FRISCO, Texas – Here are my two biggest keys to this weekend's game between the Cowboys and Eagles.
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
Consider me surprised about what happened to the Cowboys defensively on third down last week against the Titans. I would never have imagined that, despite being consistently put in terrible down and distance situations, the Titans would able to convert as well as they did. In all my years in this league, I have never seen an offense pick up as many first downs on third-and-long as the Titans accomplished Monday night.
Give Marcus Mariota and those receivers credit, but I also believe the Cowboys secondary had a hand in their success. As a unit, there were far too many opportunities where Titans receivers were allowed space to operate. When asked about it after studying the tape, Rod Marinelli felt like his guys weren't aggressive enough and after studying that same tape, I agree with him.
For the majority of the season this secondary has been outstanding, so I am chalking up their poor game to just a bad day at the office. But for them to win this game, they can't afford another bad day. As easy as this might be to say, allowing Alshon Jeffrey, Zach Ertz and newly-acquired Golden Tate to take over the game would be a disaster for the Cowboys. The Eagles love to run their receivers all over the field and that's taxing on a secondary. The Cowboys will not only need to be technique-sound but assignment-sound, as well. Choke the Eagles passing game with coverage and you can limit their offensive production.
Philadelphia Eagles Win If:
Despite coming off a bye week, the Eagles have to be concerned with the health of their offensive line. Jason Peters and Lane Johnson were banged up during their game against the Jaguars. They need both Peters and Johnson to be ready with what they're about to face with Cowboys rotation along the defensive line.
Opponents that have had success against the Eagles this season have been able to put pressure on their quarterbacks. Early in the season it was Nick Foles, and now Carson Wentz has faced more pressure than what Doug Pederson would have liked. In their four losses, it has been turnovers, especially in the pocket, that have led to their defeats.
The Cowboys want to just rush four and play coverage behind it, but with the condition of his line, they might force Pederson's hand and send more than he can block. Pederson will try to keep this Cowboys pass rush off balance with the occasional run but also with the use of his screen packages. This is an approach that he learned from his days as a backup quarterback in Green Bay and early in his coaching career with Andy Reid. Pederson saw what the Titans did with their screen game on Monday night, and that has to give him confidence he can do the same thing to this Cowboys defense.
To win this game, Doug Pederson is going to have to tailor his game plan in a way to keep the Cowboys' defensive front seven off Carson Wentz and using screen packages will make that a possibility.