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Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys set for full-blooded battle in NFC East
The NFL's last remaining unbeaten team, the Philadelphia Eagles (5-0) host the Dallas Cowboys (4-1), riding a four-game winning streak in an NFC East battle; watch Cowboys @ Eagles on Sunday Night Football live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am in the early hours of Monday
Last Updated: 16/10/22 9:59am
The recently-ridiculed 'NFC Least' is has ditched the 'L', the division enjoying a resurgence by way of flying starts to the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
Nick Sirianni's Eagles remain the NFL's last unbeaten team at 5-0 behind a doubt-defying Jalen Hurts at quarterback and on Sunday host a 4-1 Cowboys outfit that has more than merely survived in the absence of their star QB Dak Prescott, winning their last four-straight.
Their clash on Sunday night beckons as the ideal cocktail of brawn and brain as Philadelphia's admittedly injury-hit offensive line of nimble-footed players uphold one of the NFL's most sophisticated, coercive, varying run games against a rampaging Dallas defensive front and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's coverage espionage.
"We've just got to play big-boy ball this week," said Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham. "We know it's for the NFC East and this is the start of us. We're playing Dallas. They don't like us and we don't like them and we know what it's going to be in the trenches.
"We know it's going to be one of those games where we gotta fight for everything we want and I'm excited for that."
Between Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, the Eagles scheme has orientated towards zone running, exploiting the athleticism of an offensive line ranked 11th in run-blocking by Pro Football Focus, with the respect Hurts demands with his legs on the backside also serving as a contributing factor in their early dominance on the ground.
Miles Sanders is currently ranked fourth in the NFL with 414 rushing yards at 4.8 yards per carry and with three touchdowns to his name, while Hurts, showcasing drastic improvement as a stand-and-dissect pocket passer, has already carried the ball 68 times for 266 yards as an asset in both freelancing and designed assignments.
"I was always taught you win games on the front side, you win championships on the back side," Siranni told the official Eagles site this week. "That was always a saying [Indianapolis Colts head coach] Frank [Reich] would say. So, Jalen does a great job of holding that back side.
"As far as scrambles, those are going to happen in the game when he thinks that he has a pressure breakdown or nobody was open on the perimeter, he's got to move and make a play, and you can see he creates - on third-down scenarios can create first downs for you with his legs and with his arm."
Credit has also rightly been heaped on run game coordinator and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, whose ground unit ranks fourth overall in the league.
It awaits as perhaps the most insightful test yet of the Cowboys defense. "It will be a big test for us," said Cowboys pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence on Thursday.
"I feel like they do have a pretty good offense. They got a good receiver corps, good quarterback, good offensive line. But, also, we [them] 'Boys."
The Eagles are ranked first in PFF's pass-blocking grade but find themselves up against a Lawrence and Micah Parsons-spearheaded pass rush that ranks second in the league in sacks (20), first in pressures (104), first in hits (61) and also first in hurries (61) while blitzing a 10th most 55 times.
Where Parsons split his time more evenly between on-the-line rusher and off-ball linebacker as a rookie, his reps off the edge have increased to around 85 per cent so far in 2022 and amounted to a pressure rate of 17.7 per cent (second in the league), bettered only by the San Francisco 49ers' Nick Bosa with whom he shares six sacks apiece.
Such has been the Cowboys' impact up front that they are blitzing just 19 per cent of the time and sitting in base defense less than most teams in the league as they tend to rely on a four-man rush.
The spotlight on that matchup increased this week as core Eagles offensive lineman Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce and Isaac Seumalo were all limited in multiple practices, having picked up injuries against the Arizona Cardinals last weekend.
Quinn's evolution has been a key factor in Dallas' success on defense as the former figurehead of the Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom strikes a balance between single and two-high safety coverages, feinting stacked boxes before retreating and teasing light boxes before spinning down. His guessing game will throw him towards the top of head coaching wish lists come the offseason.
Dallas' favoured zone coverage defense will face a test in the form of Hurts, who is notably getting the ball out more quickly than last year, and the Eagles' run-pass-option tendencies, with the temptation there for Sirianni to run straight at Dallas with his quarterback.
"The biggest thing, anytime you compete against an offense that has a running quarterback or designed runs where the quarterback is part of it it's more stress on a run defense," said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
"I think the biggest thing is, how he is running? Are we talking about a designed run or is it part of the scramble drill?
You've got to treat him like you'd treat the five other perimeter players.
"Tackling him will be at a premium for us, that's a major focus for us, they break a lot of tackles so tackling battle we definitely have to win."
The Eagles are by no means restricted to the ground, either. Tight end Dallas Goedert is putting up remarkable yards after the catch figures, while receivers AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith are shredding secondaries as effectively as any tandem in the league.
On the flip side comes the Eagles' resistance to a Cowboys run game that ranks a respectable ninth in rushing and is currently easing the pressure on stand-in quarterback Cooper Rush.
Philadelphia's defense is seventh in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed but 25th in yards per rushing attempt, and will be met by an Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard tandem that has combined for 553 yards on the ground so far this season.
If you love full-blooded, big-bodied, tackle-cracking football at the line of scrimmage, this is the game for you.
Watch Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football, live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am.