Well, on a cold Sunday night in Philadelphia, the Eagles were who who Vince Young thought they were; the hated men in green played up to their preseason "dream team" moniker and then some. Coming into the game, Philly was 12-0 after bye weeks under head coach Andy Reid, but had lost five in a row at home; one of the streaks had to end. Sadly, for the Cowboys, it was the shorter of the two. Reid and his coaching staff developed a terrific game plan that kept Rob Ryan and his boys off balance all night long (more on that below), and for the few minutes the Cowboys offense actually had the ball, they offense struggled mightily.
94: The object of the Eagles' gameplan. It was clear from the start that Philadelphia was concerned about DeMarcus Ware. Conversely, a key to Dallas's gameplan was to get pressure on Michael Vick. Knowing this, Ware was flying off the line from the opening kickoff. Brilliantly, the Eagles offensive braintrust took advantage of Ware's aggressiveness on three occasions. On the first, Ware rushed upfield, taking himself out of the play on an off tackle run by Shady McCoy (number 82 tried to trap him, but Ware was too far upfield). On the second, Vick faked the a similar run to McCoy, then followed him off tackle, into a gap that had been vacated by Ware. On the final, the Dallas defense had managed to force a third down and nine in the red zone. In this obvious passing situation, Ware was heading upfield with a full head of steam. Eagles OC Marty Mornhinweg called a bubble screen to Jeremy Maclin, to Ware's side. Ware had run himself out of the play, and Maclin strode into the endzone untouched.
On the next drive, Ware was reluctant to rush upfield; instead, he was engaging with either left tackle Jason Peters or one of the Eagles tight end Brent Celek. As a result, there was almost no pass rush on Vick. Noticing this, Ryan dialed up another blitz, which left another huge hole over left tackle, one which McCoy exploited on his 34-yard run down to the Dallas two.
5/6: The assignment holes in the running game where the Eagles did the most of their damage; the 5 is off left tackle, and the 6 is off right tackle. Philly consistently drew the Cowboys defense inside with counter action or on sprint draws and repeatedly trapped outside linebackers Ware and Anthony Spencer who, because of their concern over Vick, usually failed to hold the edge, often because they were running upfield. Once past 94 and 93, McCoy often found no Cowboys there to defend the perimeter.
18-20, 258: Michael Vick's totals throwing between the numbers. If you can bear to recall it, last season's defensive collapse began in game two, when Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz began to pick on the middle of the Cowboys defense, specifically Dallas' two inside linebackers, Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who proved to be liabilities in coverage. Sean Lee's return helped mitigate that late last season, and his emergence this year had made that nightmare a distant memory--until he went out with a sprained wrist. Before he was hurt, Vick and Co. were making hay over the middle; after he left, they were downright embarrassed.
The frightening vision of Brooking and James lost in coverage was precisely what prompted the drafting of fleet inside 'backer candidates over the past three drafts (2009: Jason Williams; 2010: Lee; 2011: Bruce Carter). I suspect that the Eagles offensive braintrust has given the rest of the league a blueprint for working against the Dallas defense. One obvious area to exploit will be the soft middle of a pass defense bereft of Lee's services. To keep us from re-experiencing 2010's nightmare, the defensive staff will have to work to get Carter, the last of these speedy linebackers, ready. Its clear that Brooking and James aren't up to the task in coverage.
2008: More specifically, the Cowboys' 2008 draft. Its hard to imagine a more hot-and-cold set of picks. Fourth rounder Tashard Choice was just cut, but fifth rounder Orlando Scandrick has been a real find who has earned a lucrative second contract and will be a starter in 2012. Two of the other picks from that draft who have been playing well, first rounders Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins, missed all or part of the game with injuries. To add insult to injury, second rounder Martellus Bennett's flailing attempt at a reception ended Dallas' promising second drive at a moment when they desperately needed points to get back into the game.
495/ 239/ 42:09: The Eagles' total yards, first downs and time of possession. I know a lot of people are comparing this to the 44-6 beatdown that ended the 2008 season. My impression was that it was quite different. I don't think the Cowboys were playing particularly badly, especially in the first half; rather, the Eagles played superbly, dominating in almost every phase. Which is easier to swallow in describing a loss: that Dallas is good but makes back-breaking mistakes, or that they simply aren't as good as their opponent? I think its the latter, and that seems to be what happened on Sunday. At this stage of the season, the Eagles are simply better. Much better.
Philly's dominance continued into the second half, where it looked like the Cowboys defense did lose their heart and focus. As a result, they began to lose discipline, overrun plays and miss tackles.
6: The Eagles' first six drives, during which they were almost perfect. Let's take a look at what they accomplished:
-8 plays, 79 yards (TD)
-9 plays, 90 yards (TD)
-11 plays, 67 yards (TD)
13 plays, 83 yards (FG)
-13 plays, 68 yards (FG)
-9 plays, 58 yards, (TD)
In these drives, Philadelphia was 6-9 on third down conversions. Two of these failed attempts resulted in field goals. The third resulted in a converted fourth and one. hat was particularly maddening about those third down conversions was that many were for long-ish yardage. To wit:
Drive one: Convert 3rd and nine with Maclin bubble screen for touchdown
Drive three: Vick scrambles, converting a third and eight and then converts another 3rd and 8 with a 20 yard pass to Jason Avant. The Eagles score on the next play.
Drive four: Eagles convert a 3-5 (with 8 yard pass to Celek) and a 3rd and 11 (24 yard pass to Avant)
Drive six: Eagles get 12 yards on a third and 13, setting up McCoy's fourth down conversion en-route to a score.
6:40: Time left in the game when Dez Bryant had his first reception. In total, the Cowboys' two starting wide receivers had six catches. Strangely, third receiver Laurent Robinson had a terrific game, corralling 5 receptions for 103 yards and the meaningless touchdown that got Dallas on the board. Other than Robinson? 6 receptions for 55 yards, all but one of them in garbage time.
The most disconcerting aspect of this is that the Dallas passing game has now been anemic for two weeks running. Against St. Louis, this was overshadowed by the phenomenal breakout performance of the running game. In that tilt, however, Romo looked out of sorts, the receivers dropped passes, and they failed to develop much consistency or momentum. Going into the season, the one area of the team that I had the most confidence in was the passing game. Now, I'm worried about it. Given the inconsistency of the rushing attack and the way the defense played on Sunday, I'm left unsure what about this team I can hang my hat on. That's not a good feeling to have.
24: The number of hours we're allowed to dwell on this loss. This was a horrible butt-kicking, and by the worst imaginable team, one with the fanbase from whom I can least stand to suffer post-game gloating. But the NFL is a strange league. On Sunday, a Rams team that, just last week, looked quite clearly like the NFL's worst team beat a New Orleans squad that, against the Colts one week ago, looked unstoppable. The moral here is that things are likely to change--and quickly. This team is just as capable of winning five in a row as they are of losing three out of the next four.
That's what makes being a fan of the NFL so interesting: you never know what you're gonna get. One thing we DO know for sure--and its a good thing, right now: it can't get any worse than this...