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Paul Domowitch: Eagles beleaguered pass defense needs to find a way to slow down Dak Prescott


Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

OCR Logo Color 300DPICowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is coming off a game in which he completed 80.6 percent of his passes, averaged 10.1 yards per attempt, and threw four touchdown passes.

The Eagles defense is coming off a game in which it made Washington’s young QB, Sam Howell, look like Slingin’ Sammy Baugh (look him up, boys and girls). In just his ninth career start, Howell got the ball out quickly (his average throwing time Sunday was 2.48 seconds), threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, and was sacked just one time in the Eagles’ harder-than-it-should’ve-been 38-31 win.

The Eagles are 7-1 right now. But they’re about to begin a six-game stretch against five teams – they play the Cowboys twice – with a combined 26-12 record that all are in the top 12 in the league in scoring.

They head into the Murderer’s Row portion of their schedule with a pass defense that already has given up the third most touchdown passes in the NFL (16), has allowed the seventh most passing yards (247.5 per game), and has the eighth highest opponent passer rating (97.2).

Eleven of Howell’s 39 pass completions Sunday gained 15 or more yards. In their first eight games, the Eagles now have given up a league-high 56 pass plays of 15 yards or more. That’s just 19 fewer than they gave up all last season.

The biggest problem for the Eagles is the middle of the field. Darius Slay and James Bradberry have managed to hold their own on the outside. But injuries at safety and slot corner and inconsistent coverage play by the linebackers have been a problem that opposing quarterbacks have exploited.

General manager Howie Roseman traded for two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, which will help, particularly as he gets more comfortable in the system. But the slot still is a question mark as defensive coordinator Sean Desai rotates rookies Sidney Brown and Eli Ricks there.

They’ll face a big challenge inside this week from Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Last year, Lamb led the NFL in receiving yards from the slot (867) and finished second in slot receptions with 63.

This season, Lamb has lined up in the slot on 62.3 percent of his snaps (225 of 361). In last week’s 43-20 win over the Rams, he was targeted by Prescott 14 times and had 12 catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of those 14 targets came when he lined up in the slot. He had seven catches for 60 yards and one touchdown from the slot against the Rams.

Lamb isn’t the only receiver the Eagles have to worry about. It seems Mike McCarthy finally has realized Brandin Cooks is on his roster. The speedy Cooks has touchdown catches in each of the last two games.

Cowboys tight end Jake Ferguson also is a concern. The Eagles have struggled against tight ends. They’ve given up four touchdown passes to tight ends. Washington’s Logan Thomas had six catches for 44 yards and a touchdown last week. Ferguson had four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. Earlier in the season, he had seven catches for 77 yards and a TD vs. the Patriots.

The Eagles have sacked Prescott 11 times in his last three starts against them, including six times in Week 16 last season in a 40-34 Cowboys win. Prescott still managed to complete 27 of 35 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns when he wasn’t on his back.

Prescott has won his last three starts against the Eagles. Has a 78.4 completion percentage and has averaged 10 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns in those three games.

Most quarterbacks who have faced the Eagles this season have tried to neutralize their fearsome pass rush by getting the ball out quickly. But that’s not really Prescott’s M.O. His average throwing time this season has been 2.65 seconds, which is only the 11th fastest among the league’s starting quarterbacks. Averaged 2.78 seconds against the Rams, 3.38 against the Chargers, and 2.76 in a 42-10 loss to the 49ers. He’s averaged under 2.50 seconds just twice this season – 2.36 against the Patriots in Week 4 and 2.11 against the blitz-happy Giants in Week 1.

Snap Count Report: Edge Rusher

Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick have taken the lion’s share of the edge-rushing snaps in the first eight games. Sweat has played 371 of 505 snaps (73.4%) and Reddick has played 361 (71.5%). Brandon Graham has played 146 (28.9%), Derek Barnett has played 99 (19.6%), and rookie Nolan Smith has played just 47 (9.3%).

In Sunday’s game against Washington, both Sweat and Reddick played more than 80 percent of the snaps for the first time this season. Sweat played 85 percent (61 snaps). Reddick played 59 (82%). Graham, Barnett, and Smith played a combined total of 25 snaps against the Commanders.

The lack of use of the 34-year-old Graham is surprising. Yes, he’s at the end of his career. But he had 11 sacks and was second on the team in quarterback pressures last year with 48 just a year after the Achilles injury. He played 474 snaps (43%).

Given that he’s had another year to recover from his foot injury, he figured to be a bigger factor in what likely is his last season. But he’s played more than 30 percent of the defensive snaps in just three games (Weeks 3-5 v. Bucs, Commanders, and Rams). In the Eagles’ last three games, Graham has played just 45 of 186 snaps (24.2%). Graham has half a sack and 10 total pressures in 90 pass-rush opportunities.

Smith, the second of the Eagles’ two first-round picks in April, has played a total of 11 snaps in the last three games. Smith has one sack and two total QB pressures.

Desai and the Blitz

Sean Desai blitzed Sam Howell on nine of Washington’s first 18 pass plays Sunday. But after Howell completed eight of nine passes for 76 yards and a touchdown on those nine blitzes, Desai backed off.

He sent more than four rushers on just five of 35 pass plays (14.3%) after that. Howell completed 12 of 14 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles’ blitz. The one time the Eagles sacked him came on a four-man rush.

In the Eagles’ 34-31 Week 4 win over the Commanders, Desai blitzed Howell on 14 of 46 pass plays (30.4%). Howell was 6-for-11 for just 46 yards and no TDs against the blitz in that game. Three of the Eagles’ five sacks in that game came on blitzes.

In the first eight games, the Eagles have a 24.3 blitz percentage (83 of 342 pass plays). That’s just the 18th-highest blitz percentage in the league.

Hurts Report

Jalen Hurts has a 123.9 passer rating in the last two games, completing 75.4 percent of his passes, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, and throwing six touchdown passes. The 123.9 rating is the second-best of his career over a two-game span. He had a 139.0 passer rating last year in Week 8-9 wins over the Steelers and Texans. He completed 72.7 percent of his passes in those two games, averaged 9.6 yards per game, and had six TDs and no interceptions.

–Hurts was 8-for-10 for 112 yards and one touchdown on third down against Washington. Six of his eight completions resulted in first downs. It’s the third time in the last four games that Hurts had five or more third-down completions for first downs. He has averaged 9.5 yards per attempt on third down in the last three games.

–The Eagles used 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) on 44 of 62 plays (70.9%) against Washington Sunday. Hurts was 27-for-32 with 302 yards and four touchdowns and had a 145.6 passer rating with 11P. In the last two games, he has a 120.6 passer rating with 11P, completing 49 of 60 passes (81.7%), averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, and throwing six TDs and one interception.

In the Eagles’ first six games, he had an 80.4 passer rating with 11P, completing 64.6 percent of his passes and averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt.

–Hurts completed two of four deep balls (throws that travel 20 or more yards in the air) against Washington. Both deep-ball completions resulted in touchdowns (to AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith). He has completed 12 of 23 deep balls in the last five games (52.2%). He has a 42.9 deep-ball completion percentage through the first eight games. Last year, he completed 40.3 percent of his deep passes (26 of 42). Six of his 13 touchdown passes this season have come on deep balls, including three to AJ Brown, two to DeVonta Smith, and one to Olamide Zaccheus.

Catching On

A.J. Brown is fourth in the league in receptions with 60 and second in receiving yards with 939. He has eight catches for 286 yards and three touchdowns on deep balls. The distance breakdown on the rest of his receptions: 11-19 yards – 15-308-1, 0-10 yards — 34-339-1 and behind the line of scrimmage – 3-6-0.

–Devonta Smith has five deep-ball receptions for 214 yards and two touchdowns. He also has five catches for 88 yards on 11-19-yard throws.

Thirty of tight end Dallas Goedert’s 35 catches have been on throws of 10 yards or less. He has just one deep-ball reception.

Third Down Defense

The Eagles defense continues to struggle on third down. They are 25th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 43.0 percent of their third-down opportunities. Washington converted 7 of 12 third-down tries Sunday, including two on third-and-6 and another on third-and-7.

Opposing quarterbacks have a 98.2 passer rating against the Eagles on third down, including a 60.5 completion percentage, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and six sacks. Last year, opponents had a 69.3 passer rating on third down against the Eagles, including a 54.7 completion percentage, seven touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a league-high 31 sacks.

Fourth-down success

The Eagles have the highest fourth-down success rate in the league (73.3%). They’ve converted 11 of 15 fourth-down attempts. The 15 attempts are the fourth most in the league, behind the Lions (17), Colts (16) and Cardinals (also 16). Last year, the Eagles had the league’s fourth-best fourth-down success rate (68.8), converting 22 of 32 tries.

The Eagles are 7-for-7 on fourth down with the Tush Push.

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