Last week, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense reached a level of dominance I didn’t expect as they engineered a major upset over the New Orleans Saints. They took sole possession of the NFC East and limited a historically-good Drew Brees and company to 192 yards of total offense.
Now they have a chance to gain a two-game advantage over their rival, including a head-to-head tiebreaker, as they host the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday. Both sides will be familiar with the other, since these two clubs see each other twice a year and last met as recently as a month ago.
Philadelphia has struggled in their title defense this year, but they’ve won their last two games, scoring 25 and 28 points, respectively. They’ve had a month to integrate Golden Tate into their scheme, and his connection with Carson Wentz could be a critical factor on Sunday. But the biggest threat to the Cowboys is Zach Ertz and the multitude of ways in which he’s deployed.
Here are some of the concepts Eagles head coach Doug Pederson will dial up on gameday.
The Eagles’ longest run in their 27-20 loss against Dallas last month was a 29-yard wham from Josh Adams.
On trap or wham runs, one or more defensive linemen are initially unblocked as the offensive line bypasses them to engage the second level. Another offensive lineman traps the free defensive tackle and seals him from the play. The wham block is essentially the same as a trap, except a tight end or fullback executes it.
Sometimes, Philadelphia will motion in a tight end to act as the wham blocker. This is a look they executed a few times in their Week 10 matchup with the Cowboys.
Pederson may also utilize jet motion to draw linebackers away from the point of attack and give their linemen an easier angle to block. When properly executed, aggressive front sevens like Rod Marinelli’s can easily find themselves out-leveraged. However, he and Kris Richard have done an excellent job of coaching their unit to defend these runs in 2018.
One of the Eagles’ staple pass designs is the mesh. This is a play they run at least two to three times a week and is effective against man and zone coverage.
The mesh relies on two shallow crossing routes, often with a third receiver running a sit or curl route. Against man, the crossing routes create traffic over the middle and rub defenders to create separation for receivers. When defenses are in zone, the sit route often opens as defenders are occupied by the crossing routes.
Late in the game against the Giants in Week 12 on 4th-and-1, Wentz found a wide-open Nelson Agholor for 12 yards.
Last week, Wentz hit Agholor again for five yards on 2nd-and-14.
Watch for the Eagles to also call this design on shorter passing downs when Dallas is more likely to be in man coverage.
Exploiting weaknesses in the Cowboys’ scheme or taking advantage of individual matchups with the sixth-year tight end will be an important aspect of the Philadelphia gameplan. Ertz is their most reliable weapon and a tough cover for any defender, whether it’s Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, or Leighton Vander Esch.
One of the many ways Wentz will look Ertz’s way is when he’s aligned as the X-Iso in a 3×1 formation. Whenever the Stanford product is the isolated receiver, there’s a decent chance the ball will be thrown his way, especially if he’s covered by a linebacker. Against Heath, Ertz’s size will often be more than the safety can handle.
On the first play of last week’s win over the Redskins, Wentz made an excellent anticipatory throw to Ertz on a dig route vs Cover-3 zone.
Against Washington linebacker Zach Brown in off-coverage, this was an easy 10-yard gain.
Here’s another shallow cross against the Cowboys on 1st-and-10 in the early third quarter. The defense is in Cover-3 zone as Byron Jones aligns over the tight end. Jones passes him off when Ertz breaks inside. He’s open for an easy 10-yard gain or more, but Wentz targets Golden Tate’s over route instead.
Don’t expect this sequence to repeat itself on gameday. The Dallas linebackers and No. 1 cornerback weren’t on the same page and gave up too much cushion to the tight end. If that happens again, Wentz will be sure to make the Cowboys pay with an easy throw for a good gain.
Other tactics the Eagles could utilize are throwback screens and bootleg passes. On 2nd-and-7 midway through the second quarter against the Redskins, Ertz catches the defense off-guard with a late release on a Wentz rollout for 17 yards.
Completely eliminating Ertz from the game is impossible. But containing him will go a long way towards stifling Pederson’s offense.
The post-over is a simple yet effective route combination. Scott Linehan likes to use a similar play with Cole Beasley on a slant-over concept (also known as F-Post), but the post-over attacks deeper downfield.
When facing Cover 3, the cornerback defending the post is typically shaded outside, especially with how far inside the tight end lines up before the snap. The safety in the deep middle must honor the over route or that receiver will be wide open. This creates a void between deep zones for the post to exploit.
If the Cowboys are caught in a “standard” Cover 3 when the Eagles run this play, they’ll be gashed for a big gain. Their best hope to prevent Wentz from connecting is if their pass rush gets home before he can throw.
The Dallas Cowboys have turned their season around with a four-game winning streak, proving me wrong about their 2018 prospects earlier this season. After their dominance over the Saints, this defense has shown they’re capable of leading the team to victory if they make the playoffs.
But they have to make the playoffs first. A second victory over the defending Super Bowl champions will put them one step away from that goal. If the defense continues to roll as it did in Week 12, they’ll earn their fifth straight win. However, if DeMarcus Lawrence and his teammates falter, then this game will be a tossup.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.