To compensate for the loss of all of the key players, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has modified the approach. As rookie Nick Foles has gained experience in spoonfuls, Mornhinweg has pulled back from the wide-open, get-the-ball-down-the-field approach that has marked past Eagles' offenses.
When Foles replaced Michael Vick during the first Dallas game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles continued to play throw ball, even as they nursed a third-quarter lead. The approach didn't work as Dallas rallied to the lead thanks to a punt return for a touchdown and then an interception return for a score. So Foles threw, and threw, and threw.
It was a fine opportunity for him to get used to the speed of the regular season, but the Eagles still lost the game.
A week later, in his first start, Foles was asked to drop back and throw the football, but he was given a safer approach: More screens and hitches and slants. An early interception put the Eagles in a hole and they continued to fall deeper into the ditch, so the balanced approach was difficult to accomplish. It was an ugly effort all around in the 31-6 loss at FedEx Field.
Monday night's game against Carolina was more indicative of the desired approach. A steady diet of running back Bryce Brown allowed the Eagles to pick up yards in gulps and to take a lead into the third quarter. However, Foles didn't get a whole lot going in the passing game and the Eagles dropped their seventh consecutive game, 30-22.
So here we are, preparing for a division game against the hated Cowboys. Dallas' defense loves to play downhill and linebacker DeMarcus Ware is an offense-wrecking machine. What will the offensive approach be?
Somehow, the Eagles have to be aggressive and push the ball down the field, even though Jackson will remain at home recovering from fractured ribs. Jeremy Maclin has to be the featured receiver, and the remainder of the season is an opportunity to see how Maclin plays in this role. No longer is he the "1B" receiver with Jackson. Maclin has to be to front and center, and he has to be targeted 12-15 times and he has to beat single and double coverage.
As you look at the wide receivers and project into the future, Maclin is an interesting case study. He's due to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2013 season and is one of those players often discussed in terms of a long-term contract. Is he worth the investment? Is he that kind of receiver?
Maybe playing the role of go-to receiver in the final five games of this season will give Maclin that featured role he's craved.
But it's going to take more than Maclin to put points on the scoreboard. The Eagles lose a lot of explosiveness with Jackson sidelined. Dallas may now choose to bring their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to take Brown out of the equation, recognizing his 178-yard effort on Monday night. Who takes advantage of some gaps down the field in the passing game?
Jason Avant isn't a speed receiver, and his routes will be run in the intermediate area, between the hashes. Riley Cooper is a big, physical receiver who can make some plays outside. Maybe the Eagles try to take a shot down the field to Cooper, but he's not going to be a consistent threat in the deep passing game.
Damaris Johnson is a quick, darting receiver who is making strides. The Eagles need to get him in space and see if he can make a tackler miss. Marvin McNutt will be active for this game, and he's got the big body and long stride and perhaps the Eagles will give him a couple of looks to see if he can box out and create some separation.
How are the Eagles going to score points on Sunday night?
It's hard to drive 15 plays and 75 yards for touchdowns. We know the problems the Eagles have had in the red zone. Explosive plays are the key to successful offenses, in addition to being efficient in the red zone. Tight ends Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are fine targets in the red zone and in the short-range game, but they aren't beating safeties on deep throws.
This is going to be a tough chore, no doubt about it. Can the Eagles grind their way to a win at Dallas? Can the defense take a few footballs away and set up the offense for an easy score or two? How about a special teams return?
There are just three players expected to start against the Cowboys who were starters when this whole thing began in training camp -- Maclin, Celek and fullback Stanley Havili The damage created by injuries has been devastating, but that's life in the NFL. The regular season is a battle of attrition. There are no excuses.
The Eagles have to manufacture points against a Dallas defense that is going to go after Foles full bore. They need to be physical, efficient and creative. At the same time, they have to give Foles an opportunity to make some big plays to ease away from the pressure of a move-the-sticks mentality.
The Eagles are what the Eagles are offensively. They are challenge from a personnel standpoint, and nobody debates that. Somehow, they have to counterpunch what Dallas does and take the fight to the Cowboys to win a rivalry game on the road.