Excuse Moise Fokou for not quite realizing what waits on Sunday night. He is just a kid, a seventh-round draft pick who played outstanding football in the spring and in the summer to make this football team, who has seen enough reps in seven games to understand the tempo and the intensity of the regular season in the NFL. Fokou has a bright future if he continues to make the kind of progress the Eagles have seen since he was taken in the seventh round of April's draft.
Fokou, though, takes a large step forward when Dallas comes to town. He starts at SAM linebacker if Chris Gocong, who is listed as doubtful with a quad/hamstring injuries, if unable to suit up. And, more often than not if the conventional method of the game plays out, Fokou would line up over tight end Jason Witten on Sunday. Witten just happens to be one of the craftiest, most successful tight ends in the league during this decade and is a handful for the most experienced linebackers and defensive backs in the league.
To make things more complicated for Sean McDermott's defense, Dallas uses the two-tight end set as much as any team in the league, and second-year man Martellus Bennett is a great athlete who is a real threat in the passing game.
So what do the Eagles do? Surely they can't leave Fokou out to dry? They have to give him help, right? And have Plans B, C and D in place, correct?
What the Eagles do with Fokou, should he start, and the SAM linebacker position in general, is one of the many games within the big game to watch when the Eagles square off against the Cowboys on Sunday night. Let's examine some of those matchups here ...
**HOW TO CONTAIN THE DALLAS TIGHT ENDS?
The good news is that Fokou fits the description of what you want in a cover linebacker. He is fast, has long arms and seems to have the instincts and the innate understanding of the position to drop and cover. The challenges, though, are numerous. He is listed at only 228 pounds, quite a drop from Gocong's 260 pounds. While we're focusing on how Fokou plays the pass, Dallas could very well target the strong side in the running game and load up against Fokou and defensive end Juqua Parker.
Certainly, though, the Dallas tight ends are as lethal a duo as they come in the league. Witten is big, strong and while he doesn't run the 40-yard dash in a spectacular time, he moves well enough to split seams and ruin coverage packages.
Sean McDermott knows all of this, and a whole, whole lot more. He has to anticipate what Dallas might do, and then he has to anticipate that Dallas anticipates what he is anticipating. Get it?
How the defense, which has had trouble covering tight ends when everyone is healthy, anyway, reacts to Gocong's absence is one of McDermott's many chess matches to play on Sunday night. He has a lot of pieces to move around on his board.
**TO BLITZ ROMO, OR TO PLAY COVERAGE?
In the course of his relatively short career, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has been extremely dangerous when he breaks the pocket, keeps a play alive and makes something out of nothing. He throws well on the run and he keeps his eyes down the field. Teams, though, have had success when they've kept Romo in the pocket, put pressure on him there and then reached him with the blitz. Ball security has been an issue with Romo when he has been in the pocket.
Now, though, Romo has a new favorite toy, wide receiver Miles Austin, and he is very confident throwing the ball to a spot and having Austin go make the play. As a result, Romo has been brilliant in the last three games, throwing nary an interception and using Austin as his go-to receiver.
Dallas as a big, strong offensive line that will probably want to establish the running game first. You wonder if the Cowboys will try to pound the football against Philadelphia's defense on the ground and give Romo a safe, economical game plan to execute in the passing game. And you wonder how much McDermott will use the blitz against a quarterback who has been prone to pressure mistakes in the past.
Blitzing Dallas leaves the coverage vulnerable against Austin and Roy Williams, both of whom can take it to the house from anywhere on the field. Being aggressive is a staple of what McDermott wants to do, so he is likely to mix in as much as he can to give Romo a lot to look at and think about.
**IN FOCUS: DeMARCUS WARE
No. 94 lines up everywhere, so you will see Donovan McNabb walk to the line of scrimmage before every snap and point at Ware and make sure that every single player on offense knows where the superstar pass-rushing threat is. Ware comes off the edge from McNabb's blind side the most, but the Cowboys could very well flop him to the other side to test right tackle Winston Justice. Do the Eagles trust their tackles to recognize Ware and make him the first priority or do they keep a back and tight end to chip Ware just to give McNabb an extra second to throw the football?
Andy Reid has to make sure that Ware doesn't take over the game. Ware isn't the only pass rusher or the only impact player on the Dallas defense, but he is the one who sets the tone. Jay Ratliff is a Pro Bowl tackle and the linebackers all rush the quarterback well, so the Eagles have to be aware of pressure from every angle, but they certainly need to give McNabb plays where he can get rid of the ball quickly and put the Cowboys on their heels.
This is a big game for left tackle Jason Peters in front of a nationally-televised audience. He's got to secure McNabb's blind side, get to the edge, take away Ware from forcing turnovers. Running backs Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, along with fullback Leonard Weaver, must recognize the blitz and use great technique.
If the Eagles keep Ware under wraps, you have to think the offense can move the football and have success.
**UNLEASHING JACKSON AND MACLIN IN PASSING GAME
Dallas has big, strong cornerbacks and safeties. They probably would love to come up to the line of scrimmage and get physical against receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and hope the blitz gets to McNabb and takes the passing game off of its timing. The Eagles put Jackson in motion quite a bit, so he is difficult to jam at the line of scrimmage, but he won't go anywhere on the field without having a couple of Cowboys in his face.
Maclin has to demonstrate that he can get off of press coverage and into his routes very quickly. He has to catch the ball in traffic. He has to take hits. The Cowboys are going to try to intimidate the rookie standout.
Maybe someone else emerges in the passing game. Jason Avant? A logical candidate. Reggie Brown? Now, that would be a great story. Brent Celek, naturally, is going to be a prime-time target. If the Eagles can give McNabb time, he will have a chance to make plays.
**WINNING THE BATTLE OF HIDDEN YARDAGE
Special teams was a decisive KO in favor of the Eagles last week in the win over New York. From the time Ellis Hobbs returned the opening kickoff 35 yards to set the offense up at the 40-yard line until the end of the game, the Eagles dominated on special teams. This week will be a large, large challenge. The Cowboys have an excellent kicking game and Patrick Crayton has turned games around the last couple of weeks with punt returns for touchdowns.
So how does special teams coordinator Ted Daisher tweak his scheme to make his group win the battle in this game? Does he kick to Crayton? How can he get Jackson into the open to make a big play in the punt return game? Does David Akers kick line drives into the end zone on kickoffs to create touchbacks?
Prediction: The team that wins on special teams wins the game. A big play or three here is going to change the course of the game.