FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys' offensive line play seems to get stronger by the week. So does the quality of their opponents' defensive front.
On Oct. 9, it was the Cincinnati Bengals' two Pro Bowlers, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. On Oct. 16, it was a Green Bay Packers unit that had allowed the second-fewest rushing yards through four games since the NFL began keeping track 83 years ago.
In both games, the Cowboys controlled the line of scrimmage. They know all too well how difficult that will be Sunday night in primetime against two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Frederick Cox and the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Their front four in my opinion is the best we've seen," tight end Jason Witten said.
Philadelphia allows the third-fewest points per game (14.7) and the fifth-fewest yards per game (307.0) in the league. They're also tied for third in sacks (20.0), led by four apiece from Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham.
The Eagles actually have been just as effective inside the 20. They rank first in red zone defensive efficiency, allowing points only 65 percent of the time. Last Sunday, even with defensive tackle Bennie Logan out of the lineup, they gave up seven points in four red zone situations in a 21-10 win over the previously-unbeaten Minnesota Vikings.
"They're sound on the back end with their coverages," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "They play a mix of coverages - not overly complicated but they mix it between playing some shell coverage and some single high coverage. They have a really good defensive line that puts pressure on the quarterback so the quarterbacks don't have a lot of time to get rid of the ball to let things develop. And they've done a good job defending the run as well."
Sunday offers yet another intriguing matchup. The Cowboys' offense, led by three Pro Bowlers up front, has the third-best red zone efficiency with points scored 95.7 percent of the time. Quarterback Dak Prescott has been sacked the second-fewest times (9). And running back Ezekiel Elliott (703 yards) still ranks first in rushing despite last week's bye.
"It's going to be a challenge for us," center Travis Frederick said. "Looking at them, it's a really, really good front seven. You could call it a 'front eight' because they often play eight men in the box. It's going to be really tough for us, but it's something that we as a group do our best at every single week to try to prepare ourselves to counteract that."
The Philly defense has given the Cowboys' line something else to think about: though not a frequent blitzing group under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, they brought a variety of pressures against the Vikings. The result: six sacks and four forced turnovers.
"You've got to prepare for both," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "They've got a really good front four, so they don't have to blitz. Some teams blitz more because maybe they don't have the same kind of weapons they do. But they get a lot of pressure with their four-man rush, but they have a really good scheme. They can mix in pressures with their linebackers and secondary. So we've got to be ready for both."