, he’s actually staying in to block less than he did under Andy Reid. Per PFF, Celek has gone out into routes on pass plays 83.4 percent of the time this season. That number was 76.8 percent in 2012 and 74.7 percent in 2011. Celek has been targeted just 18 times in six games. Zach Ertz saw an uptick in playing time last week. Kelly said that was partly because of wanting to spell Celek in the heat in Tampa. We’ll find out Sunday if that was the real reason or if the Eagles just want to get the rookie on the field more.

9. In case you haven’t noticed, Eagles special teams aren’t exactly flourishing. Overall, they rank 29th, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings. They are tied for 18th on kickoff returns and 21st on punt returns. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are third in kickoff returns and second on punt returns. What’s noteworthy here is that the Eagles could have potentially had Dallas’ return man, Dwayne Harris.

Paul Domowitch of the Daily News added this:

The Cowboys took Harris, an East Carolina product who leads the league in punt and kickoff returns, in the sixth round of the ’11 draft, with the 176th overall pick. The Eagles selected Pitt running back Dion Lewis and Iowa offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde in the fifth round and Cincinnati center Jason Kelce in the sixth, 15 picks after Harris. Kelce has turned out to be a great pick. Vandervelde is Kelce’s backup. Lewis had just 36 carries in two seasons with the Eagles before being traded to the Browns in April. According to a club source, the Eagles had Harris rated higher than the Cowboys, but “we didn’t really go off our [draft] board.”

10. Don’t forget that the Cowboys have the old shark in the water, linebacker Ernie Sims, in their starting lineup. …Dallas is 24th in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns 61.9 percent of the time. The Eagles are 27th in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns 45 percent of the time. …The Cowboys are 25th in third-down defense, allowing conversions 42.3 percent of the time. The Eagles’ offense is fourth, converting 45.9 percent of the time.

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