Gameday is finally here. A Sunday without Eagles football lasts forever. As frustrating as the wait is, a Monday night game against Dallas is worth it. You get the national spotlight. Players and coaches from 30 other NFL teams will be watching. This is a chance to make a major statement. I know it is only Week 2, but an early-season game can set a tone for the season. The Eagles can show the Cowboys and everyone watching that the road to the NFC East title goes through Philadelphia.
Both the Eagles and Cowboys are very talented teams that won impressively in the season opener. You can make an argument for each team as the better of the two and the team to beat in the NFC. The Cowboys have the bigger names, but the Eagles have plenty of guys who have Pro Bowl and/or Super Bowl experience.
You can talk about the matchups and choose a player or an area to focus on. The smartest thing is to look back to last season to see who won and why. Put simply, the team that won the line of scrimmage won the game. Focus on the lines and you'll have a good idea of who is in control of the game.
There is one interesting X-factor for the Eagles … Donovan McNabb's scrambling ability. In last December's win at Texas Stadium, McNabb had season-highs in rushes (9) and yards (53). One of those runs went for 28 yards. Dallas played a lot of man coverage. That forced the defensive backs to turn and run with receivers. Their backs were turned to the line of scrimmage. That means that McNabb had a chance for a big play if he got beyond the line. The defensive backs were focused on the receivers and didn't see that McNabb had taken off running until he was already downfield.
The Cowboys can play this one of two ways. They can use a defender to ""spy"" on McNabb. That means he basically shadows McNabb on each passing play. Rather than rush the passer or drop back he just stays a couple of yards off the ball and goes wherever McNabb goes. This strategy can work with the right defensive player.
The Cowboys could also play more zone. Defensive backs keep their eyes on the quarterback when playing zone. Should McNabb take off running, they will be quicker to react and come up to make the tackle. The problem with playing zone is that the Cowboys defensive backs are better suited to playing man coverage.
In the December game, the Cowboys' tight man coverage limited the Eagles passing attack. The longest pass play to a wide receiver was a 16-yard pass to Reggie Brown. McNabb only completed 10 passes to wide receivers for the whole game. Running backs and tight ends caught 13 passes. Dallas kept the passing game under control, but had no answer for McNabb's legs. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do in this game.
As I mentioned earlier the real key to the game is winning the battle up front. The Eagles feel better about the offensive and defensive lines this year than they did in 2007. The Rams got dominated on the line of scrimmage last week. The Cowboys will be a much stiffer test. Their offensive line is massive and equally adept at run blocking or protecting Tony Romo. Their front seven on defense can shut down running backs or get after the quarterback.
The biggest test for the Eagles blockers will be controlling linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He is explosive off the ball and also makes plays based on sheer effort. He's a game-changing kind of defender. You can block him 30 times and then let up on the next play and he'll make you pay. Left tackle Tra Thomas will face him the most. Jon Runyan will see him a bit. Tight ends L.J. Smith and Brent Celek will help on him. Even the running backs will factor in. They'll chip block on him. That is when a runner goes up to a defender that is being blocked and hits him in the midsection with his shoulder. This is a legal, clean play. Brian Westbrook is one of the best chip blockers in the entire NFL.
The Eagles defensive line has a simple task – hit Tony Romo. Hit him early and often. The front four has to get pressure in order to throw Romo off rhythm and to slow down the Dallas passing game. Cleveland didn't sack Romo once last week. He was able to sit in the pocket and shred their secondary. The Eagles have a much better set of defensive backs, but if you don't get to Romo he will find open receivers.
This game will give us a much better feel for how good the backup defensive linemen are. Darren Howard played well last week. Another good game would be huge for him and the team. Chris Clemons got limited snaps last week at end. This is the kind of game he was brought in here for. Romo averaged just under 33 passes a game last year. The best way to get after him is by rotating defensive linemen so that guys always have fresh legs. Clemons needs to bring the heat from the left end spot. Backup tackles Trevor Laws and Dan Klecko looked good last week. They need to match that showing.
This should be a good game. Both teams are healthy, talented, and hungry. The Cowboys feel pressure because of last year's playoff meltdown. The Eagles feel pressure from having missed the playoffs two of the last three years. I know it's only Week 2, but this sure does feel like a big game. Should be a lot of fun.
The Eagles and Cowboys have played in some interesting Monday night games in the last 15-20 years. Here are some memories:
• 1992 – The Eagles won an early season showdown, 31-7, and got to 4-0. There were times before the snap when you just knew Troy Aikman had no chance. The front seven pressured him all night long.
• 1993 – Bubby Brister threw for 248 yards and almost pulled off the upset in Dallas. Linebacker Britt Hager and cornerback Eric Allen each dropped interceptions and Matt Bahr missed a field goal in the 23-17 loss.
• 1996 – Rodney Peete suffered a knee injury while dropping back to pass. Ty Detmer took his place and kept the team close, but couldn't pull off the win. He got knocked silly late in the game and at one point was calling BYU plays in the huddle, much to the chagrin of the 10 other guys in the huddle who didn't go to BYU. Defensive tackle Rhett Hall ran back an interception 32 yards for a touchdown.
• 1997 – I think all Eagles fans remember the nightmare bobble by Tommy Hutton. The thing I think most forget is that the game should have been over. Dallas had a fourth-down play on their go-ahead drive which resulted in pass interference. Mike Mamula tipped the ball at the line, meaning interference shouldn't have been called. The officials didn't see the tip. This was the game where Ray Rhodes and Emmitt Thomas utilized cornerback Bobby Taylor as a blitzer. He had two sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which William Thomas scooped up and ran back for a score.
• 2004 – Coming off a loss to Pittsburgh, the Eagles played with real purpose. They destroyed Dallas 49-21. McNabb had his famous 14-second scramble and pass to Freddie Mitchell.