Offensively, the Cowboys are a mess. Although the Eagles’ defense hasn’t been outstanding this season, there’s good reason to think they’ll improve over the second half of the year. That means Tony Romo & Co. are going to need to play one of their best games of the season, and as usual, it starts through the air.
WR Miles Austin vs CB Brandon Boykin
If there’s a matchup the Cowboys should try to exploit this week, it’s this one. Austin has lined up in the slot on 69.6 percent of the Cowboys’ pass plays in 2012, and the Eagles don’t move their starting cornerbacks into the slot. Austin is going to see a whole lot of rookie nickel corner Brandon Boykin.
I wrote a scouting report on Boykin at the New York Times prior to the 2012 NFL Draft. Many thought Boykin would get selected in the second round, but I provided him with a fourth-round grade, which is where he eventually got drafted.
Boykin tackles poorly and rarely fights off blocks. The only time Boykin tackles well is when he isn’t blocked and can fly downhill, such as on screens and tosses. In coverage, Boykin plays best in a press position. That’s not to say he actually presses well, though. I think he will get bullied in the NFL, and he really doesn’t have the arm length or strength to consistently win at the line of scrimmage.
When lining up right over a receiver and asked to shadow, though, Boykin can be effective. That’s especially true in the slot. In off coverage, Boykin shows poor technique. He stays in his backpedal far too long on underneath routes. He doesn’t break on the football particularly well from an off position, either.
Boykin is fast and can play the deep ball well, but his overall mechanics in coverage are poor. Ultimately, I’m not sure how Boykin is a second-round prospect. I see a small cornerback who can’t press, doesn’t tackle, and plays poorly in off coverage.
Boykin is actually having a decent season in the slot for the Eagles, which is really where he belongs. He’s allowed only 6.84 YPA and one touchdown this year. Boykin, standing at 5’9’’ and 182 pounds, hasn’t faced a slot receiver quite like Austin, however. Whereas Boykin matches up very well with your typical shifty slot receiver, I think he’s going to get overpowered by Austin. I don’t anticipate Boykin being able to win at the line. It’s a fairly specific prediction, but look for Austin to get inside on a few slants throughout the day, breaking Boykin’s tackles and taking at least one to the house.
Cowboys’ Offensive Tackles vs Eagles’ Defensive Ends
Normally, I choose one pass-rusher as the primary defender on which to focus, but the Eagles really have three outstanding pass-rushing options on the outside. Starters Trent Cole and Jason Babin can be terrors when rushing the quarterback, and third-year player Brandon Graham is finally coming into his own.
When you take a quick glance at the Eagles’ pass-rushing stats, though, you don’t see the type of dominance of which they’re capable. The defense has totaled a sack on just 3.8 percent of pass plays this season—the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. In comparison, the Cowboys have a sack on 6.5 percent of pass plays.
Looking deeper into the numbers, though, you see the Eagles have really just been unlucky. That is, Philly’s pass-rush has gotten to the quarterback, but simply not brought him down. I’ve collected some stats on the relationship between pressure and sacks, discovering that over the long-haul, defenses bring down the quarterback just over one-fourth of the time they pressure him (25.7 percent, to be exact). When defenses have a high pressure rate but a low sack total, it means they’re highly likely to increase their sack rate in the future.
In 2009 and 2010, for example, defenses that sacked the quarterback on fewer than 22.0 percent of their pressures registered more total sacks an amazing 75.0 percent of the time in 2011. Similarly, teams that acquired a sack on over 28.0 percent of their total pressures over that time totaled fewer sacks 78.9 percent of the time.
In 2012, the Eagles have sacked the quarterback just 14.6 percent of the times they’ve reached him, i.e. they’re going to see a big boost in sacks moving forward. That includes Cole and Graham, especially, whose respective sack rates of 12.5 and 16.7 percent will both improve.
Thus, offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free are going to have their hands full on Sunday. Smith will be matched up primarily with Cole, who has played on the right side of the Eagles’ defense on 98.2 percent of his snaps, leaving Free to battle with Babin. The latter matchup is really where Philadelphia owns their biggest advantage, especially if the Cowboys utilize “11” personnel—only one tight end—so Free is on an island with the underperforming pass-rusher. If the Cowboys don’t give Free some help, Babin is going to explode.