FRISCO, Texas – From my vantage point in our studios back here at The Star, here are some of my first impressions on how the Cowboys got this crucial win at Lincoln Financial Field.
As always, I'll have some more detail when I've had a chance to see the game again. Until then, this is what really jumped off the screen at me on Sunday night.
· I thought this game would come down to the Cowboys' ability to handle the Eagles' big defensive tackles. The decision to go with Xavier Su'a-Filo on Friday was the right one. The trio of Su'a-Filo, Joe Looney and Zack Martin was outstanding in not only providing running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott, but giving Dak Prescott a place to step up to make some clutch throws. It was going to be power on power from the start, so give Round 1 to the inside three of the Cowboys.
· You can't say enough about Leighton Vander Esch and his ability to play with instinct. I remember Sean Lee making a similar play in an Eagles game several years ago where he knocked them out of field goal range by tackling the back in the flat, which helped lead to a Cowboys victory. For Vander Esch to read the blockers and work his way underneath those blocks like a smaller man to come up with that stop at that particular moment is a credit to the type of player he is.
· The Cowboys' plan going into the game was trying to deal with Zach Ertz with both Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. In the past we've seen Byron Jones with that responsibility, but since he made the move to corner, Heath and Woods were going to draw the assignment. Ertz might have ended up with 14 receptions, but the fourth down that he didn't convert was the one we all remember. Wood had a really nice night, but I believe the Cowboys caught a break with Heath drawing the assignment on that particular play. Heath is taller and stronger than Woods, which allowed him to drive Ertz away from the sticks. A smaller Woods might not have been able to finish that play the way he needed to.
· Michael Bennett did nothing the majority of the game against Tyron Smith. Without the benefit of looking at the tape, I would say that Smith dominated Bennett. Scott Linehan did a smart thing by running the ball behind Smith in this game. Bennett is so interested getting up the field that playing the run at times is an afterthought for him. Smith used his power to take full advantage of the lighter Bennett to eliminate him from the game and the offensive attack benefited from it.
· Great call by the staff to go with the fake punt there in the second quarter. It made up for the poor throw by Dak Prescott to a wide open Cole Beasley on the previous play that should have been a conversion in the flat. Jeff Heath hit the right spot and was able to ride the surge to the first down. It was a gutsy call but the perfect one -- with the Eagles believing they had made the stop and the distance was too far for the Cowboys to go for it. The element of surprise was well calculated.
· What a heck of a play by Chidobe Awuzie to knock the ball away from Alshon Jeffery to break up what would have been a huge gain for the Eagles. I don't believe that Awuzie actually saw the ball. It looked more like he was just reacting to Jeffery by sticking his off hand out at the right moment. One of the best traits you can possess as a cornerback is the ability to be reactionary and on that particular play, Awuzie was just that. The stop one play later forced the Eagles into a long field goal situation. They made the kick, but Awuzie's play saved the Cowboys four points.
· What a great call to get Michael Gallup the ball on third and long. The screen play completely caught the Eagles' defense off guard due to how Scott Linehan ran it into the boundary. Tyron Smith and Xavier Su'a-Filo didn't have to run as far to get out in front for the blocks. The Eagles defenders did a poor job of attacking the play, but it really didn't matter. Once Gallup had the ball, he was getting North-South in a hurry and working in that tight space down the sideline, which led to the conversion.
· Something that the coaches noticed on film during the week was that the Eagles like to play a defense called "Money 44." The idea is to put your defenders on the sticks and make the quarterback check the ball down underneath, then rally to the ball. The Cowboys had a great plan to drop the ball underneath -- but use the receivers and tight ends as blockers down the field. It was something I was told that they practiced all week in preparation for this game and Rod Smith almost picked up the necessary yardage to convert the down. It was close enough for Jason Garrett to decide to go for it on fourth down -- but was forced to punt when Geoff Swaim jumped on the play.
· I think we're all starting to see the value of Amari Cooper as a wide receiver. The quickness, power and finish are all outstanding. There's no better example than the play he made on third down running through Ronald Darby. For Cooper to catch the ball on the move, then turn it up the field running over Darby and then driving for the first down was beyond impressive. The offense was in a big hole and he was able to give them a fresh set of downs as well as provide a little momentum for the group.
· It would have been really easy for Allen Hurns to fold up shop when Amari Cooper joined the team, but to his credit he's made some nice plays these last two games. Last week he hit a double-move for a touchdown against the Titans. This week he had the big reception before halftime and another one on third and long for 23 yards and a first down. Hurns might not be the fastest or quickest receiver on the roster, but he has continued to find ways to get open despite lacking those traits. Hurns has also developed as a dependable blocker when they put him in those situations during the year.
· If you're a player, I don't know how you couldn't love Kris Richard. If your coach is getting in a scuffle with the opponents before the game and that doesn't fire you up -- I don't know what will. A lot is said about the coaches and the jobs they do. I'll admit, there have been times where I have been critical of their performance. But make no mistake about this: they understand the importance of what's ahead, and if it takes Richard doing that every week, well, then sign me up.
· Dak Prescott should have had two touchdown passes to Ezekiel Elliott in this game. He missed Elliott earlier in the game in the flat where, if he just would have given the ball to him on the move, Elliott would have been able to power in. The touchdown pass they did connect on was a well-designed play with a fake underneath going to the left and sliding Elliott back out to the right. The fake ran the opposing linebacker into the trash and created a natural pick – not by using receivers, but the Eagles' own defenders. It was very well-executed.