The Cowboys and Eagles head up the NFL’s most disappointing division — with this game between two 7-7 teams effectively serving as a division championship game, and with things so ugly that should the Cowboys win, they’ll actually be able to rest players in Week 17 with an 8-7 record, as there will be no way for any other team in this division to catch them. The Eagles have not played up to the standards expected of them, but the biggest culprit for them has been the hammer that has been taken to their roster through injuries. As for the Cowboys: this team has been too focused on establishing the pass (and too unwilling to run play-action when they fall behind), while playing below expectations on defense and failing to make crucial plays at key junctures in games. Dallas is a collection of talent that doesn’t know how to win, which has landed them in this precarious late-season position.
It will be interesting to see how this game shakes out on both sides, as Dak Prescott is dealing with a shoulder issue that is reportedly keeping him from throwing the ball in practice this week as he rests up for Sunday. The last time these teams met, the Eagles were dealing with injuries up front that softened the matchup on the ground, and the Cowboys were playing from in front as well — allowing them to give 22 carries (and another six catches) to Ezekiel Elliott while directing only five targets to Amari Cooper and four targets to Michael Gallup.
This brings us to the question that gives us one of our biggest and most consistent edges over the field: not “is this defense attackable?” but rather, “how/why is this defense attackable?”
The Eagles are shaving 4.4% off the league-average catch rate and are limiting opponents to league-average marks in YAC/r, with their big issue on the year coming through A) an aDOT boost of 7.7%, and B) to a lesser extent, volume, with the Eagles facing the sixth highest opponent pass play rate in the league (and with that “to a lesser extent” accounting for the fact that the Eagles allow the fifth fewest opponent plays per game, which has led to them sitting only middle of the pack in pass attempts faced). It’s worth asking yourself, then, if A) you think the Cowboys will lean on Zeke a bit more heavily this week with Dak banged up (which would limit the volume boost in this matchup), and if B) you think the Cowboys will be able to attack downfield with Dak’s ailing shoulder, or will instead focus on the shorter areas of the field.
Between those two concerns, volume is the one to worry less about, as the notable stat lines allowed by the Eagles have been littered with big plays — with eight of the 10 players on the list below going for 18+ yards per catch in this spot:
Your best bet with the Dallas passing attack, then, is to track news late into the week around Dak’s shoulder. If he’s sounding healthy, Amari and Gallup both become viable for their big-play upside (with Amari likelier to hit, but with both in the mix), while each should be considered a purely risk/reward option if we enter the weekend with no additional news on Dak, or with news that puts him at less than 100%.
Zeke is a strong bet for around 20 to 22 touches in this spot regardless of how things play out elsewhere for this offense, with anything over that range a bonus. His likeliest output in a tough matchup is a solid score that doesn’t quite match up with his price — but if the Cowboys control this game the way they did last time around (28 touches for Zeke in a 37-10 win), there will be upside for more value to emerge from this play. (Behind Zeke, of course, the Cowboys are just a hodgepodge of “trying to guess right on a touchdown or a busted play.”)
On the Eagles’ side, they seem set to make things fairly easy on us if Nelson Agholor and Jordan Howard both miss again (which appears likely to be the case), as this offense focused their action last week on only five players.
The leader among these five through the air is likeliest to be Zach Ertz, who has target counts in his last five games of 11 // 14 // 6 // 13 // 10. The Cowboys, as we know, have faced the seventh most tight end targets and allowed the third most tight end receptions (tied with the Cardinals), while giving up the eighth most tight end yards. Ertz sets up as a rock-solid floor/ceiling bet who will require an outlier to whiff.
The next man up through the air this week is likely to be Dallas Goedert, who has recent target counts of 6 // 8 // 7 // 6 // 6. As noted throughout the year, Goedert’s upside is limited by his short-area role (only four games this year above 41 receiving yards — with marks in those games of 48 // 55 // 66 // 69), but his 10 targets in the red zone are only five fewer than Ertz, and his four touchdowns have given him value this year.
Greg Ward, meanwhile, saw nine targets last week and went 7-61-1, keeping him very much in the mix in spite of a matchup against a Cowboys team that has allowed the seventh fewest yards to wideouts this year. Because the Cowboys’ defense actively filters targets away from wideouts and toward tight ends, Ward sees a slight dip in expectations while the tight ends see a slight rise — but this passing attack is concentrated enough at the moment (zero WR/TE receptions behind these three last week) that Ward remains in the mix.
As I continue to develop/improve this “multi-entry play with a single-entry mindset” approach I’ve been studying and developing for myself over the last several months, one thing I need to do a better job of is “following my own rules.” Somehow, last week was the first week during this stretch of “no Jordan Howard” in which I had no Miles Sanders (in spite of heavy Ertz exposure and dashes of hedge bets on Goedert and Scott), and he finally showed the ceiling we’ve been forecasting for weeks. It’s worth noting, of course, that Sanders’ 25 touches weren’t far off from the 19 and 22 he had seen in his previous two games, while two touchdowns and a 56-yard run are not exactly “locked-in” elements this week. With that said, Sanders should see 18 to 22 touches again this week — against a Cowboys team that has allowed the sixth fewest rushing yards to running backs (at only 3.99 yards per carry), but that has allowed the eighth most receptions to the position, where Sanders has recent target counts of 5 // 5 // 5 // 6. Sanders is a volume-driven floor play with some paths to ceiling.
The final piece of this offense right now is Boston Scott, who played 35 snaps last week — including 11 at wide receiver that allowed him to get on the field alongside Sanders. Scott saw six carries and seven catches, one week after seeing 10 carries and six catches — non-accidental usage that has a strong shot at repeating in this spot. Five or six carries and four or five receptions is a fair projection here, with a bit of upside from there. This is, of course, one of the most adaptable coaching staffs in the league, and they have adapted to center their offense around the five players on this list.
JM’s Interpretation ::
It will be interesting this week to read through the NFL Edge and see how things stack up, as there are not many spots to fall in love with on this slate.
Ertz obviously stands out to me from this game, as he’s the Eagles’ best means of consistently moving the ball, while all four of the other Eagles (likely in order of Sanders // Goedert // Ward // Scott — though I could see rearranging them in literally any order, especially once price is taken into consideration) may make my “hedge” list if I go heavy Ertz once again. This exposure would be more about available production at respective price tags than about “expectations of a smash for this team,” but if Ertz doesn’t blast off, it’s highly likely that one or two of these guys end up mattering at their price tags.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are a bit of a “wait until later in the week” option for me. It’s likely that we get no further news on Dak beyond him not throwing this week and Jerry saying he’ll be in top form this week (sure), which would leave Gallup and Amari as speculative options (though with enough upside to be considered as mix-in tourney pieces). If Dak is reported to be healthy, however, these two become more interesting: certainly not Tier 1, but very much in the mix.
Zeke will be on the edge of the mix regardless for me, as a “bet on workload, hope for touchdowns” play in a below-average matchup, as a centerpiece for his offense.