Eagles-Cowboys scouting report: Lane Johnson vs. DeMarcus Lawrence a key matchup | Paul Domowitch

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Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson will be in the spotlight Sunday night as he faces Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the NFL’s sacks leader.

When the Eagles run the ball

The Eagles bolstered their rushing attack at the trade deadline by acquiring Jay Ajayi. Ajayi had an impressive debut, rushing for 77 yards on eight carries, including a 46-yard TD run, against the Broncos. The Eagles are expected to rotate Ajayi with LeGarrette Blount and rookie Corey Clement.

Blount figures to be more impacted by Ajayi’s arrival than Clement. He has a similar style to Ajayi’s, but lacks his explosion through the hole. Blount has been the team’s primary first-down back, but a lot of those first-down carries likely will now go to Ajayi.

In the Eagles’ first eight games, 60 of Blount’s 100 carries were on first down. Against the Broncos, just two of his nine carries were on first down. In the last three games, Blount has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on first down and 2.9 overall. The Cowboys are 15th in rush average, and lost the heart and soul of their defense last week, middle linebacker Sean Lee. They have given up 33 runs of 10-plus yards, which is the fifth most in the league.

Edge: Eagles

When the Eagles throw the ball

Poll

Can the Cowboys beat the Eagles without Ezekiel Elliott?

Carson Wentz has an NFL-high 23 touchdown passes, including 17 in the last five games. He’s third in the league in passing (104.1), first in third-down passing (125.1) and second in red-zone passing (117.6). Ten of his TD passes have been on third down. He’s also one of just two QBs in the league without an interception or sack in the red zone.

Wentz’s go-to guy, TE Zach Ertz, missed the Denver game with a hamstring injury, but is expected back this week. Ertz has a team-high 29 receiving first downs and is second to Alshon Jeffery in third-down catches with 12. Ertz also is tied for the NFL lead in red-zone TD catches with six, which already is a career-high.

Rookie WR Mack Hollins is developing into a valuable weapon. He’s been targeted seven times in the last four games and has six catches, four for first downs. The Cowboys have a solid pass rush. DE DeMarcus Lawrence leads the league in sacks with 11 1/2, and the Cowboys are fifth overall with 28. But they’ve given up 16 TD passes and have just five interceptions.

Edge: Eagles

When the Cowboys run the ball

The Cowboys’ first game without suspended Ezekiel Elliott didn’t go well. They rushed for 107 yards, but 46 of those came on scrambles/runs by QB Dak Prescott and another 14 came on a pair of meaningless game-ending runs by Rod Smith. Alfred Morris had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Redskins, but has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in limited work behind Elliott the last two years. 30-year-old Darren McFadden rushed for 1,089 yards in ’15 before Elliott arrived, but has had only 25 carries since, including just one in the Atlanta loss last week.

The Eagles are the league’s top run defense, holding opponents to 66.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. In their last five games, they’ve allowed just 3.1 per carry. The Eagles have given up a league-low 29 rushing first downs. Forty-two of the 166 rushing attempts against them, or 25.3 percent, have resulted in negative yards. In their last seven games, they’ve held opponents to 2.4 yards per carry on first down.

Edge: Eagles

When the Cowboys throw the ball

With Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith out last week with groin and back injuries, the Cowboys’ pass-protection was a disaster. Dak Prescott, who had been sacked just 10 times in the first eight games, was sacked eight times by the Falcons and pressured on nearly half of his dropbacks. Five of the eight sacks were given up by Chaz Green, who replaced Smith at LT. Inexplicably, the Cowboys gave Green little help, which almost certainly will change this week if Green has to start again on the outside.

The Eagles are tied for 10th in sacks with 25. Their front four has 21 of them. Prescott completed 20 of 30 passes against the Falcons, but averaged just 5.87 yards per attempt. Slot receiver Cole Beasley has been underutilized so far. He had 25 third-down receptions last year, but has only nine so far this year.

The Eagles are among the league leaders in third-down pass defense. Opposing QBs have a 52.3 third-down passer rating against the Eagles. The secondary will get a big boost this week with the return of CB Ronald Darby, who has missed the last eight games with a dislocated ankle.

Edge: Eagles

Special teams

Eagles kicker Jake Elliott has made 17 of 20 FG attempts since replacing injured Caleb Sturgis in Week 2. He has made 15 of his last 16 attempts, and is 5-for-6 from 50-plus yards. Just three of his 54 kickoffs have been returned beyond the 30. The Eagles are seventh in opponent average drive start on kickoffs (23.8).

Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey likely will miss his fourth straight game as he recovers from a groin injury. Veteran Mike Nugent has replaced him. Nugent missed a 38-yarder last week against the Falcons. Bailey is the most accurate kicker in NFL history with an 89.9 career field goal percentage. Nugent, in his 13th NFL season, doesn’t have Bailey’s consistency or leg strength. He has made just 2 of his last 9 FG attempts from 50-plus yards.

The Eagles’ Kenjon Barner is third in the league in punt returns with an 11.4-yard average. But the Cowboys are fourth in punt coverage (just 4.5 yards per return), and their punter, Chris Jones, has had just 12 of his 35 attempts returned this season.

Edge: Eagles

Domowitch’s prediction

Eagles 30, Cowboys 22

KEY MATCHUPS

Eagles RT Lane Johnson v. Cowboys LDE DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence leads the NFL in sacks with 11 1/2. Johnson is coming off a dominating performance against the Broncos’ Von Miller. This battle is worth the price of admission.

Advantage: Eagles

Eagles NCB Patrick Robinson v. Cowboys SWR Cole Beasley. Beasley is one of the best slot receivers in the league, but his numbers are down. Jim Schwartz moved Robinson inside late in the preseason with receivers like Beasley in mind.

Advantage: Cowboys

Eagles DTs Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan v. Cowboys Gs Jonathan Cooper and Zack Martin and C Travis Frederick: This is a heavyweight title fight matchup. Martin and Frederick are two of the league’s best interior o-linemen. Cox is an All-Pro and Jernigan is a disruptive force who leads the team in tackles for losses.

Advantage: Even

Hot and not

Hot

Eagles RT Lane Johnson: He is coming off an impressive performance against the Broncos’ Von Miller, and now will take on NFL sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence.

Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence: Has an NFL-best 11 1/2 sacks, including at least one sack in eight of the Cowboys’ nine games.

Not

Eagles WR Nelson Agholor: Has just 5 catches for 62 yards in the last two games after a 4-game run with 15 catches, nine for first downs, and three TDs.

Cowboys LT Chaz Green: Filling in for injured Tyron Smith, Green had his lunch eaten by the Falcons’ Adrian Clayborn, giving up five of the eight sacks of Dak Prescott.

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