Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE
Whoever said an NFL season was a war of attrition surely had Sunday night's Cowboys-Eagles tilt in mind. Instead of Michael Vick facing off against Sean Lee, we'll see Nick Foles cross swords with Brady Poppinga.
Talk about the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players...
In the past fortnight, a bevy of articles have been published detailing the Cowboys' myriad injuries on defense. One of the best of these was by our own O.C.C., who pointed out that the injury bug has been particularly virulent in the middle of the Dallas defense, where the Cowboys starting nose guard, middle linebackers, nickle corner and free safety are all out. In addition, Dallas will be missing at least one, if not both, of its starting defensive ends. As Cool sees it, only five of twelve starters (he rightly includes nickle corner as a starter) will be on the field against the Eagles on Sunday night.
In addition, the Cowboys will be missing several key backups. All-purpose defensive lineman Sean Lissemore continues to be limited in practice with a high ankle sprain, and two projected contributors, Orie Lemon and Matt Johnson, join seventh-rounder Caleb McSurdy on IR. Not only will the Cowboys be missing seven of twelve starters, but key backups at positions where the starters have gone down are also lost for the year. As Shakespeare notes, in Hamlet: "When problems come, they come not single spies but in batallions." This is certainly true of the Cowboys injury problems; as a result, third and fourth-stringers will play a lot of meaningful snaps against the Eagles.
The Eagles potent offense is likely to make hay against the depleted Dallas "D" isn't it? Not so fast there, buckaroo. As hard as it is to imagine, Philadelphia's offense may be in worse shape that the Cowboys defense. Yesterday, we learned that starting wide receiver DeSean Jackson is out for the season (is that the sound of weeping or laughing I hear?). This continues the Eagles' historic injury epidemic. As ESPN's Dan Graziano notes:
Jackson joins starting offensive linemen Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans on injured reserve. Additionally, starting quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy remain sidelined as they continue to try to recover from concussions, and right guard Danny Watkins has been held out in recent weeks due in part to an ankle injury (though Watkins' absence from the starting lineup does also have a performance-related component). Add that up, and it's entirely possible the Eagles will play this Sunday night in Dallas with only four of their projected 2012 offensive starters.
But wait, it might be even worse (or better, I suppose, depending on your rooting interest). Center Dallas Reynolds (who was thrust into the lineup when Kelce went down for the year) has a bum ankle, and did not participate in practice on Wednesday. If he can't go, starting left guard Evan Mathis would likely slide over to guard, with right guard Watkins rejoining the starting lineup at left guard. Another option would be for the Eagles to turn to third-string center Matt Tennant. As this suggests, the Eagles - like the Cowboys - have been hit hard up the middle. On Sunday night, they could trot out a third-string center or two backup guards (one of whom is playing out of position), as well as a quarterback and a running back who began the season as third-stringers.
Want to know what Sunday night's contest will look like when the Eagles have the ball? A lot like the third quarter of a preseason game, with an odd mixture of second- and third-stringers mixed in with some starters. The curious thing is that the match-ups will feature strength against strength on the perimeter and weakness against weakness through the middle. In September, looking forward to this game, I doubt many of us would have listed Josh Brent against Matt Tennant as one of the game's key match-ups. As with preseason games, the team that wins will be the one who has the best backups (or, in some cases, has done the best job of coaching up street free agents).
For these two teams, with the way their respective seasons have gone, that somehow seems fitting.