Eagles. Cowboys. First place in the NFC East on the line. Are you excited? This is the Eagles first big game of the 2013 season. Some may ask about Andy Reid's return, but that wasn't quite the same thing. The Chiefs aren't remotely close to being a rival and Reid is an old friend, not some hated enemy. Beating Reid and the Chiefs would have meant more than just a typical game, but it wasn't a big game. Dallas is.
I'm sure Chip Kelly would rip me for talking like this. After all, they don't give out trophies in October. But games like this are part of the fun of pro football. You need rivalry games. When you add in that the top spot in the division is on the line, that just sweetens the pot. Is there any fan who doesn't want to see a sad Jerry Jones on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.?
Sitting atop the NFC East at 4-3 would be nice, but it certainly wouldn't mean anything of significance. I do think it will be interesting to see how this Eagles team does in a big game setting. Opening night felt like a big game and the team looked good there. Since then, the team has been up and down. Beating the winless Giants and Bucs was nice, but this is more of a test.
Dallas is 3-3. No one knows what to make of the Eagles or Cowboys. Both teams lost to the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos. Both teams beat the Skins and Giants. Dallas also beat the Rams while the Eagles took out the Bucs. The best game of the year for Dallas was their loss to the Broncos. The Cowboys went toe-to-toe with the best team in the NFL and almost won.
The NFL is all about matchups. The tricky part is figuring out how the Eagles and Cowboys match up with each other. The Eagles have new schemes. Dallas has a new defense. Both teams have also made personnel changes. You can't just look back to last year to figure out who has the advantage.
I expect the Eagles to score points.
One thing that hasn't changed is that the Dallas defense is struggling. They have allowed more than 500 yards in two games and more than 475 yards in three games. The Eagles only have one such game. Dallas limited the Rams to seven points and 232 yards or their stats would look dreadful. In the last three games, Dallas is allowing 485 yards and 32 points per contest. Yikes. The Eagles are allowing 402 yards and 31 points per game in that same stretch. That's not impressive, but it is better than Dallas.
Kelly said at a recent press conference that Kiffin's defense is slightly different in Dallas. The Cowboys aren't playing a ton of the Tampa 2 that many expected to see. When I watched the Skins game, Dallas used a lot of single high safety looks. They loaded up the box to focus on the run. It worked for part of the game, but Washington ended up with 216 yards on the ground.
Kiffin is a firm believer that you don't let running backs get outside. He wants everything funneled back to the middle. Kelly will spread the defense out and run up the middle, daring Dallas to make plays and stop the ground game. McCoy is getting better and better on these quick hitters up the middle. We're still waiting for
Injuries have hurt Dallas in a major way. Anthony Spencer is out for the year. Jay Ratliff got hurt and was recently released. DeMarcus Ware got hurt last week and is listed as doubtful to play. That's a lot of talent on the defensive line. You can't have that many key guys go down and keep replacing them. Dallas is thin up front. You can't help but wonder if Kelly will have the offense go at top speed, hoping to wear down the Cowboys. If the Eagles can get the run game rolling, that will make things a heck of a lot easier on Foles.
As for Foles and the Eagles passing attack, recent teams used man coverage to try and take out
All of this talk of skill players means nothing if the offensive line doesn't do their part. If Ware is out, that will make a huge difference. He is the one guy you must account for on every play. Another player has emerged this year with the move to the 4-3. Jason Hatcher has found as home as the 3-technique defensive tackle. He leads Dallas with five sacks and he has been a disruptive player this season. Hatcher is going to be a big test for
I don't know that wide receiver screens will be effective. The Dallas defense is speedy and flies to the football. Linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee have tremendous range. I'm sure Kelly will have a plan for how to create some favorable situations for his offense.
The huge question in this game is whether the Eagles defense can slow down the Dallas offense. I didn't even bother with the idea of stopping them. That doesn't seem likely. Just force a punt here and there. Maybe come up with a takeaway. Force them to settle for a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown. You can win this game with that kind of defense.
As much fun as it is to pick on Tony Romo, he's having a terrific season. Romo has only thrown three interceptions. He has a rating of 108.6. Dallas is second in the NFL in scoring. Romo has that offense playing at a high level.
Pressuring Romo is tricky. You want to get after him since that is when he's most likely to made a bonehead throw. The problem is that he has great escapability. At least once a game Romo avoids a sure sack and then makes something good happen. This drives you nuts. Defenders can never assume a play is over. It is imperative that
Romo's big weapon is receiver Dez Bryant, who already has six touchdown catches this year. Bryant has a great combination of size, speed and skill. He can catch short passes and then make plays after the catch. He can run by defensive backs. He can also go up and make catches over defenders. There is no easy way to deal with Bryant. Eagles corners will have their hands full.
Opposing teams have burned the Eagles with slant passes this year. Bryant is perfect for slants. Giving him the catch isn't a big deal, but the back of the defense then needs to close to the ball quickly and make the tackle. That hasn't happened consistently this year. Receivers are running free way too much. I would like to see more press coverage from the corners to help take away the slants or at least make them less easy.
While Bryant is Romo's big weapon, Jason Witten is his security blanket. He has 31 catches this year and remains a big part of the offense. Dallas now lets Witten stay in and block on some pass plays, then late release into the flat as a checkdown target. Romo then dumps the ball to him for a short to medium gain, assuming nothing downfield is open.
Rookie Terrance Williams and veteran Miles Austin also are dangerous receivers. Williams averages 17 yards per catch. Austin isn't putting up big numbers. Stop me if you've heard this before, but he's been limited by injuries. Austin has gone from star to afterthought. He has had some big games against the Eagles, though. Don't sleep on him as a threat.
Dallas will likely be without running back DeMarco Murray. Will they run the ball with rookie Joseph Randle or will they rely even more on Romo? The Cowboys have only had more than 100 yards rushing in a game once this year. Once. McCoy has done that three times all on his own. Bill Davis likes to focus on stopping the run. He might have to alter his gameplan this week since Dallas doesn't do that much.
The Eagles are going to need a strong showing from the special teams units. Anyone who watched Dallas last Monday had to be blown away by returner Dwayne Harris. He had a long punt return for a touchdown and then added a long kickoff return. Anyone who has two returns of 85 or more yards in one game is a major weapon. The Eagles got burned by Harris last year when he ran a punt back for a score. Dave Fipp must have a good gameplan for how to deal with Harris and his players must execute it well.
No matter what the result of Sunday's showdown with Dallas is, there will still be a ton of season left to play. The result means nothing definitively. That said, I'd rather check out the standings and see the Eagles looking down at Dallas rather than looking up at them. Life is good when the Eagles beat Dallas.