Lane Johnson said it best before the Monday night showdown with the Redskins: “These next two games are essentially our season.” And he’s absolutely right. Following their latest win, the Philadelphia Eagles now are in a position to potentially move into the top spot in the NFC East, a pipe dream just a few weeks ago.
While the offense still isn’t yet in peak form, the defensive front is more than making up for it. After dropping their Week 10 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, there should be added motivation to stomp this team and recapture the divisional crown.
Stop Zeke, Stop the Cowboys
It’s a fairly mainstream criticism of Dak Prescott to say that his game suffers when Ezekiel Elliott is not getting “fed”. But it’s also fairly true. The Cowboys come into this game on Cloud 9, winning their last four games and taking sole possession of 1st place in the NFC East. A big part of their winning ways has been the increased workload given to their star running back.
In the Eagles Week 10 loss, Zeke ran wild against a depleted Eagles defense. He finished with 151 rushing yards on 19 carries and a touchdown. Not only did the Cowboys win the time of possession battle, but also got Zeke going on the ground which in turn opened up some downfield action for Dak. It did not help that the Eagles played one of their most undisciplined tackling games of the season.
To win the divisional showdown, it’s going to take a combination of stopping Ezekiel Elliott as well as getting constant pressure on Prescott. The Eagles front four were able to rack up four sacks on Dak in Week 10 as well as 10 hits. He finished the game with just one passing touchdown and a QBR of 56.1, but he made clutch plays when it mattered most.
As the Eagles focused more and more on containing Zeke, the wide receivers were left in one-on-one coverages that Prescott exploited. Here’s a perfect example as Kamu Grugier-Hill bites on the run fake and leaves Amari Cooper wide open where KGH should have been in zone coverage.
A big question mark heading into Sunday afternoon’s contest is the health of Timmy Jernigan. He returned last week but was forced out of the game because of back spasms. While Doug Pederson has said he expects Jernigan to suit up for the Dallas game, his effectiveness will be a mystery until kickoff.
I mentioned in last week’s column that Jernigan transforms this defensive line because offensive lines now have the difficult decision to face of which Pro-Bowl caliber pass rusher to leave in a one-on-one matchup. This not only helps the Eagles in obvious passing downs but also has a huge impact on the opposing teams running game as well.
With Jordan Hicks almost certain to miss another game with his calf injury, expect to see more of Nathan Gerry and Grugier-Hill. Nigel Bradham once again has been a force against the run, but Gerry and KGH need to be at their best to contain Zeke to secure victory in the most important game of the season.
The Cowboys Defense is Elite
Rod Marinelli still rolls with his unique coverage scheme because of his skilled linebackers and safeties. His cornerbacks have one job: do not get beat deep to the outside. They don’t have to worry about in-breaking routes because that’s where the playmaking linebackers and safeties roam.
It’s not only their budding superstar linebacking tandem of Jaylon Smith and rookie phenom Leighton Vander Esch playing well, but also their entire defensive line. Carson Wentz was sacked only twice in Week 10, but faced constant pressure that threw off the timing of some routes.
Luckily, the Eagles offensive line is clicking at the perfect moment and I am now eating my words about Isaac Seumalo not being the long-term solution at left guard. The kid has looked better and better every week.
Zach Ertz had a monster game the last time the Eagles faced the Cowboys. He caught 14 passes on 16 targets for 145 yards and two touchdowns. I would not be shocked if Ertz received bracket coverage from the Cowboys’ defense in order to take away Wentz’ security blanket. Regardless, I think another Eagles weapon is due for a breakout performance.
Most Important Player
After Ertz’ high mark of 16 targets against the Cowboys earlier this year, Alshon Jeffery was the next most targeted receiver with just eight in that game. If Rod Marinelli is going to allow in-breaking routes, then utilize Alshon’s physical advantage on the Cowboys defensive backs. His “box out” ability and use of his big frame to shield off defenders is one of his biggest strengths as a receiver.
Make the Cowboys defend slant patterns to both Alshon and Ertz over the middle before taking that shot downfield. Despite the career year that Zach Ertz is having, Wentz needs to focus on distributing the ball around like he did against the Redskins.
While Ertz still led the team with 10 targets, Nelson Agholor caught four passes on eight targets and Golden Tate had his best game as an Eagle, hauling in all nine targets and leading the team in receiving yards. Alshon finished 4th in targets with five.
It is that type of dynamic passing offense that is going to end up breaking the Cowboys secondary. Dougie P and Wentz have done a phenomenal job lately of getting other weapons involved and not solely relying on Zach Ertz to make every third-down conversion (although I’m convinced he still could).
So for my BOLD player prediction, I think Alshon Jeffery goes off in this one. If the Eagles target him enough, expect close to 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns. With a tough last four games remaining, this is the definition of a “must-win” game in the NFL.
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