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Eagles - Cowboys Game Preview

Posted Dec 21, 2011

Despite their 6-8 record, the Eagles are improbably still very much alive in their quest for a second straight NFC East title. With two weeks in the regular season remaining, there are four results which much go the Eagles' way for Andy Reid and co. to move on to the playoffs, two of which are in the Eagles' control. The Eagles, of course, must win both of their remaining games and then hope that the New York Giants lose this week to the New York Jets and then defeat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17 at MetLife Stadium, creating a three-way tie atop the division at 8-8 that would send the Eagles into the postseason based on their superior division record.

But that is stuff of dreams and first, the Eagles must take care of business on Christmas Eve in Dallas this Saturday. For their part, the Cowboys will be more than motivated to win at home. For one, they currently sit atop the division and have a chance to clinch the division title if outside results go their way. Second, the sting from their 34-7 loss to the Eagles in Week 8 has yet to wear off. In that game, the Cowboys were dominated on both sides of the ball despite the pre-game predictions of dominance by Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. But since that game, the Eagles have only won three of the subsequent seven games, while the Cowboys have won five, which is why the Eagles are have such precarious playoff possibilities.

The reason for the Eagles' glimmer of hope is their performance over the past two weeks. On offense, the return of Michael Vick has brought the team's leader back into the fold to steer the offense. Defensively, the pass rush has been ferocious – namely Jason Babin who has produced back-to-back three-sack performances – and the team has forced a slew of turnovers, something that had been missing earlier in the season. So the Eagles hope to build upon that momentum and carry over that strong play to Saturday's 4:15 PM EST kickoff – by which time they should know whether the New York Jets have delivered the Eagles an early Christmas present.

Last Time They Met:
October 30, 2011: Cowboys 7, Eagles 34
In what was likely the Eagles’ second-most dominating performance of the season, bested only by Sunday’s 45-19 shellacking of the New York Jets, the Eagles creamed the rival-Cowboys 34-7. Star running back LeSean McCoy went for 200 total yards and two touchdowns on the day, running the Dallas defense in circles to the tune of 185 yards on the ground alone. Michael Vick completed 75 percent of his passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, despite being sacked four times by rush linebacker DeMarcus Ware. The Eagles defensive line was able to return the favor, though, sacking Tony Romo four times and forcing him to throw an interception to Nnamdi Asomugha. The Cowboys’ only points came in garbage time in the fourth quarter of the game, denying the Eagles their first and only shutout of the season.

When The Eagles Have The Ball:

By now, Eagles fans should be plenty familiar with the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. Who are the stars? You start, of course, with linebacker DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the league's most feared pass rusher (though Jason Babin might beg to differ), who has 16.0 sacks on the season. Anthony Spencer provides Ware with a pass-rushing complement (the Cowboys are tied for seventh with 38 sacks on the season) while Sean Lee has been a standout linebacker in his second season. On the defensive line, nose tackle Jay Ratliff has given the Eagles fits in the past, and will once again provide a stern test for Eagles center Jason Kelce. In the Cowboys' secondary, Michael Jenkins and Terence Newman are a solid tandem of cornerbacks, though they've been burned their fair share of times by Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson in the past. Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh hold down the fort at safety.

As for the Eagles offense, the last two weeks have provided a glimpse of how explosive the unit can be when working on all cylinders. The first priority for the Eagles will be limiting turnovers. In the win over the Jets, LeSean McCoy lost a fumble for the first time all season and Michael Vick threw a meaningless interception on an end-of-half hail mary while the defense provided more turnovers. The most glaring difference in Vick's play between 2010 and 2011 has been the interceptions; he didn't throw an interception until Week 12 last season and only threw six on the season. This year, Vick has already thrown 13 interceptions. But Vick looked much sharper last week against the Jets, and will have his full array of weapons on the outside with Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, while Brent Celek, the team's leader in receptions, patrols the middle of the field. The offensive line, meanwhile, has been spectacular, even if they're flying under the radar. In pass protection, the team has improved from last year's allowance of 8.7 percent of sacks per pass play (26th in the league) to a mark of 5.8 percent this season (11th in the league). And in the run game, the team is second in the league in rushing yards per play and has paved the way to be on pace as the most prolific rushing game of Andy Reid's tenure in Philadelphia. In the first meeting, McCoy ran for 185 yards on 30 carries, so expect the Eagles to once again look to McCoy as the bellcow.

When The Cowboys Have The Ball:

Can Felix Jones adequately replace the production that was lost when rookie sensation DeMarco Murray was lost for the season with a broken ankle in the loss to the Giants? Murray rushed for 897 yards on the season, including a franchise-record 253 in the Week 7 win against St. Louis and proved he could handle being an every-down back, carrying the ball 20-or-more times in five of his final eight games. In last Saturday's win over Tampa Bay, Jones carried the ball 22 times for 108 yards. It was his second-straight 100-yard performance. Before these last two games, however, Jones didn't have 100 yards in the previous eight games combined. He missed four games during that span due to injury. But the Eagles still have to account for Jones, who has the speed and quickness to cut through the holes left open by the patented delayed draws for which the the Cowboys are notorious. The Cowboys also signed Sammy Morris as a power option and he chipped in with 53 yards on 12 carries in his debut against Tampa Bay. Also note that fullback Tony Fiammetta has been back in the lineup the past two games helping with run support.

As much as the Eagles will be focused on the run game, they need to make quarterback Tony Romo ineffective like they did back in Week 8. Romo's 5.8 yards per pass attempt in that game was a season low. The Eagles also sacked him four times, picked him off once as Romo's 66.7 passer rating was also his worst of the season. Since that Eagles game, Romo's completion percentage has not dipped below 60 percent in a single game. In fact, Romo has completed at least 67 percent of his passes in each of the past three games. He's also had a passer rating of 95-or-better in each of those contests and his touchdown/interception ratio is 8-0.

Romo has been helped by the fact that his top four receiving options have been healthy of late. Tight end Jason Witten was targeted 12 times in the first Dallas game, but only had four catches for 28 yards. Witten has 68 grabs for 849 yards and five scores this year. Miles Austin is healthy after a lingering hamstring injury. Austin only has 37 catches on the year, but has scored six touchdowns including one in each of the past two games. Dez Bryant is averaging 15.6 yards per grab and has scored nine touchdowns this season. Breakout player Laurent Robinson is still an important part of the offense despite Austin's return. Robinson, who like the rest of the receivers is tall and physical, has 49 catches for 792 yards and nine touchdowns of his own in 2011.

Much like the Eagles did in the first matchup, they must win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Jason Babin had 2.0 sacks in the first meeting as his speed provided a lot of trouble for rookie right tackle Tyron Smith, who has had an impressive season nonetheless. Trent Cole had a sack in the first meeting and with his calf injury finally healed he is playing his best football at the end of the season. The burst off the snap is back and Cole will need to beat a struggling Doug Free. A player to watch is defensive tackle Derek Landri, who was not with the team in the first meeting. If the interior of the defensive line can get some push against veteran guards Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier and rookie center Phil Costa, it could make Romo's evening a long one.

Key Matchups

OT Jason Peters vs. LB DeMarcus Ware
Jason Peters and DeMarcus Ware are two of the most athletically gifted players in the league. Standing 6-4 and weighing 260 pounds, Ware is one of the quickest edge rushers in the game. With 16 sacks through 14 games this season, he is enjoying the second-best season of his career. Jason Peters, too, has been dominant this season. The 6-4, 340 pound former tight end is one of the swiftest linemen in the game. He uses his lateral quickness to stonewall speed rushers and lock them in front of him with his long arms. In his last meeting with Ware and the Cowboys, Peters did not allow a single sack and received the highest grade on the entire team according to Pro Football Focus. Ware, in that game, got to quarterback Michael Vick four times and notched 11 tackles. Surprisingly, both Peters and Ware were able to put together incredibly productive days in spite of one another. With both teams playing for their shot at the NFC East, be prepared to see an epic battle between the two dynamic trenchmen.  

Eagles DTs vs. RB Felix Jones
With rookie back DeMarco Murray on injured reserve, the Cowboys will go with fourth-year back Felix Jones as their lead tailback. Since losing Murray, Jones has rushed for 214 yards in just two games, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. More troublesome for the Eagles is the fact that the Cowboys average 5.9 yards per rush up the middle in on the season, good for first in the NFL. The Eagles, on defense, allow 5.7 yards per carry over the middle, the second-worst in the league. With a hungry Felix Jones itching to prove he can be an every down back in this league, the front of the Eagle defense will be put to the test Saturday night. The Eagles will also need to keep an eye on 4-year-old Sammy Morris, who has been brought in to back up Jones. He rushed for 53 yards in a limited role against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday.

Players To Watch:

TE Jason Witten
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2004, his second season, Jason Witten ranks second among tight ends in receiving yards with 7,469. He trails only future-Hall of Fame pass-catcher Tony Gonzalez who has 7,642. The 6-6 pass-catcher has posted four seasons with 1,000 yards receiving in his eight full NFL seasons. This year, he’s posted 68 receptions for 849 yards and five touchdowns, numbers that most tight ends can only dream to achieve; for Witten, they are indicative of an off year. Barring a very strong final two games, it will be the first time he former Tennessee standout has caught fewer than 80 balls in a season since 2006. In his 16-game career against the Eagles, he has caught more passes (91), racked up more yards (1,054), and has posted more touchdowns (seven). Each is the most he has against any team in the NFL. The Eagles will have their hands full Saturday, when they face Witten and the Cowboys’ seventh-ranked passing attack.

LB Sean Lee
Drafted in the second round of the 2010 Draft, Sean Lee is one of the best young linebackers in the league. He leads his team with four interceptions, an impressive feat from the linebacker position. It is especially remarkable because the former Penn State Nittany Lion has had to wear a club-shaped cast over his hand for the last six weeks after breaking it in Dallas’ first matchup with the Eagles. However, Lee did not make much of an impact in his rookie season. The 245-pound inside linebacker struggled to get on the field, playing only 22 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in the 13 games in which he was activated. This season, however, has been a different story. The Penn State has making the most of his opportunities in Rob Ryan’s defense this season, leading the Cowboys in tackles with 89 in 13 games (he missed one game with the broken hand). Lee’s playmaking ability will be put to the test when Eagles rusher LeSean McCoy comes to town. The Pitt-alum ran all over the Cowboys in their Week 8 meeting, finishing the day with 185 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Lee and the Dallas defense will look to shut down Shady Saturday, something not many have been able to do this season.

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