While the saying "football is a game of inches" has since become cliche, it's applicable to the Week 14 "Sunday Night Football" showdown between the 10-2 Philadelphia Eagles and the 9-3 Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys lost the first meeting this season between the two teams up in Philadelphia 28-23 where this fourth quarter, fourth-and-goal pass from Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott to second-rookie tight end Luke Schoonmaker was ruled a touchdown but then reversed to inches short and a turnover on downs upon replay review.
The Dallas defense limited the Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Philly offense to their third-fewest total yards in a game this season (292), and their fourth-fewest net passing yards in a game this season (183), but the Cowboys came up just short as their offense, which is now the highest-scoring attack in the NFL (32.3 points per game), came up empty on drives inside the Philadelphia 30-yard line. Knowing just how close the margin between victory and defeat can be, the Dallas defense is looking to take their performance to the next level in the re-match between the two NFC East juggernauts.
"It's always one of the biggest games in football, if not the biggest," Dallas Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said Wednesday. "The intensity is always high, the emotions high, everyone wants to win. It's a brawl. It's always one where you got to get the ice bags ready."
The Cowboys defense won the fight on four of the Eagles' last six drives in Week 9, forcing four punts, the final three of which occurred as three-and-outs on Philadelphia's final three possessions. However, the two touchdowns they allowed to Philadelphia on their first two drives in the third quarter, a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to DeVonta Smith and a four-yard pass from Hurts to A.J. Brown, saw their 17-14 halftime lead flip to a 28-17 hole all before the fourth quarter began in an eventual 28-23 defeat. This time around, there's a heightened sense of urgency to force turnovers.
"We have to have a chance to get the football and get it back to our offense," Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Monday. "One of the things that make them who they are is how strong they are on third and fourth downs. They were right about 50% [against us in Week 9], which is right around what their average is. We have to be stronger in that spot. Some of these are going to turn into fourth downs. I think those are some of the big keys leaving that one and heading into it [facing the Eagles] again."
One of the critical components of that success if Hurts' legs. The 2022 NFL MVP runner-up quarterback has run for 50 first downs, the second-most of any player in the entire NFL, trailing only San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey's 63. Hurts has 121 carries this season, 35th in the entire NFL and nine more than the next-closest quarterback, Lamar Jackson and his 112. That means Hurts averages a first down on 41.3% of his carries, the best such mark in the entire NFL. This success rate has come despite his designed runs per game dropping ever so slightly from 6.3 a game in 2022 to 6.0 per game in 2023. Some of that decline can be attributed to Hurts suffering a knee injury in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Rams.
"Over the year, I know he [Hurts] is over 100 carries, so that's going to stand over time to where carries are going to take place," Quinn said Wednesday. "We know that's a real part for him whether he uses his legs to scramble and remain a passer or scramble to run or in a designed quarterback run. All of those things factor in. As far as how much they use him or don't, that's not really our call. We'll always prepare for somebody and what they look like doing it at the highest level or doing it at the most. Then, we can always adjust in-game. It's as much as you go about it that way than any other way."
The secret sauce
"That's a good question," Quinn said Wednesday when asked if the Eagles offense puts Micah Parsons and the Cowboys front in more of a bind than others. "I don't know if it's more than others. ... It's our job to find the matchups, find where to go and where to attack, but I wouldn't say more than other teams. Maybe just their play style and how they play may be different. They don't play a traditional way on third down as some other teams do. That's more unique to their system."
Despite Quinn's unit ranking in the top five of the league in scoring defense (18.3 points per game allowed, fourth-fewest in NFL) and total defense (287.1 total yards per game allowed, third-fewest in NFL), Dallas has allowed over 300 yards of total offense in consecutive games with for the first time in 2023, including 406 in a 41-35 victory against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 on "Thursday Night Football." Most of those yards came through the air via the 334 yards Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith threw for while hitting receiver DK Metcalf for 134 of those yards and all three of his touchdown passes.
"Not a lot [of changes to coverage plan]," Quinn said Wednesday. "Obviously we made some changes, we matched. We did some other things. We were still pretty aggressive. That's who we are, and that's how we get it on. We've done that a lot and have a lot of confidence in doing that."
That means Pro Bowler A.J. Brown and former Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith will continue to see plenty of man coverage from the Cowboys as Dallas runs man on 37.5% of their defensive plays, the third-highest rate in the league. The Seahawks aerial onslaught slowed down in the second half of Week 13 thanks to Quinn "matching" or having 2019 Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Stephon Gilmore shadow Metcalf, something he and November's NFC Defensive Player of the Month DaRon Bland will continue doing this season.
"I just think, it's us, you know, we just got to be tighter and better on our assignment," Gilmore said Wednesday. "They didn't do anything special and they do get us, the teams, get us on that. So we just have to play good technique."
The Eagles have the best record, 10-2, through 13 weeks of the 2023 NFL season, and one of the many drivers of their success is their third-down and fourth-down efficiency. Philly converts on third down at nearly a 50% clip, 47.9% to be exact, the third-highest conversion rate in the NFL. They convert fourth downs to first downs at a league-best conversion rate of 73.7% while no other team has a percentage in the 70's.
"As it relates to this week, one of the things Philadelphia does well amongst many is third down," Quinn said. "Going into our game the first time, they were hitting around 50% on third down, which is a really high number. Ironically that's the number they hit [against us, 7-for-14]. That's where some of the secret sauce of this game is going to live because some of their third downs turn into fourth downs where they go. That's why I was referring to earlier in that they don't play in a traditional sense all the time on third downs. That adds another element to it. That's one of the games within the game. On third and fourth downs, that's going to be a big deal. We got to go make those stops in that space."
A key component to that NFL-best success is how effective the Eagles are at utilizing the rugby-style, "Tush Push" quarterback sneak play. They convert third or fourth downs to first downs or goal line plays to touchdowns while using that play 87.5% (28-32) of the time. The rest of the NFL is barely above a 70% success rate (72.2% to be exact, 52-72) on the play.
"Every first down, it's first-and-9," Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said after a 31-17 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 7 in which the team successfully used the play on fourth-and-1 at their own 26. "Knowing that if you get to fourth-and-1, shoot, a lot of faith in that play.''
One of the keys to that productivity is simply getting into fourth and manageable situations, which the Eagles do by running the ball on an NFL-high 39.9% of their third downs.
"So oftentimes you'll see a team that's third-and-5 or third-and-4 or third-and-6, it's 100% pass," Quinn said Wednesday. "And that's why you see a lot of exotic defenses from you know blitzes and where to go. On their team that's not generally the case where you have some run and RPO [run-pass option] actions into those, knowing that if it gets down to fourth and one or fourth and two, especially a fourth one, they've been so successful at that play. Some of the third downs to play like a second down. Knowing that fourth and one one is, in their mind, one of their most successful things that they do. So that's to me is where it's a little bit different. You see a lot of people try to do it a similar way, but they're the very best in terms of the quarterback sneak."
The explanation for why they're so much better at it than other teams is simple: players, not plays. Hurts is listed at 6-foot-1, 223 pounds and understands his leverage as a runner better than almost any other quarterback. He is also surrounded by Pro Bowlers up front at left guard (Landon Dickerson), center (Jason Kelce) and right tackle (Lane Johnson).
"One I think they've got the personnel for that [the tush push quarterback sneak], a really strong runner at quarterback [Jalen Hurts], a big offensive line, and they're pretty quick for it," Quinn said. "So you see a lot of people try different things to go away from that but at the end of it you are defending six inches to a yard. You've got to go try to find some way to get stops. But that to me, the threes, fours, fives ... on some teams, you can pin you ears back and go, it's gonna be all pass. On this team, it's not the case. Some of the third downs aren't all passing and that's a big difference."
To stop that play requires plenty of trust in a team's defensive preparation.
"Man I'd say those are faith plays," Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said Wednesday of his multiple short-yardage stops on fourth down against the Seahawks. "You know, just hopping out on a leap of faith, understanding your assignment but also understanding what the team is trying to do in those situations. Fourth-and-1, it's 1 yard. Nine times out of 10, a team thinks they can run the ball to get that yard but if you cognitive of what's going on in front of you, you should see what gap you can hit and make your play."
Given that they have now seen it a few times, the Cowboys feel more comfortable in their plan to combat the inevitable short-yardage scrum from moving the sticks.
"It's [the tush push] a rugby play, being able to get behind and get underneath each other and get in the big pile," Lawrence said. "... That's why it's so hard, but I feel like at the end of the day the more you see something, the more you can und how to beat something. So definitely, you know, feel like we're putting together a good game plan to be able to solve it.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but the Dallas isn't going to go so far as to raise an issue with a play the Eagles have mastered like no other team has.
"It is what it is, man, you know, I ain't in the complaining business," Lawrence said. "I ain't got time to complain. Whatever you put out there in front of me, I'm going to try my damnedest to defeat it, so."
In order to defeat the Eagles early to avoid seeing the tush push, Dallas may turn up the heat even more than usual just like Week 9. The Cowboys blitz on 35% of opponent dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL overall. On first down this season, they're around league average when it comes to blitz rate (30.2%, 14th in the NFL). Quinn and Co. have turned up the heat on second down as well as third and fourth downs, and those trends only became more defined in Week 9.
Cowboys blitz rates by down
This season (NFL ranks)
|2023 Season Blitz Rate/Dropback
|Blitz Rate/Dropback in 28-23 loss at Eagles in Week 9
"One thing they [the 49ers did in their 42-19 Week 13 win], they kept the ball in front of them," Parsons said. "They made the Eagles earn everything. They didn't give up any big plays, that's always the key when you got an explosive team like the Eagles, they are very explosive. They did a great job containing Hurts and things like that. It didn't show up in the stats, we got some real good rushers over here too that being able to get after them pretty well."
San Francisco limited Philadelphia to one fourth down and one situation, which of course they did convert for a first down. Dallas looks to copy that formula on Sunday night.
"That's the key. If you watch the game, think about how many fourth-and-1s the Eagles had," Parsons said. "The 49ers won on first and second down, and third down they made them force it because they didn't feel confident. You've almost got to strip the confidence. Then once they got the ball and started scoring, they forced them to play into their game and they let their rushers go. That's always the key when you're a playing a team like the Eagles. You don't really want them to get second-and-5 or things like that. Because when they get to second-and-5, they're like, 'Hey, we've got three downs right here, I know we're going to get four yards in the next two downs.' Winning those crucial downs is going to be important so the guys up front are going to have to play big this week."
"It's tremendous," Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said Thursday when asked about the importance of keeping the Eagles out of third down and a manageable distance to reach the next first down. "That was part of the reason why they [the San Francisco 49ers] were so successful. You have to keep this team from getting to third-and-2s and getting into short yardage. When they get to short yardage, that thing [the tush push] is hard to stop. Their coach said it's almost like first and nine, and it's been that way. You turn the tape on, and you can see that little tush push has been tremendous. So you have to keep them out of those short-yardage situations."
After that, the game plan will remain what it has been: unleash Parsons -- the NFL's 2023 leader in quarterback pressures (78) and quarterback pressure rate (20.3%, best among players with at least 250 pass-rush snaps in this season) -- Lawrence and the rest of the Cowboys front while the Dallas secondary continues to play its brand of tight, "matched" man coverage.
"Then, we let our guys go up there and hunt," Kearse said. "We hunt on the back, and that'll take of itself, but allowing them to play in front of the sticks is one of the worst things you can do."