There in a nutshell is the game.
Will the Eagles offense, which has averaged 30 points a game since Dallas tripped them up in game eight, and which has topped 23 points in every game this year save two, outscore another opponent? Or will the Cowboys defense, which has held every opponent not named the New York Giants to 21 points or less this year, going to hold another high-flying offense well below its season average?
This matchup heads the marquee, the other confrontation also intrigues. The Cowboys offense has been able to race up the down the field all year, yet has not found ways to score. It faces an Eagles defense which has slumped after a hot first half.
When Dallas Has the Ball
What is wrong with the Dallas offense this year? It averages 22.5 points per game, almost identical to last year's 9-7 squad, which averaged 22.6. Yet, it has already outgained the '07 offense, which averaged more than 28 points on its way to 13-3.
Tony Romo is clearly a better, more confident, less reckless field general. Where have the points gone? Several problems have combined to hold points off the scoreboard.
The first, obviously, has been Nick Folk's errant leg. More precisely, Folk's broken radar from 40-49 yards. In '07 and '08, Folk made 91% of his kicks. This year, he dropped to 65% before the Cowboys finally ended the relationship. He's missed seven more kicks than he did in '07, when had had the exact same number of attempts under 49 yards. Were Folk kicking at his previous level, the Cowboys would have 21 more points to their credit, an extra 1.5 points per game.
That explains some of the dropoff, but the greater culprit has been Dallas' erratic pass protection. As the aging linemen decline, their pockets break down more often. Despite his mobility, Tony Romo has been sacked 40% more this year than he was in '07; he's already been bagged seven more times than he was in '07 and he's facing a defense which dropped him four times in November.
Sacks are drive killers, as blogger OneCoolCustomer noted in a recent fan post. Only once this season has Dallas scored on a possession which saw Romo sacked. The sack proves far worse than a holding penalty because it denies Dallas a down to overcome it. The Cowboys have been pretty good at converting 1st-and-20, going back to the Sean Payton days of the mid-'00s. It is far, far less effective at converting 2nd-and-18s.
Which means the Eagles will bring pressure from the opening gun. They blitzed six and seven men on every pass play on Dallas' first two possessions in game one. Jason Garrett knocked them out of it -- temporarily -- with two tactics. He sometimes kept seven in to block and sent three men out on patterns -- to the same side of the formation. Dallas converted two key third downs, one early and one late, throwing to Jason Witten from plays like this.
Garrett also hurt the Eagles coverage with well-timed flanker screens to rookie Kevin Ogletree. One put Dallas at first and goal on their opening scoring drive of the game and the second, just before halftime, put Dallas in position to kick a field goal.
I stress that Philadelphia tempered their blitzing for just a short time. They're a blitzing team and I don't look for them to back down. They do a lot of zone blitzing, and also play a lot of man behind the pressure. Watch for three favored types of Eagles rushes.
The first is the double-A gap blitz, where the Eagles will deploy in a base 4-3 set, rush their DTs wide of each guard and then bring two linebacker at the center, one to each side. The center can only pick up one and this puts pressure on the back to clean up the extra interior rusher.
Philadelphia also runs a lot of overloads, where they will drop the strong-side defensive end into coverage on the tight end and bring a linebacker or two and the strong safety behind him. When it works, the offensive tackle over the dropping end does not check off of him and the blitzers are able to flood in through the OT's gap.
Philadelphia can also blow up expected runs with a 6-1 front, when both outside linebackers move from stacked positions five yards off the line to scrimmage to spots wide of the DEs, giving the Eagles a six man line. Both OLBs will charge into the backfield at the snap and try to snag the rusher from the edges. If the run is slow to develop, one of the OLBs will usually get to the runner before he reaches the line.
A Certain Tendency in the Eagles Defense
First-year coordinator Sean McDermott has kept the Eagles defense in the top ten all year -- in yardage rankings. His guys have bled big plays all the second half and have shown a vulnerability to teams which have faced them a second time.
In the first half of the season, the Eagles surrendered 19.0 points per game. That number was inflated by the 48 the then-hot Saints dropped on them in week two. New Orleans was the only team in games 1-7 to top 17 points. The Eagles defensive average in those other seven games was a stellar 14.4 points per game.
Then, Miles Austin "barbecued" corner Sheldon Brown late in the 4th quarter of Dallas' 20-16 win. (Yes, this is the adjective NBC's Cris Collinsworth used.) I'm probably overdramatizing Austin's effect but Philly's defense has clearly not been the same. The Eagles are 6-1 since the Dallas loss, but only two opposing offenses have been held under 20 points. One of them was a gift from the football gods; Philly faced a Falcons offense which was missing Matt Ryan and Michael Turner and held them to 7 points.
In the six games where the Eagles have faced a starting QB, they've given up 25.5 points a game. The Eagles are not beating opponents on their current streak, they're outscoring them. McDermott has not demonstrated the late Jim Johnson's ability to adjust to divisional opponents.
- vs. Giants: 36 pts. in game one; 14 in game two; 11 in game three;
- vs. Redskins: 23 pts. in game one; 10 in game two;
- vs. Cowboys: 41 pts. in game one; 6 in game two.
Johnson made every divisional rival miserable in last year's rematches. Contrast that to this year:
- vs. Giants: 17 pts. in game one; 38 in game two;
- vs. Redskins: 17 pts. in game one; 24 in game two;
- vs. Dallas: 20 pts. in game one; ? in game two.
Eli Manning and Jason Campbell were far more effective in their second passes at the Eagles secondary. Manning had two 60+ yard touchdown passes three weeks ago, on his way to a season-high 379 yards.
I look for Tony Romo to take more chances down the field in this game. He found Patrick Crayton out of the seam for 64 yards, when the Eagles blitzed a corner off the slot and tried matching a linebacker on Crayton. The Eagles will no doubt prepare for the flanker screen, which Dallas used to such effect in game one.
This time, I look for Dallas to again send receivers up the field out of the slot. Watch for Kevin Ogletree going up the field this time instead of Crayton. He's got the deepest speed on this team and if he gets matched on a linebacker, he won't be caught from behind, as Crayton was.
Also look for a variation off the flanker screen, which successful collegiate bubble screen teams like Purdue and Oklahoma use. In a typical flanker screen the receiver set widest feints upfield, then comes back towards the quarterback, while the receiver in the slot sprints diagonally towards the widest cornerback, to form an exterior seal. The offensive tackle on their side pulls and tries sealing the safety on that side. The play is very much like a toss sweep, only run from the outside in; the slot receiver seals the outside, the tackle tries sealing the inside and the flanker tries advancing in the alley between them.
On the variation the slot receiver runs towards the wide corner, as if to block, holds a count, and then charges up the field. The QB fakes the screen, hoping to get the secondary players to bite, then flips a deep pass over them. Dallas has not used this play yet, but it has used the flanker screen to Ogletree and Austin extensively since Eagles I and this may be the week we see them throw deep from this set.
When The Eagles Have the Ball
The Eagles offense has carried the team since mid-season, lighting up the scoreboard every week. Only the Cowboys and Raiders have held them below 23 points. The Eagles are a passing team, ranking just 21st in rushing yards.
They, like the Cowboys, play an aggressive, down-the-field style. Negating the Eagles tendencies got Wade Phillips the win in week nine. First, he tempered his pass rush. The Cowboys sent four men at Donovan McNabb on roughly 80% of their pass downs. The tactic let Dallas keep seven back in coverage and minimized the man-to-man situations the Eagles love to exploit.
Up front, look for Dallas to stick with the rush-four tactic, because it worked. Dallas sacked McNabb four times in that game, all of them off standard rushes. Dallas used a lot of stunts off the left side, between Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff. Spencer sprung Ratliff free on one such stunt and Ratliff beat a flailing Nick Cole on another; the sack pushed the Eagles out of the red zone on a deep early drive.
The Dallas rush has improved since then. because Spencer has improved his hand usage and is therefore getting the sack. (How many people remember the calls for Victor Butler to replace Spencer, after Butler made a diving sack of McNabb on Philly's final drive of the night? How many of you were making that call?)
Spencer has provided the bookend to Demarcus Ware and has allowed Dallas to pressure QBs with only four men of late. Drew Brees was sacked four times and Jason Campbell three times the last two weeks, even though Wade Phillips has called very few blitzes.
And this week, his interior ace Jay Ratliff gets Cole, who slides down to center to replace starter Jamaal Jackson, who is lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Look for Dallas to run even more games off the right edge, to test new RG Max Jean-Gilles. You might also see Dallas pinch the ends, in a "tight" 3-4 they use from time to time, to get Ratliff matched alone on Cole.
Outside, Dallas played matchup in the opener. Terence Newman followed DeSean Jackson everywhere; Mike Jenkins took Jeremy Maclin and Orlando Scandrick took Jason Avant. Ken Hamlin stayed deep behind them. Dallas denied deep throws and put the game on Jason Avant and the Eagles' running backs: no WR or TE gained more than 45 yards on the night. Nickel LB Bobby Carpenter and SS Gerald Sensabaugh took turns containing Brent Celek, so no Eagle target established a rhythm.
Because it worked, expect Dallas to play it again, until the Eagles prove they can beat it. Dallas will challenge the Eagles to beat them with ball control, something they don't like to do. You might see a slant or deep comeback for 15 or 20 here or there, but the Dallas secondary will gladly concede these plays. As long as McNabb isn't hitting them for 50 or 60, the back seven will regroup and challenge Philly to string several such plays together, figuring the rush will harrass McNabb into errant throws.
The immovable object faces the increasingly dangerous force. The Eagles kickoff coverage teams have ranked among the NFL's best all year and they caged Felix Jones in week nine. Jones ripped them for a long TD return last year, and he and his return blocking have improved dramatically the last three weeks. Jones twice came close to breaking returns in the Saints win. This matchup bears watching, because it could affect the outcome.
Pay attention to the Eagles return teams as well. Alex Smith had a touchdown called back on a penalty in Eagles I. DeSean Jackson may currently be the best kick returner in the game. Dallas instructed David Buehler and Mat McBriar to kick high, short and towards the sidelines in the first meeting to keep the ball out of Jackson's hands. Look for more of the same.
The kickers' ability to kick accurately will also affect the outcome. If they can pin Jackson and the Eagles other returners to the sidelines, this part of their game loses its potency. One errant kick could put Jackson in the open field. Out there, he has the ability to win a game by himself. Ask the Giants.