Cowboys Offense vs. Eagles Defense
I've seen some scouting reports suggesting that the Cowboys will try to establish the run against the Eagles to start the game. The theory being that Dallas won't want to expose QB Drew Bledsoe to the Eagles frequent blitzes. Don't believe it. Dallas has been most effective when they've established the passing game early, forcing defenses to back off the line of scrimmage. The Eagles secondary is the weak link on the defense even with the possible return of CB Lito Sheppard.
Dallas will come out ready to throw the ball and will use 3 and 4 receiver sets to force the Eagles to play the nickel defense. With 3rd corner Rod Hood unlikely to play, the Eagles will have to use CB Joselio Hanson in the nickel. The Cowboys receivers will be licking their chops at that prospect. Word leaked out of Eagles camp earlier this week that S Brian Dawkins will spend a lot of time trying to cover Jason Witten, meaning deep help in the secondary will be left to Michael Lewis, which is not his best skill. Corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown can't cover Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn one-on-one. Something's got to give, and the match-ups favor Dallas.
The Eagles will want to blitz given the immobility of Bledsoe, but this leaves them with the quandary of playing man-to-man with the Dallas receivers. If the corners and safeties sit back in zone coverage, the Cowboys will beat them short with hitches and quick slants. These short patterns have been very effective for the Cowboys this year and have set up defenses for deeper patterns later. If the Eagles press the receivers with the secondary, Dallas will take some shots deep, especially if they're seeing one-on-one coverage because the Eagles are running blitzes.
The flipside of the passing game is the Eagles desire to beat the Cowboys offensive line with heavy pressure and force Drew Bledsoe into mistakes or sack him. The Cowboys offensive line has gotten progressively better as the season has progressed but this game will be their biggest challenge to date. Trent Cole has speed to burn and might give Flozell Adams trouble to the outside. Dallas will shift their protection to Cole's side and one of the TE's will need to chip him before releasing into the pattern. In addition, Julius Jones and Marion Barber will have to be aware of his presence.
Andre Gurode will have to have one of his better games, not only in calling out the blocking schemes but in dealing with interior DT's Mike Patterson and Darwin Walker. The good news for Dallas is that since the loss of Jevon Kearse the Eagles pass rush has not been as effective.
Once Dallas decides to establish the run, they're going to run behind the left side of the line. The Eagles line is not the biggest in the NFL and the Cowboys may want to pull their guards and simply overpower the Eagles on the edges. Trent Cole is undersized as an end, so the Cowboys can block down with the TE and can get bigger linemen on the edges to seal off the linebackers.
The Cowboys have found some success running the ball up the middle this year, but will probably want to stay away from it in this game given the presence of MLB Jeremiah Trotter. The better way to deal with Trotter, who's a tackling machine, is to run counters and misdirection plays to take advantage of his aggressive nature.
If the Eagles bring S Michael Lewis up to the line of scrimmage, where he is most effective, the Cowboys will need the TE's and WR's to be especially sharp in their run blocking. TE Anthony Fasano is improving on his entry blocks in the run game, but still struggles at times, and Jason Witten has always been an average blocking TE. Their best bet is to force Lewis off the line of scrimmage by establishing the passing game, and then come back to the run.