Right from the start, the Eagles offense took it to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Dallas came into the game clearly wanting to play man coverage in order to make Mark Sanchez’s life more difficult. The Eagles countered by running the ball against man coverage early. A 36-yard run by LeSean McCoy on the first drive set the tone. With Dallas playing man, the Eagles used inside zone action up front, and LeSean McCoy initially moved left before cutting back to the right on a designed misdirection. The safety to the right side, J.J. Wilcox, went with his man-coverage responsibility, the tight end, whose initial steps were inside. This allowed the explosive McCoy to get to the outside immediately for a big gain.
The Eagles ran the ball against man several times for big plays throughout the game. They had a 19-yarder on their second drive, and McCoy’s 38-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter was also against man coverage. With defenders easily influenced at the start of each run because of their man responsibilities, and with corners having their backs to McCoy on the outside because of man coverage, the Eagles were able to gash Dallas on the ground all afternoon. As the game went on, the Cowboys started to play more zone, and this made it easier for Sanchez to find his first and second reads easily in the passing game.
The Eagles offense makes life difficult for defenses in several ways. The first is obviously the speed and tempo of the offense, which forces defenses to play reactively instead of aggressively. The Eagles also play sideline-to-sideline, forcing the defense to guard the entire width of the field, which also serves to tire them out.
Another aspect is the similarity of the action on plays. The Eagles will run a sweep, and then play-action boot off of that same sweep action. They’ll run the read-option where the quarterback can give the ball to the running back or keep it. When he keeps it he can either run, or throw a bubble screen to the same side.
Additionally, the Eagles throw lots of bubble screens, which makes the defense have to honor them. This gets underneath coverage out of the way for easy 10-yard hook routes. Most of the Eagles’ plays have multiple options, and to a defense, each play looks like at least one or two others. All of these components worked to paralyze the Cowboys defense on Thursday.
During the broadcast, Troy Aikman eluded to one of the key benefits of the Eagles’ quick-tempo approach. The coach can communicate with the quarterback through his headset until there are 15 seconds left on the play clock. Getting to the line early allows Chip Kelly to effectively read the defense for the quarterback. He can alert him to a blitz, tell him to change the play, or even let him know which receiver should be open against the current defensive look they’re getting. This is one significant reason why the system is so quarterback friendly.
This is to take nothing away from Mark Sanchez. Sanchez did a great job of taking what the defense gave him on Thursday. He even found a few receivers on 2nd and 3rd reads in this game. He looked especially comfortable on the run, as he always has throughout his career. This offense is a perfect fit for a lot of quarterbacks, but especially for Sanchez. It makes the defense play more basic coverages, and the reads are defined early. This is exactly what Sanchez needs.
The Eagles offense scored touchdowns on its first two drives, which immediately put pressure on the Cowboys to keep up. They could not. The score shows a dominant performance by the Eagles defense, and truth be told, they did play very well. But the game film showed something else. The Cowboys, and especially Tony Romo, had too many critical miscues that thwarted drives and kept Dallas from keeping pace with Philadelphia’s offense.
On 3rd-and-8 on the Cowboys’ first drive, Romo threw to Dez Bryant in 1-on-1 coverage. The leverage of corner Bradley Fletcher called for a back-shoulder throw to the outside. Romo put the ball inside, and Fletcher was able to make a play on it for an incompletion. On 3rd-and-3 in the 2nd quarter, Romo misfired to a wide-open Jason Witten in the middle of the field. Later in the half, the Cowboys had another 3rd down, and center Travis Frederick snapped the ball early. No one was ready for it, including the rest of the Cowboys’ o-line. The result was an easy sack. These were some critical miscues that an offense can’t make while trying to keep pace with a potent offensive attack on the other side of the field. A Cole Beasley fumble at the end of the half resulted in three more easy points for the Eagles and capped a terrible first half for the Cowboys.
You could say that the Eagles did a good job against the Cowboys’ running game. They didn’t dominate Dallas by any means, but they played with great discipline, won enough individual matchups up front, and didn’t allow many cutback lanes. The Cowboys didn’t gash them for any big plays on the ground as a result. The score prevented Dallas from continuing to wear on the Eagles defense with their rushing attack late in the game, which is often when a sustained running game wears down a defense and creates big plays.
With just four games left, the Eagles have taken a significant step towards the NFC East title. They have a long way to go, though, with the Seahawks coming to town next Sunday and then a rematch with Dallas the following week. After a performance like they had on Thursday, though, they have to feel confident that they can play with any team in the NFC. They’ll find out for sure if that’s the case against Seattle next week.