He remains a question mark -- literally, according to the official injury report submitted by the Eagles on Friday -- but Asante Samuel is not giving up hope that he will play Sunday against Dallas. The truth is that whether or not Samuel plays, the Eagles defense has a huge challenge against a well-balanced Dallas offense that is going to play physical, aggressive football.
Twice to end the Eagles' season in 2009 the Cowboys did a good job moving the football and scoring touchdowns against the Eagles. A combination of an excellent running game and quarterback Tony Romo's three-step drops, plus some poor tackling and coverage breakdowns, conspired to make for a miserable two games for Philadelphia.
Now, of course, the scenario has changed. The Eagles went out and overhauled the defense, phase one of what is likely a two-year project. You watch this defense now and you see the improvement, and at the same time it is impossible not to recognize the need for enhancements throughout. All of that is to come.
What matters at this moment is what Sean McDermott can cobble together to beat Dallas. Early in the week it appeared to be a formality that both Samuel and end Juqua Parker would play. The thought was they would return to practice on Wednesday and clear out the cobwebs and then be good to go for the Cowboys. Parker has practiced all week and he is on course to return to the starting lineup. Samuel, though, hit a barrier along the way. He worked in a limited fashion on Wednesday and then did not practice on Thursday and Friday, even though he was in uniform and a participant for a piece of each afternoon.
There is still some time between now and Sunday night, and Samuel insists that he doesn't need to practice to play in this game. Maybe that is the case. Hopefully that is the case.
But the Eagles are prepared should Samuel not see action. This is where, as we have said before, good coaching comes into play. McDermott has to be flexible with his scheme, aware of the personnel matchups against outstanding receivers like Miles Austin and Roy Williams and Sam Hurd. Secondary coaches Dick Jauron and Michael Zordich must make sure all of the defensive backs are on the same page within the X's and O's and the adjustments that are going to be made.
Dallas does it all on offense -- screens, slants, intermediate routes, deep stuff off of play-action fakes. It's a dynamic offense the Cowboys bring to the table and it is fueled first by the running game and then by the arm of quarterback Jon Kitna.
"They come after you," said SAM linebacker Moise Fokou. "The first thing you have to do is beat them to the edge and stop that stretch play. They like that a lot. But the Cowboys, they will do a lot of things to you. I think we have a lot to prove. They pretty much had us last year. It wasn't pretty for us. It was tough. To me, this is game where we need to step up. All of us. It's going to tell us a lot about where we are."
Parker is going to help a pass rush that needs to be more consistent, and he will play strong on the edge against Felix Jones and Tashard Choice in the running game. Should Samuel not play, the Eagles have Joselio Hanson ready to go, with rookie Trevard Lindley as the nickel back. It is a combination that struggled against Chicago and then played much better in the victory over Houston. Lindley can only benefit from the reps he has taken in practice and the time he has played in games. The Eagles need to learn as much as they can about Lindley, and about Dimitri Patterson and about the rest of this young secondary.
It is more than just the secondary, of course. The Eagles must play as a fit, with all 11 players on the field in sync. Stewart Bradley, who wasn't on the field in the three losses to Dallas in 2009, is a key piece against the run and in coverage against a Dallas offense that features tight end Jason Witten and an excellent screen game. Fokou is a full year older and wiser. Ernie Sims offers speed and big-play ability that the Eagles didn't have last season.
Are the Eagles ready to step up, then? They have no choice. This is a have-to-have-it game, the first of four in the final month of this regular season. Whether or not Samuel plays, this is a game for the defense to decide.