The Cowboys did just about anything they wanted to against Philadelphia on Monday night. They were the aggressor on both sides of the ball and had the Eagles playing the entire game on their heels.
Cowboys offense in control
Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy had a great approach against Philadelphia. They played with balance from a run-pass perspective, and they were diverse within each phase of the game, ushering the Eagles’ D-line in every direction. Their 13 play, 80-yard touchdown drive that took almost 8 minutes off the clock in the second quarter was a great example.
On this drive that showcased a little bit of everything, we saw several runs where the Cowboys went right at the Eagles’ interior D-line, getting multiple double-teams inside. Just look at the push up front on this play:
We saw play-action bootlegs that stretched the defensive line sideline to sideline:
We saw screens that invited Eagles pass rushers upfield, only to leave them chasing the ball carrier.
We saw draws that also got Philly’s D-line to race past the ball carrier. Watch Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave inside here.
Philly’s D-line, led by Cox and Hargrave, was the only unit that could possibly derail the Cowboys Offense. While they did make some plays, Moore and McCarthy’s approach kept them guessing.
Attacking Zone Coverage
Dallas knew heading into this game that they would see lots of zone coverage from Philly. How do you attack zone? Target one defender with two routes and remove any help.
Below is a good example of how the Cowboys did that for a touchdown. This was a post-wheel combination:
What made it work was the timing and execution of the routes. Tight end Dalton Schultz released slowly off the line. Amari Cooper ended up stacking on top of him.
With Cooper running a post right at him, safety Anthony Harris reacted as if he was the only vertical threat. So he cheated inside, not noticing the threat of Schultz because of his slow release and the stack.
With the safety removed, that left the cover-2 cornerback Darius Slay in a bind. He had Schultz running by him on the wheel and a running back in the flat. Slay jumped the flat, thinking his help over the top (Harris) would be there to help.
He was wrong.
While Slay should have provided more cushion to take away any deeper threat to the outside, he was assuming Harris would be playing closer to the sideline. Harris was taken out of the play, though, unaware of the multiple deep threats to his cover-2 zone due to the design and execution of the routes. That’s a great play call.
The other ways you beat zone are with patience. For the second week in a row, that’s what we saw from Dak Prescott. With the exception of his 44-yard completion to CeeDee Lamb on the opening drive, Dak took what the defense gave him, moving the ball in a controlled manner. The Cowboys ultimately ran 71 plays to just 53 for Philadelphia, and they possessed the ball for almost 35 minutes.
Forcing Hurts to be perfect
While Prescott was precise, patient, and able to move his offense down the field on multiple long drives, Jalen Hurts was the opposite. I mentioned before the game that Hurts is not a precise passer from a timing or accuracy perspective at this stage in his career. So Dan Quinn had to make him try to be one. That’s the approach we saw on Monday, and Hurts couldn’t deliver.
His two interceptions are great illustrations. The first one was on an inaccurate throw against tight man coverage.
His second interception came on a speed-out route to rookie DeVonta Smith. Cornerback Trevon Diggs sat on the route, reading Hurts the whole way, and broke at the top of his drop.
That’s a great play by Diggs. But when I talk about lack of precision on the part of Hurts, this play is what I mean. He was slow to get the ball out, deliberate with his eyes, didn’t read Diggs, and threw the ball behind his receiver. The Cowboys had a good approach for taking advantage of his imprecision.
The Cowboys’ defense kept Hurts from making any big plays with his legs. His longest run of the night was for just 9 yards. On called passes, Dallas did this in a number of ways.
Sometimes they kept the pass rush in front of Hurts and didn’t allow any escape lanes, like on this play below. Notice how the Cowboys dropped defensive ends Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons into coverage on the outside and brought two linebackers inside (Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch). They created a wall in front of Hurts, who was looking to flee the pocket early.
A wall in front of Jalen Hurts. No escape lanes pic.twitter.com/MrYawqQUHt— Nick Kehoe (@Nick_FFR) September 28, 2021
Other times, Quinn played man coverage and used a spy to make sure Hurts couldn’t use his legs while defenders’ backs were turned.
Throughout the night, Quinn had his defensive backs smother Eagles receivers, not allowing any separation or many easy throws. And he took away Hurts’ ability to make big plays on scrambles. When you can do that as a defense, chances are this Eagles offense isn’t going to have much success.
I can’t explain why the Eagles didn’t run the ball more. They finished with just three (three!) rushes by a running back all night. This was a two-possession game as late as the end of the third quarter, and they still didn’t try to run it. The decision appeared to be by choice, which was an odd one considering their strengths and weaknesses on offense.
Maybe attempting to run more wouldn’t have made a significant difference. The Cowboys are a much faster and more talented team than the Eagles. Three games into the season, they appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the NFC East as well.