Nothing says Eagles-Cowboys like Michael Vick and Jon Kitna, right? Back in the spring when the schedule was released (seems like a lifetime ago) we hoped Kevin Kolb would outplay Tony Romo in a battle for the NFC East crown. So much for the best laid plans of mice and men (and schedule makers).
The good news for us is that Vick turned out to be a great replacement and the season has actually gone better than many had hoped. Things have not worked so well down in "Big D." The Cowboys dreamed of playing in the Super Bowl in Jerry Jones' epic new football palace. What could be better for them? Dallas certainly had the talent in place to make a Super Bowl run, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The Cowboys were exposed. The success of 2009 went to their heads and the team lost whatever edge it had. No one could have predicted a 1-7 start, though. That disastrous opening led to the firing of Wade Phillips.
Assistant Jason Garrett then took over and Dallas has gone 3-1 since the change. The Super Bowl is no longer a concern for Jones or his team, but they do want to finish the season out strong. The team is playing better football. Garrett didn't change the schemes or make any drastic personnel changes. He simply changed the way some things were done. The team practices in pads on Wednesdays. That helped the players to be more physical in games. That, in turn, helped the running game to be more productive. Once the offense was more balanced big plays started coming. Three different players have run for touchdowns of 20-or-more yards in the past four games. Big plays have also come in the passing game and on special teams.
The defense has struggled all year long, but there is one major difference with that group. They now come up with takeaways. Three different players have returned interceptions for touchdowns in the last four games. That wasn't happening early in the season. The balanced offense, big plays and turnovers have helped Dallas climb from 1-7 up to 4-8.
I hate the fact that the league has us facing Dallas twice in the final month, but I am glad that Dallas week finally arrived. The Cowboys swept us last year and won back-to-back games to close out the 2009 season in nightmare fashion. Eagles fans and players have been waiting a long time for some revenge. At long last, we get to see the Eagles and Cowboys renew one of the NFL's best rivalries.
I'll be focused on the Eagles offense. We scored a total of 30 points against Dallas in three games last year. We were shutout in the regular season finale. That drove me crazy so I know it had to be torturous for Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg. I expect them to put together an aggressive game plan. I won't be surprised if we test the Dallas secondary right away. The Cowboys have a pair of talented corners in Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman, but Jenkins is having an up and down season. He's been targeted in a few games and has given up catches, yards and touchdowns. He is a physical corner and depending on how the game is officiated can have issues with penalties. Alan Ball is in his first year of starting at free safety. He played well against the Colts, but they don't have the kind of speed we do. Ball has had some struggles this year as he's learned on the job.
In order to send DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin deep we must handle some disruptive players up front. Jason Peters is playing at a high level and should be solid against DeMarcus Ware, who remains one of the best pass rushers in the league. King Dunlap will start at right tackle. He'll need help on some plays, whether facing Ware or Anthony Spencer. Both players can be tough off the edge. Our interior linemen must contain Jay Ratliff. He's been tough on us in the past. Ratliff is very quick off the ball. Mike McGlynn must use his hands well to slow down Ratliff.
While Dallas did shut us down last year, their defense wasn't perfect. I went back and re-read my notes from the games. We had opportunities for big plays. We simply failed to execute. There was a combination of poor throws, dropped passes and sloppy blocking that hurt us. Those problems were around all season long, but we generally overcame them. We've not had those problems nearly as much in 2010. Mike Vick has played at a consistently high level. We haven't had less than 320 yards of offense in any game. In games that Vick starts and finishes we score at least 26 points. I don't think Dallas' struggling defense will hold us under either of those numbers. The Cowboys have given up more than 405 yards in five of the last seven games. Opposing teams have scored 30 or more points in five of those games. Ouch.
What about the Eagles defense? Asante Samuel will miss his third game in a row. That definitely hurts when facing gifted wide receivers. I think it is smart to be conservative with Samuel. We need him healthy for the postseason, assuming we're able to get in. Rest his knee until he's able to play at full speed. The key to Dallas isn't shutting down their passing attack anyway. Since Garrett took over the team has averaged almost 150 yards per game on the ground. We must shut down the run game and force Jon Kitna to beat us.
Last year Dallas ran the draw play on us with great effectiveness, especially from the shotgun. I think the presence of physical players like Ernie Sims and Stewart Bradley in the middle of the defense will help with that situation. Teams haven't had nearly as much success running against our nickel defense this year. The emergence of Trevor Laws at defensive tackle has also helped quite a bit.
If we can slow down Felix Jones and Tashard Choice that will force Sean McDermott to decide whether to attack Kitna or focus on coverage. I tend to think McDermott will blitz a fair amount, but there is some logic to keeping safeties back when dealing with pass catchers like Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Jason Witten. All three guys have burned us for big plays over the years. Joselio Hanson and Trevard Lindley struggled against the Bears, but showed some improvement against Houston.
Kitna is a solid veteran quarterback. He won't wow you, but working in a balanced offense with good weapons has allowed him to play good football. Since the coaching change he's only had to throw 30 or more passes once. He has a passer rating of 99 or higher in three of the four games. Kitna is thriving in the new situation. The way to change that is to shut down the run game and put the ball back in his hands. We had some problems against the run early on, but since Juqua Parker, Antonio Dixon and Moise Fokou became starters we've been much improved. We've shut down some stud running backs. Jones and Choice will be a tough duo. Jones has explosive speed. Choice runs as hard as any back in the league. We must get off blocks and tackle well.
Dallas hasn't had to play the role of spoiler in a long time, but the team seems to have embraced that role. It is hard to say if the last few teams took them as seriously as they should have, but I know we will. Reid won't let his players think of Dallas as a 4-8 team. He'll focus on them since the coaching change. I don't know if we'll beat the Cowboys for sure, but I do know that we won't overlook them. Reid understands the significance of the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry and will preach to his players just how important this game is.