The Philadelphia Eagles arrived in Dallas yesterday for Saturday night's prime time rematch after being dominated by the Cowboys in a battle for the NFC Eastern Division crown. Sunday night's loss afforded coaches and players precious little time to figure out what went wrong and then to formulate a new plan aimed at gaining a different outcome.
Eagles fans hope that Andy Reid and crew are a quick study as just about everything went wrong last weekend. They also hope to see a radically different game plan because more of the same would not seem to have any shot at getting it done.
This is true, but Reid will also bank on getting much better execution from the players. The most glaring tactical errors and likely changes will be on defense where the Eagles turned soft in the previous game. Contrary to the trademark approach of his mentor, the late Jim Johnson, rookie Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott chose to back off blitzing and press coverage.
Although every Cowboy, football analyst and schooled fan anticipates a major reversal with the Eagles returning to the attacking style that has made them one of the top defensive units in the NFL over the past decade, predictability is okay. This presents the team's best chance at shutting down the potent Cowboys offense. McDermott learned last week that its not about trying to outsmart your opponent, but rather staying true to the personality of your team.
Dallas Quarterback Tony Romo is playing some of the best football of his career, but still has yet to prove himself in the post season. McDermott and Reid know that keeping pressure on him with a full array of stunts and blitzes forces him to get the ball out quickly, creates the opportunity for mistakes, wears him down and potentially preys on that little voice of self doubt.
Last week, Marion Barber and Felix Jones alternated running through gaping holes blown open by their offensive line. And, Jason Witten continuously found wide open spaces in the middle of the field by exploiting seams in zone coverage and getting free breaks off the line. Better execution and intensity, including linebackers better fulfilling their assignments and jamming Witten at the line will be essential.
Once Dallas got the running game and Witten going, it opened things up for Miles Austin. He did the most damage when Asante Samuel tried to jump a route and did not quite get there. McDermott does not want reckless gambling, but creating turnovers is Samuel's forte and the team hopes for him to snare a Romo pass or two tonight. Another key to limiting Austin will be wrapping him up when he has the ball as he is one of the NFL's best at gaining yardage after the catch.
A goose egg in the last meeting suggests substantial changes may be in order for the Eagles offense, but that is not likely. The team lit up the scoreboard over the first 15 weeks, so the focus will be more on fundamentals such as blocking, making proper adjustments and receivers looking balls into their hands.
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best in the NFL at stopping the run, so expect the Eagles to rely heavily on the passing game as usual, but give some more carries to Brian Westbrook. Michael Vick and the Wildcat will likely make their return to give Dallas something else to think about.
Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg knows the Eagles' bread and butter is its passing game. Like McDermott, he will chose to play the team's strengths versus do something out of character. Look for them to do a better job with their signature screen game, spread the ball around to its talented arsenal of receivers and connect on a couple shots down the field.
Keys to the Game
- Contain Jackson again
- Heavy pass rush to limit McNabb's ability to get the ball down field
- Romo avoids turnovers and keeps composure
- Win the battle of field position
- Play away from strengths of Eagles defensive personnel on field
- Do not lose turnover battle
- Good start
- Maintain positive body language and attitude
- Offensive line needs to better protect McNabb
- Westbrook ignites the running game and screen game
- Jackson breaks out after being shut down in first 2 games
- Defense limits Dallas rushing attack
- Pressure Romo into misfires and to wear him down
- Jam Witten to disrupt timing and limit production
- McNabb needs to forget about the added pressure from media
The Eagles will return to the style of play on defense that has helped make them a perennial winner over the past decade and the offense will get back on track. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are filled with confidence and will continue to play well. Expect the Eagles to disrupt Romo and pick off a couple passes. Also, the offense will resume rolling up yards and points through a diversified air attack. I am going against the nagging memory of Eagles seasons ending in disappointment and the overwhelming consensus after last week's blowout for one reason. The Eagles have more playmakers on both sides of the ball and this will show through the third time around.