Eagles-Cowboys Preview Q&A With Jon Machota

Discussing Dez Bryant's return, who will win and more.

Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. (USA Today Sports)

Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. (USA Today Sports)

In this week’s installment of Opposition Research, we talked to Dallas Morning News Cowboys beat reporter Jon Machota. We discussed how Dallas is trying to re-create 2014, Dez Bryant’s return and who will win on Sunday, among several other topics.

What are the Cowboys’ strengths?

“It’s all offense. It starts with the running game with Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line. That was their strength in 2014 and that’s what they were trying to re-create this year in the draft when they had the fourth overall pick and they took Zeke. That was the plan all along was to be a run heavy team who could control the clock, take pressure off of Tony Romo and take pressure off a defense that isn’t loaded with stars. Even without Romo, they’ve been able to still have success.

“I think the running game is aiding Dak Prescott more than Dak is aiding the running game. You put together with all of these first-round picks what many consider to be the best offensive line in football and then you add an elite running back like Ezekiel Elliott to the mix — everyone saw what Darren McFadden did behind this offensive line. They saw what DeMarco Murray did behind this offensive line. So it’s not really a surprise that Zeke is having success as well.”

What are the Cowboys’ weaknesses?

“It’s the defense. The defense has been middle of the pack thus far, but that’s been good enough. When you have one of the top offenses in the league — in the NFL, you really can’t expect to be loaded on offense and loaded on defense. Every team is going to have some weakness, and for the Cowboys, it is that defense. They’ve created more turnovers than they did last year, but it’s not like they’re leading the league in forced turnovers. They’ve been better than they were last year, but they haven’t been great. They haven’t put a ton of pressure on the quarterback.

“It really surprised me that they were able to limit Aaron Rodgers the way they did because Aaron Rodgers wasn’t pressured very often. There were times where he was sitting back there a good eight to 10 seconds surveying the field and I thought he was going to carve them up, but he just never did. This isn’t a defense that’s going to shut teams down, but they’re holding teams to around 17 points per game because of the fact that the offense is limiting how many times they’re out on the field.”

Are the Cowboys battling any notable injuries or suspensions?

“Nothing major. The suspensions they’ve had have been all season — [defensive end] Randy Gregory and [linebacker] Rolando McClain — and they haven’t appeared to be a huge problem. They got [defensive end] DeMarcus Lawrence back two weeks ago; he’s been dealing with a little bit of a back injury and a little bit of a shoulder injury. He’s been limited in practice, but I expect him to play and play at a high level Sunday night.

Dez Bryant has been dealing with a knee injury that he suffered against Chicago and he’s missed the last three games, but he really could’ve went against Green Bay. They just kept him out because the bye was last week so he had a couple of extra weeks to rest up to where he needs to be. He’s been limited in practice, too, but unless he suffers a setback, he’ll play on Sunday. Tyron Smith has been dealing with a bulging disc in his back. He’s their top offensive lineman and he’s been limited in practice, but he’s played the last two Sundays so I anticipate him starting again at left tackle. So nothing too major.”

What does it do for the Cowboys’ offense to have Dez Bryant back?

“It’s gonna be huge. For Ezekiel Elliott, he’s been seeing eight- and nine-man boxes, and that’ll probably continue. The Eagles, I believe, will start the game off trying to stop the run, but when that happens, a lot of times it takes a safety away from being able to double Dez. When he’s single-covered, that’s when he feasts on the defense. But I will say this: When Tony Romo was quarterback, he would take more chances to Dez, even when he was double-covered with a safety over the top. But with Dak Prescott, when that safety is over the top, he’s not throwing to Dez.

“He’s not forcing it at all. That’s the thing that Dak has been doing: he’s been taking what the defense has given him. If you want to shut down Dez, put the safety over the top and Dak’s not going to take too many chances. But I think the Eagles will have to stop the run, so I think Dez will get opportunities. The Eagles are actually the team Dez has performed the best against statistically in his career, so I’d think he’ll have a huge impact on this game.”

Who do you think will win?

“I’m probably going with the Cowboys. It really is just the Ezekiel Elliott factor. Until I see someone stop him, I can’t pick against them. I guess if they were playing the Patriots, the Broncos or a few other teams, I’d pick against them, but someone has to stop their run game. For me, I was a guy who went into the season picking the Packers to win the Super Bowl. What they did against Green Bay, even though Aaron Rodgers doesn’t look right, it just really impressed me a lot. I thought for sure the Packers would beat them by 10-14 points, so I’m not picking against them until someone beats them. Things are going in the right direction and even though the Eagles have won the last three games in Dallas, I think this one is different.”