Dallas Cowboys

Film Room: Cowboys’ wide zone vs. Eagles’ Wide 9

October 2, 2016 - Santa Clara, California, U.S. - Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) celebrates with Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick (72) and Dallas Cowboys fullback Keith Smith (41) after he score touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in the third quarter during a game at Levi's Stadium on Sunday October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, Calif (Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

It’s not hyperbole to say that the upcoming game against the Eagles on Sunday night is the biggest game of the season for the Cowboys; at least so far.

With a win, the Cowboys can put a considerable amount of distance between themselves and the Eagles as they can begin to realistically start looking to secure home-field advantage in the NFC. If I would’ve told you that this was possible when Tony Romo was lying on the grass in Seattle, well, I’m not sure what you would have done.

It’s just that ludicrous.

But before the Cowboys start looking forward to January, though, there is a massive road-block in their way; the Eagles’ defensive line. The matchup of the game is going to be the Cowboys’ Wide Zone rushing attack versus the Eagles Wide-9 defensive front. If you aren’t familiar with the Wide-9 defensive alignment, here’s a quick shot at what it looks like:

The Wide-9 is an aggressive defense, designed to get the defensive ends up the field as quick as possible.

The ends are lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles and they are told to pin their ears back and get to the quarterback. However, there is a sacrifice that is made by being that aggressive; teams can run the ball on the Wide-9.

Philadelphia is 14th in rush defense per game, allowing just over 100 yards on the ground, while Dallas is first in the league in rushing by a pretty sizable margin.

However, you can throw out the stats when the Cowboys and Eagles play one another because these teams are so familiar. The Cowboys’ have seen Jim Schwartz’s Wide-9 defensive front on numerous occasions and the Eagles have played against Dallas’ Wide Zone twice a year.

Today, we are going to take a look at how the Cowboys’ can exploit the Wide-9 and the troubles it may give them and their rookie running back. But before I begin, I want to give some thanks to Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) for the All-22 shots that we are going to examine.

The Eagles’ defensive line is talented. It may even be the best collection of four guys in the league. The alpha-dog of the unit is Fletcher Cox, the under-tackle. He’s quick, but he can also throw guards around. In the past, Ronald Leary had problems versus Cox and he’s taken over games against Dallas in both the running and passing game.

But their ends don’t get enough credit. They are athletic, but they know how to play fundamentally sound football. But withhow wide they are aligned, it makes the Wide Zone much more effective than it usually is. Case in point, the Washington Redskins game. The Redskins use a lot of Wide Zone concepts and had a lot of success, but they also found out just how fast the Eagles’ defense is:

The Cowboys’ can’t make mental mistakes against this front because they will make you pay. Numerous times in the above game, Bennie Logan, the one-technique, beat the center off the snap and disrupted the entire play. That can’t happen for Dallas if it wants to run the ball.  Frederick is one of the better reach blockers in the league, but Logan has given him problems in the past because of his quickness and length.

But if the Cowboys can get to their landmarks and Frederick and get to the reach block versus Logan, you will see the Cowboys have a lot of success. The Wide-9 allows for the guards to get to the linebackers, only if your center is athletic enough to make that block. Check out what can happen if Frederick can get to Logan:

The Eagles also possess athletic linebackers who want to come down hill and be disruptive. They are also very aggressive. In the past, we’ve seen the Eagles relentlessly send linebackers through the A-gaps to disrupt running and passing games. In fact, this is a big reason as to why the Cowboys haven’t had much success running against a Schwartz-led defense. But with a more talented runner in the backfield and a more athletic quarterback at the helm, you may be able to see the Cowboys hit more cut-back lanes and possibly more boot-leg action.

Here’s an example of Matt Jones locating the aggressive linebackers and finding the cut-back lane for big yardage:

The Eagles by nature, are an aggressive team. They want to apply as much pressure as possible onto an offense. The Wide-9 is the defensive alignment that allows them to achieve this goal. I fully expect the Eagles to sell-out against the run, trying to get Dallas into long third downs, forcing Prescott to throw the ball. And they will.

Last week, the Vikings lost the game because they were in too many third and longs and Sam Bradford was knocked around all game because of the Eagles’ pass-rush, which led to multiple turnovers. That game was a perfect example of what the Wide-9 can do to an offense.

But the Cowboys are going to have to make them pay with long runs when they aren’t disciplined and when their linebackers are too aggressive. I expect the Cowboys to use a lot of Wide Zone, combined with screens, misdirections, and more to keep them off-balance.

Whoever wins this match-up will likely win the game and take control of the NFC East.

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