The time has come for the new Cowboys to get their fitting.
The Eagles are coming to town. The conference champs are hurting. Donovan McNabb has the early lead for the annual Steve McNair Bionic ManÃ¢â€ž¢ award, playing with a bruised sternum and a sports hernia. Pro Bowl kicker David Akers is out with a torn hamstring. DT Darwin Walker is doubtful. Yet, the Eagles appear at times to be toying with their opponents. After losing a twelve round decision against the Falcons the opening Monday night, they've cranked up their offensive output. Last week, they put the league on notice that this may be the most devastating offensive attack of the Andy Reid era, scoring 31 unanswered points after falling behind Kansas City 24-6.
The efficiency of Philly's offense offers the toughest challenge yet for a Cowboys team that is still searching for an identity. The resilience shown in the opening win at San Diego evaporated in the final minutes against Washington. A promising comeback in San Francisco was undone by a sloppy across-the-board loss to the Raiders. Questions abound on all the team's units because the most positive moments in years appear to spur some of the most confounding letdowns. The Eagles should provide a better indication of whether the glass is half full or half empty for this Cowboys edition.
When the Eagles Have the Ball
When your star QB suffers a painful sternum injury and two weeks later suffers a torn abdominal muscle, most head coaches would take a cautious approach. Running plays would be increased. Protection packages would be beefed up. Game plans would be drawn up to ease the burden on your leader's body as much as possible.
Most head coaches are not Andy Reid. The Eagles' boss had decided to disregard Donovan McNabb's aches and pains and put even more responsibility on his tender shoulders. Consider the run/pass ratios in the Eagles' first four games:
These are figures that would make the old run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis proud. They're even more surprising considering the Eagles offensive line is as sound as it's been in years. They suggest that Reid feels his offense is invincible. Or, at least, that his passing attack is.
Philadelphia's receiving corps remains as thin as ever, but as long as Terrell Owens is healthy, they're deep enough. Owens is dominating again. Through four games Owens is on pace for 2000 yards receiving. He is priority one for the Eagles' passing attack, so slowing him down must be priority one for Dallas' defense. The good news is that Dallas might finally have the talent to make a go of it. Anthony Henry was selected in free agency in part because of his size, which allows him a better matchup against Owens. Fellow corner Terence Newman had success in a late-season game versus Owens and appears to match up fairly well.
One contingency the secondary must account for is the possibility that Owens will line up in the slot. Oakland burned Dallas last week with a first-series play where Randy Moss lined up in the slot while Dallas was in its base 3-4 package. Demarcus Ware had to split out wide to provide underneath zone coverage before releasing Moss to Keith Davis. The formation undermined the Cowboys in two ways. First, it took the team's best rushing linebackers away from the line of scrimmage. Second, Ware is the team's most inexperienced cover linebacker, so putting him one-on-one against Oakland's best offensive weapon doubled the insult. Moss blew past Ware and free safety Keith Davis for a 79 yard gain.
When the Eagles are not torturing secondaries with Owens, they are creating horrific mismatches with running back Brian Westbrook. Westbrook is an effective runner, but he is perhaps even more deadly as a receiver. Reid lines him up everywhere -- in the backfield; in the slot; split wide against corners. Westbrook has the speed and cutting ability to be effective anywhere. He is the teams' second best receiver and his passing game skills cover up the fact that Eagles' receivers not named Owens are either inexperienced or pedestrian. He can get down the field, as he proved two weeks ago when his two long third quarter receptions blew open a close tussle with the Raiders.
Westbrook presents serious matchup problems for Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The middle of the Cowboys pass defense has been suspect all year and took another blow when ILB Dat Nguyen fell to questionable with a neck stinger. Nguyen is the only linebacker with steady coverage skills and his absence would open things up in the middle, especially on seam routes and screens.
That could spell disaster for Dallas' pass defense, since the third leg of the Eagle's passing triad has been the exception play of tight ends L.J. Smith and Greg Lewis. They've combined for 44 receptions in four games and both average over ten yards per carry. Smith in particular has blossomed in his third year.
Reid has a very precise and aggressive manner of play calling. He isolates a weakness and then goes to it repeatedly. Against the Chiefs, he picked on different areas of the K.C. pass defense in stages. One one drive he would throw five passes -- all to Owens. On the next drive all his passes would go to Westbrook. Then he would split his passes among the tight ends. And on down the line.
How do you slow this fearsome attack down and protect your own vulnerable areas at the same time? Blitz for one. McNabb has few weaknesses in his game, but he has always been suspect to pressure right up the middle, which disrupts his rhythm and throws off his accuracy. Getting this type of pressure on him has always been easier in concept than in fact, given his mobility. You need a combination of disciplined ends, who can keep contain and prevent McNabb from scrambling outside, and a strong inside push. Two years ago, Zimmer got this magic combination during the Cowboys' win at Texas Stadium. He stopped McNabb on the game's final drive with a steady diet of six and seven man rushes.
When Dallas does bring the heat, and it will, it must account for the Eagles' screens. When Reid was Mike Holmgren's OC at Green Bay, the Packers were without peer at running screen passes. Reid has made his Eagles the standard. He runs them on any down and in any sequence. His primary tendency is to run them on first downs, when he fells the opponent is going to blitz. However, he will run them several plays in a row if he feels his protection schemes are coming undone. The Dallas linemen will have to be wary of what the Eagles linemen are doing in front of them.
And this McNabb is not the swashbuckling McNabb of old. The hernia has curbed his explosiveness and made him a pocket passer. To his credit, he has adjusted beautifully. However, the Raiders were able to throw him off for a half by keeping him in the pocket and mixing an occasional fifth blitzer. I look for Zimmer to do the same.
Since Philadelphia is so pass-heavy these days, I also look for Dallas to move away from its base 3-4 this week. Against the 49ers, Dallas briefly unveiled a 4-2-5 look that had Greg Ellis and Demarcus Ware at the ends, with LaRoi Glover and Chris Canty inside. Nguyen and Scott Shanle were the linebackers.
The twist came in the secondary. The Cowboys played their normal package of three corners and two safeties. Aaron Glenn played left corner, Anthony Henry played the right side and Terence Newman covered any receiver in the slot. Willie Pile played deep middle as the free safety. Roy Williams, however, abandoned his role as the strong safety and lined up next to Nguyen and Shanle as a linebacker. This better suited Williams' game and benefitted the defense. Williams played closer to the line and offered another blitzing option. When the 49ers set a back in the slot, Williams covered him. His flaws in coverage are well documented, but he's still better than any linebacker on the team.
My hunch is that Dallas will use this as their base defense tomorrow to counter the Eagles' pass-first attack. Zimmer would be no stranger to this tactic. In 1996, when he was Dave Campo's secondary coach, the Cowboys played a 49ers team that was heavily weighted to passing. Campo opened the game in a nickel package and moved SS Darren Woodson into the shallow, weakside linebacking role. The defense stymied Steve Young and helped Dallas to a 20-17 win.
When Dallas Has the Ball
The Cowboys offense has struggled to gain consistency. It has followed 28 and 34 point outputs with 13 point breakdowns. This is due to the lines inability to establish a consistent running attack. Julius Jones has been okay, but has yet to post a breakout game.
Bill Parcells is committed to running the ball and has therefore stuck to a ball control game plan. Expect more of the same this week. The heavy running will persist until the Cowboys get it right -- and then they will persist in even heavier doses. What's more, the Eagles defense has been a bit suspect to good running attacks, particularly on the edges.
Where the Eagles have been stout -- and where Dallas has preferred to run, is inside. Here, MLB Jeremiah Trotter plays what Parcells called a "standup nose tackle." The 260 lb. Trotter plays much close to the line than most contemporary MLBs, who stand four to five yards behind the line, to allow for better pursuit angles to the sidelines. Trotter lines up about two yards off the line of scrimmage, bringing to mind '50s middle backers like Joe Schmitt or Sam Huff. His love is "blowing up" centers and his quickness, strength and understanding of leverage makes him an expert at this skill. The Eagles run defense was porous until he was reinstalled inside last year. Once he began clogging up middles, the defense began its run towards the Super Bowl.
Trotter will provide a challenge for both Cowboys centers Al Johnson and Andre Gurode. It's unclear whether the quicker Johnson or the brawnier Gurode is the better matchup. Dallas will probably rotate them earlier and go with the better of the two.
When Dallas passes, it faces a double threat. The Eagles have the best secondary in the conference, perhaps the entire league. Young Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard are a fearsome duo outside. Sheppard has gotten the accolades, but Brown is probably the better of the two. He got the Eagles comback started with an interception return for a touchdown last week and finished the game with two picks. Inside, Philadelphia has the strong pair of SS Michael Lewis and FS Brian Dawkins. The Eagles have no weaknesses in their set.
That allows the front seven to pressure opposing QBs. The Eagles have gained a reputation of late as an all out, constant-pressure team. That reputation is misleading; DC Jim Johnson does like to blitz, but he also likes to keep opposing QBs and OCs guessing. He'll bring pressure erratically. Sometimes he will being several blitzes in a row. Sometimes he'll show blitz but back off, hoping to bait the quarterback into throwing into heavy coverage.
The most effective tool against this pressure is power running, which is one more reason why Dallas will continue to pound Julius Jones, no matter how effective or ineffective he may be. Another took is screens. And while you've been watching other things, the Cowboys have quietly been improving their screen efficiency. Against San Francisco, Jones caught a perfectly executed throwback screen for 18 yards. Last week against Oakland, the Cowboys again executed a quick screen for Jones to perfection and gained 14 yards. I expect to see Dallas use screens several times tomorrow to try and catch the blitzing Eagles off guard.
The key for the Cowboys passing attack will be TE Jason Witten. His size and speed presents matchup problems for the Eagles linebackers. In the 49-21 Monday night loss last year, Witten repeatedly beat Eagles LBs and safeties alike for two long touchdowns. The Eagles paid far more attention to him in the rematch later in the year, but that extra coverage tempered their ability to use Dawkins and Lewis as blitzers. Witten, like the rest of the offense has been streaky, and a big game from him would go a long way towards improving the Cowboys chances.
Look for Dallas to take more shots down the field. They have been notorious slow starters and may want to let Bledsoe test the Eagles deep coverage. When Dallas does this, they will give Bledsoe maximum protection. One reason is that RT Rob Petitti will need some tight end and running back help against DE Jevon Kearse. Kearse is a pure speed demon and Petitti had trouble handling the Raiders speedster Derrick Burgess last week. Since Keyshawn Johnson is not a speed merchant, do not be surprised if Peerless Price gets more reps this week than before.
Prediction: The Eagles are slow starters, so if Dallas can escape its slow-starting tendencies, it will have a chance to dictate game pace, something it has not been able to do this year. And the Eagles, for their offensive firepower, could be 2-2 themselves if Sebastian Janikowski had not missed two medium range field goals two weeks ago.
That said, this is the best team Dallas has faced, hands down. They will give the Cowboys their smallest margin for error. I think Dallas will play its most inspired ball of the year, but it will need to show improvement in all phases of the game to win. I don't think we can expect that degree of improvment this early in the year. I think Brian Westbrook is the difference in a hard fought four quarter game.
Eagles 24, Cowboys 20