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Dak, Cowboys made Eagles defense look bad on third down

Doug Pederson

Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

OCR Logo Color 300DPIThe Eagles’ four turnovers against the Cowboys on Christmas Eve were the biggest reason they left Jerryland with a 40-34 loss. But the defense’s uncharacteristically poor play on third down was a very close second.

Giving up that 52-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton on third-and-30 in the fourth quarter as they were clinging to a three-point lead obviously was the lowlight. That’s going to stick in Jonathan Gannon’s throat for a while. But it kind of was indicative of the way they played on third down most of the game.

The Cowboys came into the game with the league’s fifth-best third-down success rate (45.9). But they had been even better lately, converting a league-best 59.7% in the previous five games. The key to their recent third-down success had been increasing their number of third-and-manageables. In their first nine games, just 38.9% of their third downs were four yards or less. In their next five games, it jumped to 56.9%.

The thing is, the Eagles actually did a pretty good job of minimizing the Cowboys’ third-and-manageables. Just four of the Cowboys’ 15 third-down opportunities were four yards or less. And they converted only one of them.

But they were 4-for-6 on third-and-5/6 and 3-for-4 on third-and-7-plus. Dak Prescott’s 36-yard touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb in the second quarter came on a third-and-6. He completed a 26-yard pass to Lamb that set up a Brett Maher field goal in the second quarter on a third-and-7.

His 12-yard touchdown pass to Michael Gallup that tied the game at 27 late in the third quarter was on a third-and-12 play.

And then there was the third-and-30, which we don’t really need to rehash.

In the Eagles’ previous nine games, opposing offenses had converted just 3 of 48 third downs of seven yards or more. Let me repeat that. Three of 48.

On Saturday, Prescott and the Cowboys converted 3 of 4 third-and-seven pluses. They converted 7 of 10 third downs of five yards or more. In the previous nine games, opponents were 10-for-67 against the Eagles on third-and-five or more.

The Eagles have had a knack for coming up with big plays on third down all season. Their 30 third-down sacks are the most in the league. So are their eight third-down interceptions. Before Saturday, opposing quarterbacks had a 57.5 third-down passer rating and a 6.3 yards-per-attempt average.

Prescott had a 149.3 third-down passer rating and averaged 12.6 yards per attempt against the Eagles. His 151 third-down passing yards were the most against the Eagles this season. He was just the second quarterback with two third-down touchdown passes against the Eagles (The Lions’ Jared Goff was the other).

The Eagles sacked Prescott six times, but not once on third down. It was just the third time this season they didn’t have a third-down sack.

Turnover tale

The Eagles’ recent problems with ball security are a concern as the playoffs near. They have turned the ball over seven times in the last two games and 14 times in the last seven games, dating back to their Week 10 loss to Washington. They had a plus-15 turnover differential in their first eight games and had won the turnover battle in all eight of those games.

Since then, they have a minus-six turnover differential in their last seven games and have won the turnover battle in just two of those seven games (against the Packers in Week 12 and the Giants in Week 14).

The Cowboys turned the Eagles’ four Christmas Eve giveaways into four scores (two TDs, two field goals). A week earlier, the Bears turned one of the Eagles’ three giveaways against them into a touchdown in a five-point loss.

Running back Miles Sanders has a lost fumble in each of the last two games. His fumble against the Cowboys with two minutes and change left in the game was a killer. Dallas was able to cash it in for a Brett Maher field goal that made it a six-point game. The Eagles had to exhaust their supply of timeouts and got the ball back with 1:41 left and 75 hard yards between them and the end zone.

Sanders has 236 rushing attempts. That’s the sixth most in the league this season and 57 more than he’s ever had in his career. He insists he’s in the best shape of his life, but the fact of the matter is he’s in uncharted territory workload-wise.

The defense also isn’t creating as many turnovers. Their 26 takeaways are the second most in the league to the Cowboys’ 32. But 18 of those 26 takeaways came in the first eight games. They’ve got just eight in the last seven games.

Minshew mania

–Both of Gardner Minshew’s interceptions against the Cowboys came on 0-to-10-yard throws. His first, on a 2nd-and-12 on the first play of the second quarter, was a six-yard pass to Quez Watkins that Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse took away from him. The second interception, by Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland, was an eight-yard throw to Watkins on a third-and-4 near midfield with 4 ½ minutes left in the game.

–Minshew was 13-for-18 for 120 yards, one TD and the two picks on 0-10 yard throws against the Cowboys. He was 4-for-6 for 115 yards on 20-plus yard throws and 7-for-9 for 120 yards and 1 TD on 11-19 yard throws. He had five throwaways and another pass that was batted.

–With the exception of the second interception, Minshew was very effective on third down against the Cowboys. He completed 7 of 10 passes for 95 yards and a nine-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith. All seven of his completions produced first downs. That’s the most by an Eagles quarterback this season. Jalen Hurts had five third-down passes for first downs twice — against the Bears and Lions.

–Minshew averaged 2.72 seconds from snap to release on his pass attempts. By comparison, the Cowboys’ Prescott averaged 2.59. Jalen Hurts has averaged 2.58 this season.

–While the Cowboys only blitzed Minshew eight times, he was under pressure on 47.6% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the fifth-highest pressure percentage in the league last week, behind only Washington’s Taylor Heinicke (60.0), the Jets’ Zach Wilson (52.4), Tennessee’s Malik Willis (50.0), and Denver’s Russell Wilson (50.0). Minshew completed 9 of 18 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown when he was under pressure. He completed all 8 of his passes for 96 yards and a TD when the Cowboys blitzed him.

More numbers that matter

–The Eagles have recorded a whopping 25 sacks in the last four games. Last year, they had 29 the entire season. Their 61 sacks this season are the most in the league and are one shy of the franchise record of 62 set by Buddy Ryan’s GangGreen defense in 1989 which included Hall of Famer Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, and Eric Allen.

–The Eagles lead the league in scoring with 445 points through 15 games (29.7 per game). They need 30 points against the Saints to surpass the 474 points by Chip Kelly’s 2014 team over 16 games.

–In the last four games, wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith have combined for 50 catches, 878 yards, and seven TDs. Nine of Smith’s 23 catches in those four games have gained 20 or more yards. That’s the most in the league since Week 13. Brown is tied for second with seven. The Eagles have a league-high 21 catches of 20 yards or more in the last four games. For the season, they are second to Kansas City with 58. The Chiefs have 66.

–Jon Gannon sent extra rushers after Dak Prescott on 10 of 41 pass plays (24.4%) last weekend. That was the Eagles’ second-highest blitz percentage in the last nine games (25.0% v. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers). Prescott completed 7 of 9 passes for 65 yards and was sacked once (by Haasan Reddick in the fourth quarter) when the Eagles blitzed.

–Forty-four of the Eagles’ 61 sacks have come in their last nine games. In those nine games, they’ve blitzed just 16.9%, which is one of the lower blitz percentages in the league over that period. Just 10 of those 44 sacks have come on blitzes.

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