This Sunday’s match-up with the Eagles does not “technically” lock one team for the playoffs. In fact, the Cowboys still have a reasonable shot to make the post-season even with a loss to Philly. Yet, a win for the Cowboys would all but ensure that Dallas has a playoff spot, while basically eliminating Philly (especially because of their tough schedule). The two main storylines for Dallas coming out of the last game against the Eagles were: FEED ZEKE and STOP A TIGHT END! Zeke ran for 150+ yards on less than 20 carries. The offense had a good game compared to their average, putting up 27 points. On defense, the secondary limited the Philly wide receivers, but tight end Zach Ertz went off. Ertz caught 14 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys have struggled all year stopping tight ends, so having one of the best, if not THE BEST, tight end in football lineup across the defense scare some fans.
There are two things the Cowboys MUST do to win the game:
STOPPING ZACH ERTZ
If this sounds easy, you are mistaken. Ertz is playing at a career year, on pace to beat Jason Witten’s receptions by a tight end record. Ertz has modeled his game after the future hall-of-famer too. He is a great route runner. He understands how to be at the right place at the right time, no matter the look from the defense. In zone, he will find the crease between the linebackers. In man, he will out-leverage defenders. He lines up on the line, in the slot, and even out wide. And yes, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty and block defensive linemen. He is extremely athletic and versatile. It is hard to find a weakness in Zach’s game.
Here is a play where Ertz is lined up outside. The ball is overthrown, but Ertz is able to stretch out and grab it.
This is a hard catch for a wide receiver, albeit a tight end. Carson Wentz is not afraid to throw into tight windows because he knows if he gives Ertz a chance, Ertz will probably come down with it.
Some players rely more on their athleticism. Some players rely more on their football IQ. It is hard to tell which is the case for Zach Ertz.
On this play, Ertz reads the safeties. The Redskins look like they are going into a cover 3 defense, with the strong safety plays as a robber. Ertz understands that the inside post will probably grab the top safety inside. So, if he is able to shake the corner playing the deep third of the field to his outside, there will be a window for Wentz to throw into. At the stem of the route, Ertz gives a fake route. His double move called a corner-post absolutely destroyed the Redskins’ secondary.
How will the Cowboys decide to stop Ertz? In the last game, the Cowboys were able to cause some trouble for Philly when they went in zone defenses. The emerging star, Leighton Vander Esch, grabbed his first career interception playing in zone. Wentz was looking for Ertz down the seam, but LVE gained depth on his back pedal and read Wentz the whole way to make the turnover. But, a good mix of zone and man should be shown to keep Philly on their toes. Ertz is most productive on third downs. The Cowboys like to blitz on third down, so they will probably be in a lot of man to man situations. Personally, I would put Byron Jones on Ertz on third downs, and just try to minimize his damage on first and second. I do not think Byron has the ability to completely keep Ertz under wraps all game. All you can hope is that he causes some disruptions on key downs, giving the ball back to our offense.
Which is an excellent segue into the next key to the game.
Distributing the ball and types of plays
The Eagles are going to focus most of their energy on Ezekiel Elliott, and rightly so. Zeke torched the Eagles last time the teams played, and Philly does not want to make the same mistake twice. The Dallas Cowboys need to play a balanced game.
Philly will sell out to stop Ezekiel Elliott. Scott Linehan HAS to be versatile in his play-calling. Over the course of the season, screen passes to Zeke have become a staple of this offense. This type of play makes the defense play honest football. They cannot habitually run-blitz on every first down because of the threat of Dak touching the ball outside to Zeke with blockers. Expect Dallas to try a screen pass early, so Philly understands that play is in Dallas’ game plan this week.
If the Cowboys can wear out the defensive line, the receivers will have a hay day. The secondary for Philadelphia is extremely beat up. They have second string and even some third string DBs that will be lined up against Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Cole Beasley and the like. This is a clear advantage for Dallas. Amari Cooper will have many targets. I could see the Cowboys throwing to Cooper and Gallup deep and quite often. If they just avoid safety Malcolm Jenkins, there is no real threat of throwing a deep pass.
There are a lot of different little things the Cowboys will do early on and throughout the game to keep the Eagles unsure. But, they would be remiss to forget one thing– FEED ZEKE!
The Cowboys have to find a way to score in the red-zone. Over the last few weeks, the Cowboys have moved the ball quite well actually, but they are stopped in the red zone. Scott Linehan has come out and said the reason they do not run the ball as much as some would want in the red zone is that the defense is keying in on the run. Hopefully, after weeks of inefficient red-zone offense, Scott has learned his lesson. Throwing the ball is fine, but avoiding a run on a first and goal at the four is unacceptable. The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the league, and to not give him chances to score touchdowns is irresponsible management of resources.
With all this being said now is the time for the fun stuff…
The Cowboys will not erase Ertz but will stop him on a few key plays. The offense will continue to take large drives, but finish the drive with a touchdown. Zeke, Gallup, and Amari Cooper will all have touchdowns. Cooper and Gallup will both have 100-yard games. Dak will play a good game but will throw an interception. This will be the first game of the season where he throws an interception but finds a way to win the game. Cowboys win 24-16.