Eagles-Cowboys player matches to watch in Week 16

Eagles-Cowboys player matches to watch in Week 16

Eagles-Cowboys player matchups to watch in Week 16 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Eagles (13-1) travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys (10-4) at AT&T Stadium on Christmas Eve.

Here are some matches to watch:

Eagles tackles vs. Cowboys edge rushers

We all know about the Eagles’ pass rushers, but the Cowboys have several players who also get after the quarterback. They have four players with 5+ sacks this season: Micah Parsons (13), Dorance Armstrong Jr. (8), DeMarcus Lawrence (6) and Dante Fowler (5). Stopping the Cowboys defense really starts with slowing down Parsons, who is on the short list of contenders to win Defensive Player of the Year. He may have been passed by Nick Bosa out in San Francisco, but make no mistake about it, the Eagles have to worry about Parsons on Saturday.

The last time these two teams played, the Eagles had a brilliant plan to neutralize Parsons. They ran a ton of zone read plays and left Parsons unblocked to hit him. It worked like a charm back in October, but the Cowboys will be ready for it this week. And if Gardner Minshew gets the start in place of the injured Jalen Hurts, that may not be the plan this time. It’s going to come down to top-level tackle play from Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson. Mailata has had an up-and-down season, but his shoulder is on the mend now and he’s settled into a groove. And on the other hand, nobody in the world plays as well as Johnson. He is one of the best tackles in the NFL and is at his peak right now.

So this will be a battle between two strengths for these teams. And if one side gets a big advantage over the other, it can really turn the game.

Eagles receivers vs. Cowboys depleted corners

Regardless of who the quarterback is on Saturday, the Eagles are going to feel like they have an advantage with their receivers. Sure, Trevon Diggs is a good corner, but he’ll only be able to cover one receiver. So if he’s on AJ Brown, great, he’s not on DeVonta Smith. And Diggs is sometimes prone to giving up big plays because of his gambling nature.

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The Cowboys are also without Anthony Brown (Achilles) and Jourdan Lewis (foot), their other two starters at cornerback, for the rest of the season. The Cowboys last week started Kelvin Joseph outside and DaRon Bland at nickel. Bland has played well this season and actually leads the Cowboys in interceptions with four. Joseph is a 2021 second-round pick with minimal experience who has struggled somewhat this season and struggled last week against the Jaguars. So the matchup to watch in this matchup is Joseph vs. either Brown or Smith outside. It’s a matchup that’s decidedly in the Eagles’ favor whether it’s Hurts or Minshew at QB.

Miles Sanders vs. shaky run defense

The Eagles didn’t really get Sanders involved much in the offense last week. So as much as they might like their struggles at receiver in Dallas, they’ll likely make sure to get some handoffs called for their 1,000-yard rusher in this game. Sanders’ production has been very up-and-down over the past month. He rushed for 143 yards against the Packers, then 24 against the Titans, then 144 against the Giants, then 42 against the Bears. If this pattern holds, we might see 100+ from Sanders on Saturday.

By the way, the Cowboys have the NFL’s 24th ranked run defense. They give up 133 yards per game and their average yards per attempt is 4.6, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. The Eagles may have the opportunity to bully the Cowboys in the middle of the field, especially without linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

CeeDee Lamb vs. Avonte Maddox

After years of being very deep at receiver, the Cowboys have a clear No. 1 this season in Lamb, who has 81 catches for 1,087 yards and 6 touchdowns. He has been targeted 124 times this season, which is sixth among all players in the NFL behind Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Travis Kelce. Lamb is the real deal.

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But the interesting thing about Lamb is how many snaps he gets out of the slot. On the year, according to ProFootballFocus, 49% of Lamb’s snaps have come from the slot, and that has increased even more in the last couple of weeks. In the last two games for the Cowboys, Lamb has been on 82/138 snaps (59.4%).

With Darius Slay and James Bradberry both playing at a very high level outside, it would make a lot of sense for the Cowboys to choose the obvious size matchup (6-foot-2 vs. 5-foot-9) against Maddox in the middle of the field.

“Definitely a challenge,” Maddox said. “As you know, he’s one of the better receivers in the league. It’s going to be fun to line up against him and compete.”

Last week we saw Maddox play 15 snaps at free safety to help get the Eagles past the Bears, but it seems unlikely that role will continue this week. The Eagles will need to be in nickel a ton in this game because of the way the Cowboys use their offense. That means Maddox is tasked with slowing down their top weapon.

Dak Prescott against the Eagles’ cornerbacks

In the last meeting between these two teams, the Eagles missed playing Prescott, who was still out with an injury. Cooper Rush got the start in that October game. But Prescott is back for this one and has led the Cowboys to a 6-3 record since returning.

Prescott has been good, but he throws an awful lot of interceptions. In his nine starts this season, Prescott has a TDs-to-INTs ration of 17-11. His 11 interceptions are already the second most he’s ever thrown in a season, and his 11th was the pick-6 that lifted the Jaguars over the Cowboys in overtime last week. Among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts this season, Prescott’s 3.9% interception percentage is the highest in the NFL.

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The Eagles still have the league lead with 15 interceptions, but they haven’t had one in their last three games and have just two picks in their last five. That pace has slowed considerably. But this week might be a chance for them to start up again.

Cowboys’ running back vs. Eagles’ run defense

The Eagles gave up 157 rushing yards to the Bears last week, but 95 of those were from Justin Fields. For the most part, they’ve really beefed up their run defense after some concerns at the beginning of the season. Here’s a look at what some top runners have done against the Birds in recent weeks:

Sequon Barkley: 9 carries, 28 yards (3.1)
Derrick Henry: 11 carries, 30 yards (2.7)
Jonathan Taylor: 22 carries, 84 yards (3.8), 1 TD

So the Eagles have been much better against the run than they were earlier in the season when it looked like their run defense was finally going to lose them a game.

The last time the Eagles played the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott had 13 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown, while Tony Pollard was 11 for 44. On the season, these two have combined for 1,743 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Eagles need to slow them down on Saturday. If they can do that, then their top pass rush has a chance to get after Prescott, who hasn’t been sacked much this season.

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