When I look at NFL matchups for a weekend, I want to watch the best offensive line. Most often, it’s the best offense against the best defense.
This week it’s the Dallas Cowboys high-powered offense, lead by their rushing game, against a stout Eagles defense, lead by their big guys up front. A quick breakdown of the stats to show y’all just how close this matchup is on paper.
- The Eagles defense is third in points per game; Cowboys are seventh in scoring
- The Eagles defense is fifth in yards per game with 307; Cowboys are third in total yards with 401.5
- The Eagles are third in sacks, with 20; Cowboys are third in sacks allowed, with 9
Where the Cowboys have a statistical advantage is on the ground, and they will rely on this against the Eagles. Dallas averages the most rushing yards per game at 161.2 with a 4.8 yard per carry average. The Eagles are all middle of the road in defensive stats, including allowing 4.5 yards per carry. This is where the Cowboys will attack the Eagles.
Philadelphia’s defense is a base 4-3 over, employing a wide nine technique with defensive ends and defensive tackles who get up the field.
The wide nine technique sounds super cool and it isn’t all that complicated. The defensive ends line up as wide as possible. If there is a tight end in line, they are wider than him, a nine-technique alignment. The defensive end to the open side lines up wider than usual. Both of these guys are angled directly towards the quarterback. It’s an advantageous alignment for pass rushing as it puts a ton of distance between the defensive end and offensive tackle and allows for a full head of steam at the quarterback.
In the run game, because of the wide techniques, it tries to force everything back inside towards run stuffing defensive tackles and linebackers. The Eagles have those guys inside. Their defensive engine is No. 91, Fletcher Cox, who received a $100 million dollar extension before this season. Their nose tackle is a stout, low to the ground player, Bennie Logan. These guys are in charge of clogging up the middle, while the defensive ends keep contain.
The Cowboys offense is based on a heavy dose of zone runs, with some man scheme and tosses thrown in there, and Zeke Elliott leading the way. Play action passes by Dak Prescott with crossing routes and deep shots are the meat and potatoes of the passing game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Prescott is completing 79.6 percent of his play action passes for an average of 10.7 yards per attempt, the top of the league. Also an astonishing 26.6 percent of Prescott’s passes are of the play action variety.
The Eagles defense has struggled mightily only twice this season, both in the first halves against Washington and Detroit in back to back weeks. They allowed 21 points both times.
Washington and Detroit attacked the weak side of the Eagles defense, the bubble, with zone runs and tosses, both strong and weak.
If the defensive alignment is strong towards the tight end, with the nine technique outside of him, a defensive tackle lined up in a three technique over the front side guard, a nose tackle touching the center and another defensive end wide of the open side tackle. The bubble is between the nose tackle and defensive end. There will be a linebacker responsible for that gap. It can also be filled by a safety, but the Eagles rarely have the safety down weak. They know this is where teams will attack.
The circled player is the wide technique. The yellow is where a normal DE might align and the big orange box is the “bubble.”
Outside and inside zone weak to the bubble and tosses have both been effective for attacking the Eagles defense. Zone weak has been a good play because of that bubble. It’s a natural running lane. Also if they mix up personnel and run a good amount out of 11, one running back and one tight end, a team gives itself a cleaner look against a stout defense. It draws out the Sam linebacker who’s normally more a run stuffer and defines pressure. When the Eagles line up in their 4-2-5 against 11 personnel and don’t move their line, they can be gashed.
It’s not the greatest blocked play, but it works. Sometimes we make the back look good, other times he makes us look good.
The following week Washington continued the trend of zone weak from 11 personnel.
Washington is in 11 personnel running outside zone away from the down safety. Trent Williams, the Pro Bowl left tackle, gets good movement and the left guard and center do their jobs. Matt Jones sneaks through the line and gains 22 yards
For the sake of comparison, the closest defense the cowboys played to the Eagles was the Bengals, a base 4-3 defense without the wide 9.
Here, the Cowboys run zone weak with 11 personnel. The Cowboys used this often and with success.
If a team wants to stay in its base personnel grouping, which sets up the play action fake (which the Cowboys will use often), they can still get the same look on defense, but run the risk of more movement. When defenses have more guys in the box, they can run stunt easier with more guys to fill the gaps.
Here is Washington in 21 personnel, a base personnel group of two running backs and one tight end, but they detach the tight end, motion him back and run split flow zone for a monster gain.
Early in the game against the Bengals, the Cowboys run zone weak from their favorite personnel group, 12 (one running back, two tight ends).
Like Washington’s big gain with split flow zone, the Cowboys can do the same. I’d expect this play late in the game after they have been gashing the Eagles. It’s split flow zone out of 12 personnel for a TD!
In order for the Eagles to stop this run play, they will have to move their defensive line, run stunt or bring pressure. The Cowboys are too good upfront for the Eagles to just sit back and hope they defeat double teams.
Tosses are great against wide nine teams because it’s easier for the pin player, normally the tight end, to block down to pin the nine technique to allow the puller to get around to the corner.
Also, if you’re going to major in zone runs against the Eagles, their defenders start playing downhill fast to stop them. A toss fools their eyes. If they are running downhill fast, it’s hard to stop a toss. So it’s another way to loosen up a defense to get what you want in the zone game.
The Eagles set their front to the tight end, so the bubble is towards the field. This is where the Lions run their toss. In this case, Anquan Boldin, the wide receiver, blocks down on the DE who’s aligned wider than usual. The block is easier for him because of that alignment. Inside, because it’s a bubble, it makes it easier for the left guard and center to execute their blocks. The left guard pins the man inside and the center pulls around. When you run a toss to the three-technique, or frontside defensive tackle, that guy can play over the top of the down block and make the play. It’s easier to run it towards the bubble.
The following week, Washington ran a few tosses, both strong and weak with good success.
Here are the Cowboys running a toss weak with success against the Bengals.
Dallas will establishing themselves early by pounding the rock. Running the ball so well has allowed Prescott to flourish in the play action game, something the Eagles struggled with in their poor defensive performances. When you run the ball well, it makes stopping play action is almost impossible.
The Cowboys’ bread and butter, what’s gotten them to 5-1, is their offensive line. They set the tone for the entire team, and I expect this game against the Eagles to be no different. A heavy dose of zone weak, tosses and play action will lead the Cowboys to victory.