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Cowboys vs. Eagles Preview, Part II: About Those Blitzes

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The Eagles have taken their share of media hits this past week for starting the game in more basic defensive packages, especially against the run.  This was out of character for a team that blitzed Tony Romo fiercely in the 20-16 game in November.  That night, the Eagles started with nothing but heavy blitzes and kept on blitzing, even though Dallas hurt them with two well-timed flanker screens to Kevin Ogletree.

What the 24-0 tape shows is that the Eagles likely have to blitz again, because their aggressive secondary has severall matchup problems if Tony Romo is not hurried.

Where's Felix?  The Eagles Want to Know

In the opening game, Philly did not offer much safety help to either Sheldon Brown or Asante Samuel against Miles Austin.  And they did not do so in game two either.  The Eagles focused their attention upom tight end Jason Witten, who had bracket coverage from linebackers underneath and a safety high, and running back Felix Jones.

 

The extra attention was clear on Dallas' opening drive of the game.  The Cowboys had converted a first down on a slant to Roy Williams and were near mid-field.  On the next play, Dallas lined up in an offset I with both Marion Barber and Jones in the backfield, with Barber lined up as the fullback and Jones as the tailback.  Romo faked a handoff to Barber and rolled to his right, looking for Jones, who was running an arrow route to the right sideline. 

Romo found that a linebacker was chasing Jones and that the corner Samuel was lurking underneath Jones.  The primary target was gone and so Romo ate the ball, taking an 8 yard Juqua Parker sack. 

In the rematch, Jones again got extra attention and this created extra room for Witten and for Patrick Crayton in the middle of the field.  Whenever Felix ran routes a linebacker and either the nickel corner Joselio Hanson or a safety were rushing up to cover him. 

Consequently, Witten received far more single coverage than in the first game, and he beat every Eagles linebacker and strong safety Quintin Mikel. 

What's obvious is that all three Eagles corners play ball hawking games and that this can lead to big breakdowns in coverage.  On Dallas' 2nd touchdown drive, Hanson closed hard on Jones releasing from the backfield and let Witten free;  Romo hit Witten for a key early 3rd down conversion.  Later in the drive, Hanson lined up against Crayton in the slot, jumped a short route and turned Crayton over to free safety Macho Harris, who was too deep to stop Crayton until the WR had made a big gain.

On the final play, a pump and go to Crayton which beat Sheldon Brown, Hanson again looked lost.  The design of the play was a "high-low" action against the left corner Brown, who lined up against Crayton wide.  Roy Williams was lined up in the left slot against Hanson and he ran a quick out into the left flat, in front of Brown.  Brown is a ballhawk, who tracks the quarterback's eyes.  Because the down was 3rd-and-4, Brown clearly anticipated a quick toss to Williams for the first and hovered in the short zone when Romo pump faked in Williams' direction.

Brown's hesitation let Crayton get behind him in the back left corner of the end zone.  Another reason Brown waffled was because he had no help.  Two receivers were coming into his area and he was the only Eagle defender on that sideline.

That's because Hanson jumped on Jason Witten, who was running a seam up the left hash mark.  The problem for Hanson was that Quintin Mikel was guarding Witten over the top and a linebacker was trailing below him.  The Eagles, by design or by impulse, had three defenders on one target and turned two Cowboys free on poor Brown, who tried going two directions at once and ended up frozen in the middle.

The hyper-aggressive play of Philadelphia's corners works when they have effective pressure being delivered in front of them.  When a quarterback has to release the ball quickly, the route-jumping CBs are in the ideal positions to make breakups and get picks.

If the rush isn't getting home, however, the Eagles coverage is exposed and receivers like Crayton and Witten can get free behind them. 

McDermott's secondary gives up big plays -- a lot of them.  His guys rank higher than Wade Phillips' in yards allowed, but the Eagles back seven has surrendered an eye-popping 27 touchdown passes this year, as many as their ballyhooed passing offense has scored.  He knows he has matchup problems against Witten and against Crayton.  His corners also had a lot more trouble with Miles Austin in the rematch.  McDermott learned that keeping extra defenders did no good, in great part because his four-man rushes did little to disrupt Romo.

Flozell Adams has had trouble with some speed rushers this season, most notably Elvis Dumervil and Will Smith.  In the division, he's been rock solid.  He stoned Trent Cole last week, and Cole is the only Eagle who can beat single blocks with any frequency.  The tackles, Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, have 2.5 sacks between them and fellow end Parker, while notching a respectable 8.0 sacks, was no trouble for Doug Free.  He didn't trouble the returning RT Marc Colombo much in the first game either; Parker got a sack but it came on that bootleg described above, where Romo rolled towards him and took the sack because Felix Jones was covered.

All the movement and blitzing has turned Patrick Crayton into an Eagles' killer.  He had 99 yards last week and 74 in the first game.  One of those plays was a 64 yard seam route just before the half where Hanson blitzed off the slot and Romo found Crayton behind a linebacker.  The Eagles have no answer for him right now and I expect Jason Garrrett to send him into the deep middle more this game, to keep Hanson off balance and to keep the short and intermediate levels free for Witten to cause more damage.

When the Eagles Have the Ball

Dallas has stumped the Eagles' big play offense, in part because the Eagles foibles match up nicely with Dallas' vulnerabilities.  Philly does not move its receivers much.  Like the Colts, the Eagles give their guys sides.  Jeremy Maclin almost always lined up on the left and DeSean Jackson almost always lined up on the right, though Jackson will sometimes work the slots. 

These tendencies mean Mike Jenkins gets Maclin almost exclusively and Terence Newman draws Jackson.  Dallas sends Newman after Jackson when he lines up inside;  they do not let him match up with nickel corner Orlando Scandrick, who either handles 3rd receiver Jason Avant or tight end Brent Celek, depending on the coverage. 

Jenkins has neutralized Maclin's upfield sprints.  The Eagles have challenged Jenkins several times in each game but he has yet to give up a big play.  The one time Maclin beat him, on a deep post in the November game, Demarcus Ware hit McNabb's arm, causing an incompletion. 

Maclin has had success losing Jenkins on slants and crossing routes, but he had not caused much damage, for two reasons.  First, Maclin does not appear comfortable running over the middle.  He has dropped two passes and tipped a third into Gerald Sensabaugh's hands.  He seems to hear the proverbial footsteps.

The other reason is that Donovan McNabb, for some odd reason, lacks accuracy on crosses.  He twice had Maclin and Jackson open and threw lasers a yard or two behind them, squandering big chances.

When the Eagles do connect on one of these plays, they get big gains.  Dallas has been vulnerable to this type of pass all year, and relies on the safeties to limit the damage after the catch.  I look for OC Marty Morhinweg to call more crosses early in the game, hoping a hit or two will get McNabb and his receivers into a quick rhythm. 

Do not expect the Eagles to back off the deep throws.  Jackson has the warp speed to get behind any secondary and he beat Newman on a post from the left slot last week.  McNabb missed him.  The Eagles are the football equivalent of a heavy puncher, and they'll need to land some haymakers if they're going to win.  They won't stop swinging. 

Do expect them to run the ball more, after calling just eight runs last week.  Their most effective plays have been draws and traps of the outside linebackers, where the Eagles pull a tight end across the formation and try to kick out the weakside outside backer, while double-teaming the DE on that same side.  Denver ran this play effectively against Dallas and the Eagles had some success with it in the first half of that first game. The Eagles have just 48 rushing yards against Dallas in their last six quarters of play, on 18 carries.  That's 2.7 yards a pop. 

The Eagles had a lot of trouble converting short yardage situations on the ground.  They threw on 3rd and short early in the first game and were stuffed three times in a row after facing a 2nd-and-1 in the 4th quarter of the November game.  Their short-yardage difficulties may have factored in Morhinweg's pass-happy second game plan, though the Eagles do have a tendency to abandon the run if they fall behind early.

Their one offensive constant has been tight end Celek, who has abused all the Cowboys linebackers who have tried to cover him.  The Cowboys seems content to let him get his balls, satisfied that 90 yards of Celek production won't beat them, while a couple of bombs to Maclin and Jackson can. 

Overall

The Cowboys have several mismatches.  But this is a divisional rival, which means the game is always at risk.  How can they lose?  Look to the Giants playoff loss two years ago.  The Cowboys tackled poorly, hurt themselves with key penalties and failed to convert in the red zone.  They let the Giants hang around and lost the game late. 

This game will likely be decided by the matchup of Hudson Houck's line against the Eagles' blitzers.  If McDermott's rushers can force incompletions, get a handful of sacks and force a turnover or two, they can keep the Cowboys down around 17 points.  If that happens, the Eagles have a very real chance to steal it.

If the Cowboys line contains the pressure, and Romo again has time,  I have a hard time seeing Dallas held to less than 24 points.  I do expect the Philly offense to bounce back and score more points this week, but nobody has topped 20 on Wade Phillips' defense without help from turnovers and special teams breakdowns since September.