I think you owe it to yourself sometime before Sunday night to relive the final game of the 2008 campaign in Philadelphia. I sure hope the players on the Dallas Cowboys who were there that day don't need reminding of 44-6. This franchise has had many humiliating days since it last won a playoff game, but that game in particular may have been an all-time low.
Think about it: A win-and-you-are-in game against a team you had already beaten that year? What are the odds you could have every single chip in the middle of the table, and still play the worst football game in your career?
Romo was terrible. Marion Barber was terrible. The offensive line was beyond terrible. Terrence Newman was terrible. Wade Phillips got waved off by his QB on a 4th Down situation. The list goes on and on.
From that standpoint, I would hope that the Cowboys are assembling their finest effort to attempt to take on perhaps their most bitter rival under the Sunday Night Lights. So many things have happened in that city, in fact, the last 5 are all easy to recall:
2004: In December, Cowboys lose 12-7, in a game best remembered for Roy Williams breaking Terrell Owens leg. This was a year where the Eagles were on a mission, and the Cowboys were rolling with Vinny at QB. One detail that somehow eluded me was Dorsey Levens scored the winning TD.
2005: Cowboys trail 20-14 with 3:00 to play in Philly. Donovan McNabb goes back to pass to the right sideline and hits Cowboys safety Roy Williams for a perfect 46 yard interception for the winning TD.
2006: Drew Bledsoe and the Cowboys are driving for a tying TD, down 31-24 with :30 to play. They are inside the 5 yard line, when Bledsoe throws the ball to Lito Shephard, who runs 102 the other direction for a TD, Eagles win 38-24. Bledsoe would lose his job 2 weeks later, never to return.
2007: In a game best remembered for the helmet-less run of Jason Witten, the Cowboys destroy the Eagles at the Linc, on a Sunday night, 38-17. Everything was easy for the Cowboys at this point of the season.
I doubt too many people need a scouting report on the Philadelphia Eagles defense. The facts are plain and simple. They believe in pressure. They believe in chaos. They believe in gambling that they can bring more than you can block, and they believe that they can get to you before you can burn them for their gambling ways.
When it works for them (which is most of the time), it is a thing of defensive beauty. They bring the pressure and can make you look absolutely helpless.
Many teams believe in zone blitzes and variation of fire zone blitzes. This is not really the way Jim Johnson and his disciples have believed works the best for them. They believe in corners who play man-to-man and LBs and Safeties that blitz and blitz more. The names on that defense change, but the philosophy stays the same. They want to rattle your QB and they want to hit him hard.
Protection packages are so important, but more important is keeping the game manageable. You can not expect 3rd and long to go well. You must use 1st down as agggresively as possible, because if you don't, then you make the game too easy for the Eagles defense.
1) - Run the Ball with purpose and power - 113 of 185 runs this season (61%) have been with a power running personnel package. What that means is only 1 WR or less on the field, and a FB and multiple TEs. This is the definition of power: You tell your opponent by the package what you plan on doing, and then you do it anyway. The Cowboys have been great in doing this during the year, and the only thing that seems to stop them is their own choosing to stop doing it. Otherwise, 8 in the box or even sometimes 9 in the box has not been enough to stop them. I really hope that Jason Garrett does not relapse into his habits of playing a game like this against a quality opponent in a hostile stadium by slinging the ball all over the yard play after play from shotgun formations. It should be just the opposite. Control the pace, control the clock, and frustrate the Eagles by not allowing them to just try to get at Tony Romo. Run the Ball with "13" or "22" personnel. And grind them out with that big offensive line that is itching for a fight.
2) - Know Your Blitz Pick-up Role - Obvious point here, but the Eagles are amazing at designing blitzes that don't make sense. You can't practice a blitz you have never seen, and the Eagles always have something planned for a rare moment in the game where they bring someone you didn't account for. It is the ultimate chess game when you play there, and this is why Point #1 is so key. But, understand, the Eagles don't have many guys (besides Trent Cole) who will just beat you in pass rush. But, they know how to bring guys who aren't picked up. It is a very big day for Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, because you can bet they will blitz more when they are on the field to test how well they can read the blitz.
3) - Negative Plays must be avoided - Yesterday, I made the point that the biggest difference between these two teams is defensive takeaways. That is true, but it is too simplistic. The Eagles cause these moments with their scheme. They also cause negative plays. Runs for loss, Sacks, and Passes for loss. The Eagles are #1 in the NFL in negative plays. 242 yards have been lost on plays against the Eagles defense! The Cowboys defense ranks 20th in this same category.
4) - Tight Ends must perform - Here is your magic number: 10. If you can get 10 receptions to Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett, I think you win. Power running and then occupy the LBs with concerns about Witten and Bennett should be the real priority. This is not likely to be a game where you will be able to exploit the Eagles too much on the edge with your wide outs, so understand this is a big night for your big guys. Time for Martellus to get in the endzone.
What offense in the NFL has the most TD drives of fewer than 4 plays?
What offense gets the most yards per 1st down snap?
What offense scores the most points from outside the Red Zone?
Yes. The Philadelphia Eagles.
The good news? If you make them drive the ball down the field, you have won most of the battle. If you make them convert 3rd downs and put together a drive of 13 plays, it generally works against the Eagles.
The bad news? Almost nobody has been able to make them do this. With a stable of exciting play makers, this team gets production in bunches. They use DeSean Jackson first to get them great field position with his return skills, and then they will send him on fly routes that allow him to run by defenders with great ease. When this happens, Donovan McNabb puts the bomb on his hands and the Eagles have struck quickly and have inflicted great damage on your defense.
1) - Make McNabb Uncomfortable - I have enourmous respect for Donovan McNabb. Sometimes I wonder if he is one of those athletes where people in his own city will only truly appreciate him after he is gone (Dirk?). The consistent quality is obviously largely responsible for the Eagles averaging a 10-6 record over his career, and yet he never is mentioned among the best in the game. What I really admire about him is the fact that he never throws interceptions. His TD/INT ratio is amazing, especially given the lack of star WRs he has had to work with. 116/42 since 2004? Good gracious. This is where the pass rush of the Cowboys will be so key. If you let him sit back there and pat the ball, Jackson, Brent Celek, and Maclin will get open. Must bring the noise on the pass rush.
2) - CBs Up For the Challenge? - Life in the NFL for cornerbacks is a pretty thankless life (aside from payday). Every week, Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins get challenged by some of the best WRs in the NFL, and we are quick to point out when they fail. Newman's best night was against Steve Smith of Carolina this season, and he might be the WR who is used most similarly to DeSean Jackson. Although, Jackson's speed is something that very few players can deal with. I wonder if Jenkins will get plenty of work against him as well. The Cowboys must avoid the big play in the passing game, but that is far easier said than done. Ask the Giants how much they stress that secondary.
3) - Philosophy Choices - With some of the evidence I have thrown out there, it seems to call for somewhat opposite ideas on defense. Do you want to blitz them and try to cause chaos for their offense and risk the big play (almost nobody is better at Max-Protect over the years than the Eagles) if you don't get to McNabb. Or, do you play careful defense and keep everything in front of you? This is why Wade is called a great defensive coordinator. I don't think you can marry yourself to either idea, but rather a mix of both. Let's see what he decides to do.
4) - Anthony Spencer vs Winston Justice - I feel good about DeMarcus getting past Jason Peters a time or two. But, can Anthony Spencer expose Justice at Right Tackle? And can Ratliff shake it up in the middle? Of course, he can. I have no concerns about Jay Ratliff. But, to hold up your end of the bargain on defense, we need a big day from some of those more quiet members of the front: Spencer on the edge, Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky. Get there. And don't disrespect the run. The Eagles don't run much, but when they do, it is usually out of "pass" looks, and it seems to be good for 8 or 10 at a time.
I think that I am treating this 2-game road trip as a package deal. The objective must be to go 1-1, and if that happens, you can get to December at 8-3 most likely and will be in position to win the division. I don't want to concede anything, but some of the very best teams in the NFL will lose in a game at Philadelphia. The Eagles are a very good home team that is 9-3 since the start of 2008, winning by the average score of 31-17 in those 12 games.
My problem with Sunday is simple. Since 44-6, the Cowboys have played only 3 games on the road. Two were against two of the very worst teams in football (Tampa Bay and Kansas City), and the other was the loss at Denver when the Cowboys came unglued at many junctures of the game.
When this team has gone on the road recently against good teams in hostile stadiums, the Cowboys have not shown they can play 60 minutes of proper, composed football. They are capable, but we haven't seen it in a long time. Since Christmas of 2007, the Cowboys have played 12 road games, with a 5-7 record and wins against the Browns, Packers, Redskins, Bucs, and Chiefs. Losses? Pretty much every hostile stadium they have entered in New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Denver (and a few not so hostile - St Louis?).
To believe that they still remember how to do it, they are going to have to prove it to me.
Eagles 27, Cowboys 20
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