FRISCO, Texas -- When people think about the offense of the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, who are out to an NFL-best 7-1 start to 2023, the first three things that come to mind are quarterback Jalen Hurts' dual-threat ability, Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown and the "Tush Push," the Eagles' rugby scrum quarterback sneak play that is nearly automatic.
The Eagles' lone loss this season was a 20-14 defeat in Week 6 at the Jets in which they committed a season-high four turnovers, including Hurts' career-high three interceptions.
"When you look at giveaways and takeaways, we focus more on the opportunities," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "The numbers don't always really tell the whole story. He's very conscientious in his ball carriage. I definitely would say he's a good decision-maker. It's more about focus on the opportunities. When you're on the other side of it, and you are evaluating the giveaways, there's always a reason why, and it's not always just the quarterback."
"The first thing you look at is when did they happen and how did they happen," Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Monday. "You see a tipped ball that goes into a defensive lineman you don't think that's a guy making bad decisions. It was just a bad luck play. I think when you're a bold and strong quarterback like he [Hurts] is, you're going to take your shots because of the playmaking of your guys. You look to see 'were there any special circumstances that caused it and if there is, then you try and to say ok, how do we create that?' In this case, not all of them were a bad decision or a bad throw. I think he is capable of making all the throws all over the place. He should have confidence in his ability to do that."
What was the overarching key to those takeaways by the Jets? Generating a push with their defensive front. Hurts was pressured on 42% of his dropbacks against New York, only the third time this season Philadelphia has allowed a quarterback pressure rate over 40%. That also translated to the ground game where the Eagles were limited to 80 rushing yards as a team, their second-fewest in a game this season.
"They won up front," Dallas Cowboys two-time First-Team All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said Wednesday of what the Jets did well in handing the Eagles their only loss. "We've got to come out and win up front. We've got to rush our butts off. They put pressure on Hurts. They sacked him a bunch of times. Benefit of the doubt, [Eagles right tackle] Lane Johnson was out, but they dominated up front. [Jets linebacker] Quincy Williams, [Jets All-Pro defensive tackle] Quinnen Williams, they won up front. Most games are won up front. For us to go out there and win this game, we've got to win up front."
Slowing down the Hurts-to-Brown connection
Pressuring Hurts and keeping him in the pocket is easier said than done. Hurts threw for 1,500 passing yards, which led the NFL, and ran for 180 rushing yards in October, which made him the first player in NFL history with 1,500 passing yards and 150 rushing yards in a calendar month.
"Jalen is an explosive guy, a guy that can do it with his legs or his arm," Parsons said. "He's really been coming on here the last couple of years. We've definitely got our hands full with a mobile quarterback and what era we are in right now."
Hurts was the NFL MVP runner-up in 2022, but Parsons believes he has been playing the quarterback position with a higher football IQ in 2023, "processing pretty fast and at more of an elite level."
"If anything, he's probably being smarter," Parsons said. "He's sliding a lot more now, not trying to gain extra yards, just getting what he can, getting into manageable positions and things like that. [He's] not trying to force out of sacks. … He's been playing really smart."
Despite an efficient 319 passing yards and four touchdown passes on 29 of 38 passing in a 38-31 Week 8 win at the Washington Commanders, Hurts has been turnover-prone this season. His 11 giveaways, eight interceptions and three lost fumbles, are the second most in the NFL this season. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder leads the league with 12 turnovers: six interceptions, six fumbles. That's a stark contrast from 2022 in which had only eight giveaways in the 15 regular-season games he played. That is music to Cowboys second-year cornerback DaRon Bland's ears. The 2022 fifth-round pick's nine career interceptions since entering the NFL are the most in the league, and his four in 2023 are the second-most behind Baltimore Ravens defensive back Geno Stone's five. just seven games into 2023.
"Any time the ball goes into the air, I'm thinking about what I can do to pick it or what," Bland said Wednesday. "You see it [Hurts' high interception total], and you get a little bit excited, but you still have to be disciplined in your game... You have to be sound with a guy like that [Hurts]. You think you're going to be on it, but he can escape the pocket, so we have to play a little longer. You have to stay on your keys."
One of the keys to the game will be how much the Cowboys can slow down Eagles Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown given his six-game streak with at least 125 receiving yards is the longest in NFL history.
"You can't really just stop him, you just have to maintain and be sound in technique and everything," Bland said Wednesday. "They do a lot of double moves and deep balls with him. You have to stay on top."
Fortunately for the Cowboys, they have the personnel to keep up with him in Bland and 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Bland's 9.6 passer rating allowed as the primary defender in coverage is the lowest in the NFL among 50 players with 40 or more targets thrown their way this season while Gilmore's 46.3 passer rating allowed as the primary defender ranks third in the league. They also rank one and two in the NFL in completion percentage allowed as the primary defender in coverage with Bland's 41.5% rate just ahead of Gilmore's 42.9% figure.
Stopping the almost unstoppable 'Tush Push'
Even if the Cowboys can limit the Hurts-to-Brown dynamic duo, they need to stay in favorable down and distance situations because if the Eagles get into third down or fourth down and short, the "Tush Push" quarterback sneak play, a football rugby scrum is coming. Philadelphia is 17-for-21 on the play, an 81% conversion rate while the rest of the league is 40-for-55 when attempting to convert using the same formula. That gives the Eagles an unbridled confidence that they only need to gain 9 yards on their first three downs because they believe they will move the chains on fourth-and-short.
"It's first-and-9 every down," Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said after their 31-17 Week 17 win against the Miami Dolphins. "Every first down, it's first-and-9. Knowing that if you get to fourth-and-1, shoot, a lot of faith in that play. So, it was awesome. Again, [All-Pro center] Jason Kelce starts it off. [Quarterback] Jalen Hurts was right there. Because you've seen it across the league that people can't do it like we can do it. They can't do it like we can do it."
Dallas fully acknowledges they'll have to go into the deepest depths of its defensive bag of tricks to slow down the play.
"For us, [defending it] it won't be exactly what we've done or shown before," Quinn said. "It'll be something that we have to do a little bit different. … They're the best at it. Any time someone is the best at something, it will take some new thinking and some new ways to go about it to get the stop. It's hard to even gauge where the spot is with all 22 guys engaged in a space of about 7 yards. ... It'll be a tough challenge, but one we're definitely up for."
It's a tough play to simulate in practice because no opponent wants to potentially risk an injury during the week of preparation. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy suffered a concussion running the play in a 22-17 loss at the Minnesota Vikings on "Monday Night Football" in Week 7.
"How do you drill one specific part of it where you can do it safely?" Quinn said. "You can't have Coop [backup quarterback Cooper Rush] and [backup quarterback] Trey [Lance] hunkering down and seeing what happens. We're not going to be doing that I'm pretty sure. You take bits and pieces out to work through that together. It will be one part of the game honestly. It gets a lot of attention, but those throws to A.J. Brown go a lot further than that 1-yard sneak. … They got a bunch of explosive plays that are at the front of my thinking first, but because third and fourth downs are so critical and their time of possession [an average of 33:49 a game, the second-highest in the NFL], you better be able to get some stops."
Parsons and the rest of the Cowboys defense would simply prefer getting those down-and-distance situations because they would much rather pin their ears back and rush the passer in a clear, third-down passing situations. Dallas' 48.8% quarterback pressure rate is the highest in the NFL and arguably the team's biggest strength.
"You've got to win first and second down," Parsons said when asked about best way to stop the "Tush Push." "Not even letting them get to fourth-and-1, things like that, and get off the field on third down. We just can't even let them get in that position. ... Facing their offensive line] is always a great challenge, but at the end of the day, they gotta face us too. I know they're looking over like, 'When Micah is here, what are we gonna do? When Micah is there, what are we gonna do?' At the same time, they gotta scheme me, and I gotta prepare to go against them. Iron sharpens iron. It's gonna be a battle up front on Sunday."