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Pass Catchers Again On The Spot Vs. Dallas

Seven drops, by unofficial count. Five, six, seven, the number was way, way too high to be acceptable. The Eagles' pass catchers -- wide receivers, tight ends and backs -- suffered a bad day last Sunday, and as the Eagles close in on this huge game against Dallas to close the regular season, the pass catchers are again a heavy topic of conversation.

Win three games in a row and nobody is complaining about the wide receivers, or the tight ends. The offense moves with great effectiveness. The balance is there, right where the Eagles want it to be.

Everything is just right.

But go out and have a lousy game and score only three points and all of those dropped passes lead to scorn and scrutiny and many, many questions.

Surely, Dallas studied the ins and outs of the Eagles' performance against Washington and took note. The Redskins were physical with the Eagles, banging rookie DeSean Jackson around, sending him to the locker room for a spell with hurting ribs and eventually contributing to the kid's tough game. They saw that Reggie Brown had a decent game, nothing special, in his return to the wide receiver rotation. They saw L.J. Smith catch seven passes, but also drop a couple that could have led to big plays. They saw Brian Westbrook shake free only once, down the sideline, when a long catch and run gave the Eagles a first down in the red zone. They saw the Eagles struggle to keep drives alive, converting just 3 of 14 third downs.

In general, Dallas saw the Eagles do very little of anything special.

And so, with a pressure scheme all lined up for Sunday, with Demarcus Ware three sacks away from setting an NFL record for most quarterback sacks in a single season, the Cowboys are likely to take that same aggressive approach against the Eagles pass catchers and dare the home team to win the battle.

Are the Eagles up to the task?

It is a big question, bigger than how many running plays the Eagles call. No question the Eagles must run the football more effectively and, yes, more often than they did Sunday against the Skins. But they also have to back Dallas off the line of scrimmage, clear some space in the box, and defeat the challenge of the Cowboys' ultra-talented secondary. In that first game, the Eagles hit Dallas with some big plays, specifically a Donovan McNabb deep pass to Jackson when the speedster got behind the defensive backs and hauled in the perfect pass. It opened things up for the offense, made Dallas respect the deep speed and allowed the Eagles to create some space underneath.

Now, Jackson is coming off his worst game as a professional. He has been terrific for the Eagles all season, handing the tough double duty of returning punts and being a full-time receiver. Jackson has a bright, bright future. He also has a present that provides the responsibility of making big plays in this offense.

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg spoke to Jackson during the week, as did just about everyone connected with the offense. Everyone loves Jackson and understands what kind of football player he is and someday could be. Jackson went through "one of those days" in a critical game. He stood up and accepted the criticism of his game.

The coaching staff made sure that Jackson understood that games like that must be few and far between for a star to emerge in this league.

"He went through an experience there and I expect him to catch every football, let it go, let's bounce back and let's get every one this week," said Mornhinweg. "It's that simple. He was banged up. He was banged up with two different types of injuries in that particular game. He was on the field and he was playing and he was playing fast. Now, he's got to finish. We've got to play at a certain level when we're injured and on the field and playing. That was an experience for him, it was a tough experience and I expect him to do a little bit better the next time he's banged up."

On Sunday, the Eagles may have both Kevin Curtis and Hank Baskett back on the field, and their returns would be welcome. The Eagles missed both last week -- Curtis for his sharp routes, quickness and great hands and Baskett for his size, his tough catches in traffic, his blocking in the running game -- but they also had opportunities to make plays in the passing game.

It wasn't just the wide receivers. Smith had a couple of plays right there in his hands and they weren't executed. Westbrook had no drops, but even with the Redskins focusing on him, the superstar back was needed to again carry the day, and he couldn't do so. Who else stepped up? Who made a key catch? A key block? A play to turn the game around?

In many, many games, the Eagles offense has scored plenty of points and moved the ball very well. And nobody has had much of anything negative to say about the personnel catching the football. But in a couple of big spots, the Eagles weren't able to deliver a big catch, a touchdown in the red zone, a last-second catch for a score.

The questions remain and they will last far beyond how long the Eagles play this season. Dallas is coming to play on Sunday. The Cowboys have a fast, physical defense. The Eagles are going to have to execute the passing game to score points. And all eyes, again, will be on a group that continues to be so interesting to watch.

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