Week 8 Preview: Eagles-Cowboys Heading in Different Directions

The Eagles look like they should win big against a team that hasn't shown much fight for their new coach, though still have perhaps the NFL's best WR group and Ezekiel Elliott
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PHILADELPHIA - The Eagles are getting healthier just as the Cowboys are seemingly giving up on what is shaping up as a lost season for them.

The season-ending dislocated ankle of quarterback Dak Prescott in Dallas, coupled with a historically bad defense, allowing nearly 35.0 points per game, had the Cowboys playing seller in front of next Tuesday’s trade deadline.

Dallas (2-5) shipped veteran edge rusher Everson Griffen to Detroit and also released two more defensive veterans - defensive tackle Dontari Poe and cornerback Daryl Worley, a Philadelphia native -  after they were unable to move either.

The struggling team is expected to be down to its third QB, rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci, after veteran backup Andy Dalton was forced to leave with a concussion in an ugly 25-3 setback at Washington last week.

When Prescott was healthy the strength of the Cowboys was obvious and the team remains the No. 1 passing team in the NFL for now.

With a star quarterback throwing to perhaps the most talented receiving corps in the league. Led by Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb, Dallas was capable of scoring on anyone and is still averaging 316.1 yards-per-game through the air.

“Before the injury, Dak was having a crazy year,” Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills said. “Guy was throwing the ball all over the place. They're receiver-heavy over there with Coop and Gallup and the new rookie addition.”

With Dalton and/or DiNucci, a consistent vehicle to get the talented receivers the football no longer exists. Add that to the worst scoring defense in the league and a team with a NFL-worst turnover ratio of minus-13 and you will start to understand what’s going on in Dallas.

The Eagles haven’t been much better record-wise at 2-4-1 but are starting to get healthier.

The team started 21-day practice windows on five players this week, including four starters: rookie receiver Jalen Reagor, left tackle Jason Peters, tight end Dallas Goedert and linebacker T.J. Edwards.

Reagor has been medically cleared to play, Doug Pederson has intimated Edwards and Ford are good to go, and Peters is in that same boat, being stationed at LT in individual work.

Goedert is a little iffier with a bye week looming but also looks ready to go.

“For Sunday, we're still just day by day,” said the tight end. “I got to go out there, ran some routes with Carson (Wednesday), but we're still taking it slow, making sure everything's the way it's supposed to be.”

The negative part of the injury report for the Eagles involves running back Miles Sanders and right tackle Lane Johnson. The former is not expected to play and the latter will try to fight through ankle and knee issues.

OFFENSIVE SCHEME: As you might imagine with their receivers and a head coach in Mike McCarthy not known for many bells and whistles, the Cowboys play 11 personnel (three receivers) more than any other team in the NFL (79 percent). When you factor in 11 and 12 personnel (two tight ends), that’s 91 percent of the Cowboys’ offense. From there, it’s a total of 44 offensive snaps in other personnel groupings so this is as simple as it gets for Jim Schwartz when it comes to just lining up and playing.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: After seeing a cluster of 3-4 teams, Wentz and Co. will be facing a more traditional approach that hasn’t worked under Mike Nolan.

The Cowboys give a nod to modern times by listing a five-man front as their base defense with two linebackers in the athletic Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Jerry Jones has always been obsessed with big names and he already pulled the plug on two in Griffen and Poe. Aldon Smith, the ex-San Francisco star, who essentially sat out three years due to off-field issues is listed as the defensive pass rusher and is the top sack man on the team with 4.0.

The biggest issues come with putting too much on the plate of Smith because no matter how athletic a LB is, he is going to be up against it against opposing receivers when you spread the field.

Dallas is also trying to rebuild at cornerback after losing Byron Jones in free agency. Rookie Trevon Diggs, the brother of Buffalo star WR Stefon Diggs, has a bright future but is going through some growing pains while Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown have also not played well.

STRENGTH: It has to be the receivers starting with Cooper, who is one of the best route-runners in the NFL. The good news is twofold for the Eagles in that McCarthy no longer has a consistent vehicle to get Cooper and friends the football without Prescott and Darius Slay has had some success shadowing the veteran in the past while with Detroit.

“Amari Cooper is one of the best to do it,” said Slay. “Shoot, he honestly helped me guard (Green Bay WR) Devante (Adams), because of his ability to release like that off the line of scrimmage.

"And so, it's hard. You got to be patient enough. You got to understand that a guy like that, they’re going to win couple off the line of scrimmage. They’re going to win some routes and I got to keep on keep fighting.”

The bigger issue might be the secondary cornerbacks dealing with Lamb, the explosive rookie from Oklahoma, and Gallup, a big-play threat down the field.

Avonte Maddox is set to return as the starter outside opposite Slay and both Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cre’Von LeBlanc figure to get some work inside.

“This is maybe is one of the best receiver corps we've faced this year,” Maddox said. “You know, they got guys that can that make plays from all three of them that's out there. … You got guys that can do it all. This is a challenge for us this week. We have to keep these guys under (control), no touchdowns, under 100 yards receiving for each and every one of them.”

WEAK LINK: Much like the Eagles, the Cowboys have suffered tremendous attrition on the offensive line and a traditional strength at tackle is now a weakness.

Dallas is without its starting tackles, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, who are both top-10 players at their positions. Backups Brandon Knight and Terence Steele have been significant downgrades to say the least.

There is some good news for Dallas in that All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is expected to play which should help a bit.

UNDER THE RADAR: For all the struggles on the Cowboys defense one player that has carried his own water is safety Xavier Woods, who has turned into one of the better coverage players around the league on the back end.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Eagles run defense vs. the Cowboys running game and Ezekiel Elliott.

You have to figure that without Prescott the formula for a Dallas win will run (pun intended) exclusively through Elliott and the Eagles will need a big effort from their interior players which could be an issue because Malik Jackson is trying to fight through a quad injury and Hassan Ridgeway is now on injured reserve with a torn biceps.

That leaves starters Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, who has had a slow start as Philadelphia’s marquee free-agent pickup, as well as journeyman T.Y. McGill.

The good news is that Elliott is not having one of his typical seasons due to the O-Line issues with the Cowboys and has fumbled five times, losing four.

OUTLOOK: It might be "Cowboys Week" in Philadelphia but it's also Halloween weekend and the latest incarnation of one of the NFL's most heated-rivalries shapes up as more of a dress-up than the actual thing.

The Cowboys were supposed to be the frontrunners in the division with a new accomplished head coach in McCarthy (that's the Super Bowl-winning former Green Bay mentor not famed super agent Mike McCartney for those of you on Twitter), a superstar quarterback ready to cash in with a monster contract in Prescott, an All-Pro level running back in Elliott, the most dangerous receiving corps in the league, and the perennial strength of a top-10 offensive line.

Add in a representative defensive led by DeMarcus Lawrence, the widely athletic linebackers and Woods in the secondary and some even pegged Dallas as a Super Bowl contender.

Seven weeks in, after losing the QB for the season, going through an Eagles-like attrition on the offensive line, watching the RB turn into a turnover machine, and understanding that the only thing Nolan can stop is Zoom calls, Jerry Jones turned the mighty Cowboys into sellers in advance of the Nov. 3 trade deadline.

The hits kept on coming when Dalton was concussed leaving DiNucci as the likely to starter at Lincoln Financial Field against Schwartz and his defense.

“They have enough play-makers without the quarterback, even considering a quarterback, that's going to keep our full attention,” said Schwartz. “When you're talking about those receivers we just talked about, they have got a good tight end group, obviously Elliott back there, even (Cowboys RB Tony) Pollard, those guys can all make plays."

Schwartz can Lou Holtz-it all he wants. The Eagles are getting a treat on Sunday night.

Final Score:

JOHN MCMULLEN: Eagles 31, Cowboys 13 (3-3-1 on the season, 3-4 vs. the spread)

ED KRACZ: Eagles 30, Cowboys 20 (2-4-1 on the season, 3-4 vs. the spread)

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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