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Big D Stands for Defense: Cowboys 24, Eagles 0

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Who's a cupcake now? 

Wade Phillips' defense will eat your cupcakes, and your lunch. They'll drink your whiskey, sleep in your bed and huff and puff and blow down any offense in their path.   They capped a superb second half of the season with their second consecutive shutout, blanking the Eagles 24-0, setting up a rematch next weekend, same Bat stadium, with the same Bat-tered Eagles.  

The manner of the victory gives the Cowboys a psychological edge heading into episode III.  The Cowboys simply out-muscled the Eagles.  They made them one-dimensional, holding the run-shy Marty Morhinweg's backs to 29 rushing yards on only eight carries.   When the Eagles passed, Dallas was again content to rush four men on the majority of downs.

Phillips knows Philadelphia lives on big pass plays, and his D took those plays away.  Dallas kept two safeties deep, ensuring there was somebody to clean up when one of the speedy Eagles receivers shook coverage or broke a tackle.  Dallas wasn't flawless.  It blew coverages on several big plays, but the sure-tackling Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh limited the damage. 

Dallas also had some good fortune.  Philly had chances for two big plays early on, once when DeSean Jackson beat Terence Newman on a post and second time when Jeremy Maclin lost Mike Jenkins on a crossing route.  On both occassions, a skittish Donovan McNabb misfired.  McNabb seemed to feel a rush when none existed.  He never settled in the pocket.  He overthrow deep passes and was regularly late and behind on crossing routes.  The Dallas rush got inside his head and McNabb will need to evict them and quickly if he hopes to avoid a three-game sweep.

The defense has a weakness, one that has been visible for all to see.  None of its inside linebackers are very good in coverage.  Brent Celek burned Bobby Carpenter on deep ins;  DeSean Jackson ran a shallow cross against Brady James and ran away from James for 32 yards.  The Saints and Chargers used these patterns to beat these two and Keith Brooking last month.

That appears to be the only major flaw in a team which continues to improve as the season progresses:

Games Points against average
1-4 19.5
5-8 18.5
9-12 15.25
13-16 9.25
Season 15.6

 

That final quarter season included matchups against the NFC's top-seeded Saints, the 2nd AFC seed Chargers and the 6th NFC seed Eagles. They finished the regular season ranked 1st, 4th and 5th in scoring offense.

On offense, a late infusion of speed and shiftiness has revived an offense which scored just 13 total points in games 9 and 10.  The Felix Jones Experience continues its breakout.  As predicted a couple of weeks ago, we finally saw Felix pass Marion Barber as the Cowboys main back:

  • Barber -- 14 carries, 1 reception -- 15 touches, 105 combined yards;
  • Jones -- 15 carries, 3 receptions -- 18 touches, 94 combined yards

Jones capped his career-high workload with a 49 yard touchdown scamper up the left sideline off a rocket pitch play, where Tony Romo faked an dive to the fullback before pitching to Jones, who easily outraced the Eagles DE to the corner.  Jones' day could have been much, much better:  he had a 24 yard pitch negated by a needless holding penalty against Deon Anderson, and lost a 22 yard screen when Andre Gurode was flagged for holding, after Jones was ten yards past him.   Look for Jones to get the majority of backfield touches going forward.

When Tony Romo looked up field, he had a wealth of targets.  Miles Austin posted a much stronger game against the Eagles' corners, catching six balls for 90 yards.  Patrick Crayton was a severe mismatch for Eagles nickel corner Joselio Hansen, catching four balls for another 99 yards and Dallas' second touchdown.

In the middle of the field, Jason Witten overwhelmed middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and strong safety Quintin Mikel. 

Philadelphia's mid-field weaknesses create a problem for DC Sean McDermott next week.  He blitzed heavily in game one, and got decent coverage in his secondary, until Austin beat his secondary late.  The Eagles secondary has sagged badly late season and yesterday McDermott called a lot fewer blitzes, to fortify his secondary.  The extra defenders didn't help.  Will McDermott go after Tony Romo again next week?  With weak covering linebackers and free safeties, he may have no choice.

Notes:

-- The 15.6 points-per-game is the lowest by a Cowboys defense since Dave Campo's '96 unit posted the same average.  It was last bested by Butch Davis' '94 defense.  The '78 and '93 defenses are the only others to better Wade's warriors in a 16-game season. 

-- We may have seen the beginning of the ends for Deon Anderson and Roy Williams.  Anderson wiped out a big Felix Jones run with a hold in the November Eagles win and he took another bad penalty yesterday.  John Phillips got most of the reps as the lead blocker yesterday and did a superior job leading runners into the hole. I think Phillips will be the team's fullback for the playoffs.  He might get a number change and more time as a true fullback next year.

Outside, the Cowboys added a special play for Kevin Ogletree, faking a reverse to Miles Austin and then throwing deep to the rookie.  Ogletree got behind Asante Samuel but Romo overthrew him.  When Dallas needed a 3rd down pass, Romo looked for Crayton, Witten and Austin, in that order.  Roy Williams finished without a catch and has just two in the last three games. 

-- Doug Free for left guard?  Free continues to press for a spot in the lineup, the rest of this season and next.  On Jones' 49 yard run, Free raced across the field from his right tackle spot and was locked on to corner Sheldon Brown at the Philly 15.  Free rode Brown several yards upfield, eliminating the last Eagle with a chance to prevent a score.  Free was so far up the left sideline, I thought he had started the play on the left in the unbalanced set Dallas uses. 

Free's mobility and superior size( 313 lbs. to Kyle Kosier's 307 lbs) makes me wonder if Free might get consideration inside next year.  Whether it's LT, LG or RT, Free will be part of the '10 Dallas line.  He's going to make it hard for the coaches to bench him in favor of Marc Colombo.

-- Any questions about Gerald Sensabaugh now?  I think the two Eagles games have demonstrated the value of two safeties with range.  Does anybody think Dallas could have run this game plan with Roy Williams or Keith Davis in the lineup? 

-- On the flip side, I think Brent Celek's effectiveness points out how much this  team needs more athletic ILBs.  Jason Williams will have every chance to upgrade the team's athleticism there next year.  If he can provide the kind of upgrade that Sensabaugh provided at SS this season, next year's pass defense could get even better. 

-- What wrinkles are in store next week?  Both teams opened in no-huddle offenses yesterday.  Dallas started in the game in its base 4-2-5 nickel, with Stephen Bowen joining Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer on the rush line.

--  Anthony Spencer has seven sacks in the 2nd half of the season.  A tip of the hat to Reggie Herring, who kept working with Spencer, when he was piling up the QB pressures but failing to record sacks.  The hard work is paying off for both of them, and that payoff comes at the ideal time.

-- That's a 30 yard field goal that Shaun Suisham missed.  We may not see consistent kicking this year.  Hope that the post-season brings a replay of '92, when Dallas never needed the mediocre Lin Elliot to make a pressure kick.