Before this morning, I had yet to actually watch last December's game against the Eagles.
I was flying back home to Dallas that day and my flight got delayed so that I was in the air while the game was in progress. I told my dad to DVR it and I would watch it when I got home, having quarantined myself from any knowledge of the outcome. I am still superstitious though, so I wore my Marion Barber jersey and my Cowboys hat on the flight. As I was getting off the plane, some a-hole skycap looks at me and says this, "Romo sure sucked today. Threw three interceptions and lost the game at the end. Sure sucks, huh?" Then he laughs real loud and walks away. I stood there, my face red and my heart hammering in my chest. I couldn't figure out if I wanted to hit that guy in the back of the head as hard as I could or just drop to my knees and sob a bit. I read a bit of the game story on the drive to my house, but just couldn't get the strength to watch the game. It was heartbreaking; Gurode hurt, Romo's thumb and then the Jessica Simpson fiasco started.
Yet as I started to gear myself up for tomorrow night's game, I realized I needed to take a look at the game and exactly what happened to cause it all to go wrong. The media keeps harping on that game like it's the blueprint for how the Eagles can stop the Cowboys, so I bit the bullet and watched the game. Every single play. Using what I saw in the game, how the Cowboys played against the Eagles in the first matchup last season, and how the teams have changed this season I have come up with a list of what I think are the main keys to success for the Cowboys to beat the Eagles at home.
Special Teams. This should almost go without saying, but the game could be so close that field position might be a deciding factor in the outcome. Last December the Cowboys had an average starting position at their own 24. The Cowboys forced the Eagles to punt eight times, yet were able to muster just 20 total return yards. This year with Adam Jones as the returner and Felix Jones and possible Isaiah Stanback returning kicks the Cowboys have the ability to get some decent return yards against the Eagles. Shortening the field as much as possible against an opportunistic Eagles defense is vital for success.
The other side of special teams is even more important. Last year, and this preseason, the Cowboys had difficulty in kickoff and punt coverage against speedy guys. They were able to handle the shifty Devin Hester types yet struggled against returners that would hit a hole and explode upfield. DeSean Jackson is that kind of returner. He finds a seam, hits it and is gone. The key is for the Cowboys to maintain their lanes and not over pursue.
Zach Thomas. This is the game for Thomas to prove that he can still do what the Cowboys signed him to do. Last season the Cowboys did a decent job against Brian Westbrook, holding him to just one touchdown and 4.3 yards per carry. Not outstanding, but decent considering how he has torn apart Dallas in the pass. The Eagles run a lot of delay handoffs, delayed screens and passes in the flat to Westbrook, doing their best to get him the ball in the open. That's where Thomas comes in. His strengths are quickly diagnosing a play and flying to the ball. The quick screens and dumpoffs are where Westbrook is especially dangerous and Thomas needs to be able to see these plays developing and get after Westbrook immediately.
Last season the Cowboys, and DeMarcus Ware in particular, did a great job of not letting Westbrook string plays to the sideline where he could turn it upfield. The Cowboys need to be able to maintain this success Monday night, and Thomas is an integral part of that gameplan.
Third and long. The Eagles' blitzes are like an exaggerated myth; they aren't as aggressive and frequent as they are made out to be, yet are still highly effective. Last December the Eagles only rushed more than four players once out of every five plays. The majority of these blitzes came on third and longs, when the offense needs more time for the receiver's routes to develop. While the Cowboys have become somewhat famous for their ability to convert on third and longs, against the Eagles this becomes a completely different challenge than normal. The Cowboys were just 1 of 13 on third down against the Eagles in December. Part of that had to do with Romo's bad game, but it also comes from the Eagles being able to unleash their blitz packages on third and longs.
The Eagles also had a number of run blitzes on first down, most of which resulted in no gain or negative yardage. The Cowboys became a bit stale in their play calling, harking back to the Ernie "Emmitt up the middle on EVERY first down" Zampese days. Jason Garrett needs to mix up the play calling a bit more, while at the same time establishing the run. Watching the game against the Browns, it appears that Garrett has done just that, using a number of delays, runs out of shotgun and a lot of pre-snap movement to get the blocking matchups he desires.
Marion Barber and Felix Jones. In the home loss against the Eagles last season, the Cowboys called 40 pass plays while the running backs had just 13 carries in the game. Understandable if you're down by a few touchdowns or your quarterback is on fire, not if you are within one score and your defense is having success against the other team. The Cowboys must find a way to establish the running game early in order to free things up for Tony Romo. Last week the Cowboys did a tremendous job of doing just this, with an even number of runs and passes on the opening scoring drive, finishing the game nearly even between the two. The Cowboys also must find ways to use Felix Jones earlier in the game, especially in the passing game. If the Eagles decide to pin their ears back and attack, then a quck dump to Jones in the flat should teach them a nice lesson. We must also remember that Barber is threat in the passing game as well, averaging nearly 17 yards a catch last season against the Eagles. Most importantly though will be how Barber and Jones handle the blitzes of the Eagles. Last week they were almost perfect in picking up blitzers in front of Romo, and must continue that play against the eagles.
Tony Romo. Last year in his film review, Grizz had this to say about Romo's poor performance against the Eagles:
I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with Tony Romo. I counted eight passes before his injury that were off-target, some wildly off. He had receivers open but just couldn’t hit them.
Watching the game now, without any emotions involved and with the advantage of hindsight, it's a bit clearer as to what was wrong with Romo that day; he was jumpy and impatient, which is almost exactly what he said he focused on fixing this offseason.
The Eagles routinely rushed just four guys, yet Romo would react in the pocket like there were eight men bearing down on him. He would not give the plays time to develop and then he would rush the pass. His mechanics were just way off as well; he reverted back to his sidearm quick sling motion while at the same time not getting any body movement on his throws. He was throwing with his elbow and not his shoulder, resulting in wild passes that went short, wide and high. He didn't even throw that badly against the Bills when he had five interceptions. Another thing Romo was doing is sliding up into the pocket and right into the face of defenders. This affected his throwing lanes and a few times he almost had to jump up as he threw in order to get over the line in front of him.
This offseason when Romo mentioned looking back and game tape and seeing these traits he needed to address, I guarantee he was referring to this game. Every single thing he focused on improving for this year are things he did wrong in the game against the Eagles. We all saw as calm Romo was against the Browns and how he was letting the play develop in front of him and would patiently wait for a receiver to come open. Now he won't have the same kind of time to pass against the Eagles, but he will have more time than he thought he did last year. If Romo shows patience and poise, he should have no trouble against the Eagles' defense.
Random thoughts. Right now the Eagles have a lot of confidence and McNabb is back to being the "man" in Philly. Everyone is saying how the resurgence of the Eagles' offense will be trouble for the Cowboys but the fact remains that Wade Phillips' defenses have held McNabb to an average QB rating of 69.0, sacking him three times a game.
Last year DeMarcus Ware had monster games against the Eagles, a trend that should continue as he goes against an aging offensive line. Just once I want him to hit McNabb so hard that he lays there on the ground, stars in his eyes and Ware's voice echoing in his head....."Head, shoulder, knees and toes.....knees and toes....."