When Jason Garrett's Cowboys met at Valley Ranch this week, all they had to do to be reminded of what these Philadelphia Eagles did to them in Week 8 is sit down in their meeting rooms and study the tape of the total domination to understand what they will be up against this weekend.
The Cowboys have faced some quality opponents, but when you study the Eagles you see nothing like the other teams in the league with what you have to deal with from an offensive standpoint. There were days when I was in Green Bay and playing the '90s Cowboys when you went into a game against them trying to figure out how you were going to stop Emmitt Smith from running the ball or Jay Novacek on third downs or Michael Irvin on the slant. Just when you thought that you had one of those areas taken care of, the other players would find a way to take the game from you. This Eagles offense puts a lot of those same thoughts in my mind that I experienced against those Cowboys teams.
In the last meeting between these two teams, Rob Ryan and his staff made the decision to not allow these Eagles wide receivers to make any vertical plays down the field. Safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, as Ryan put it, played "503 yards deep" from the line of scrimmage. The problem with this decision for Ryan was with his safeties so deep, he opened up the middle of the field.
Then to compound the problem, he lost Sean Lee in the game -- the only linebacker that was athletic enough to make a play in the middle of the field. This was a horrible situation for Ryan because it meant that he had to rely on Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who were exposed in coverage and in the running game. With the deep safeties, it allowed tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to work crossing routes inside.
When I have studied Vick his last four games, the one area that he likes to attack is the middle of the field. Matter of fact, his best and worst throws come when he is working the middle of the field. Vick just looks more comfortable throwing to targets right in front of him, but like I mentioned he will make mistakes trying to fit ball down the middle against safeties.
McCoy looms as multi-dimensional threat
The deep safeties also hurt Ryan in the running game dealing with LeSean McCoy.
There are three areas that McCoy can hurt your defense.
The first one is on the stretch play when you have the offensive line with full flow running with defenders and he takes the ball all the way to the edge and around the corner. The Cowboys got gashed in the last meeting by the down blocking by tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, who were able to set the edge allowing the ball to get outside. Watch how Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman play in this contest, because if the Eagles are running the ball well on the edges, it's probably because the defensive ends are not doing their jobs getting off blocks.
The second way that McCoy hurts you is with the sprint draw. Teams have various ways they run the draw, but the Eagles take full advantage of the ball-handling skill of Vick. Teams try so hard to get up the field and attack the Eagles before they get going that it leaves lanes in the defense. As the defense is coming up the field, Vick does an outstanding job of tucking the ball into McCoy and letting him use his vision and quickness to get the ball up the field past the oncoming defenders.
The final way that McCoy can hurt you is as a pass catcher, whether that is in the flat or more impressively in the screen game. The Eagles love to run screens and they will do them from anywhere on the field. The Eagles are the most dangerous when they get into the red zone and once again try to take advantage of defenders getting up the field. The Eagles will throw wide receiver screens to Jackson, they will use Celek in a delay screen where he blocks for two or three counts, then works his way to the outside in the open field, but the player that gives defenses the most trouble is McCoy. He catches the ball so well on the move and when he gets one-on-one, he can break anyone down. The problem for Ryan is that he doesn't really know when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is going to use these screens, but he knows they will.
The Eagles' struggles this season have been with their offensive line. Against the Cowboys in the last meeting, I felt like that they were better than the Dallas front seven. There were too many plays where the Cowboys didn't do a good enough job of getting off blocks allowing the Eagles to control the game upfront.
The best offensive lineman for the Eagles is Peters at left tackle. In the games I was able to study, Peters more than has held his own, whereas earlier in the season, he didn't appear to move all that well. I thought he moved way too slow with his feet, but that has changed.
Teams have taken advantage of the Eagles inside with guards Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins. Rookie center Jason Kelce will get overpowered at the point of attack. The mobility of Vick and the quickness of McCoy really assist this offensive line in overcoming a great deal of their shortcomings.
Smith handles Babin once more
The last time that these two clubs met, there was a great deal of pressure on Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo because of the direction that the defense was going. Losses were mounting and the players that were brought in had yet to truly play as a collective unit.
The buzzword that you will hear in all the pregame shows will be how the Eagles play this defensive alignment of a "Wide 9," which is simply, defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin play wide on the outside shoulder of the tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. At times they will be a full man removed from the tackle. When you play this type of scheme, you are asking your ends to get up the field as quickly as possible to disrupt the running game but more importantly cause problems in the passing game. Pass rush is where the Eagles cause the most problems.
Usually your best pass rusher will rush from the offensive left hand side, but the Eagles' best rusher comes from the offensive right. The Green Bay Packers are the same way with Clay Matthews rushing from the offensive right.
Babin, who has a league-leading 18 sacks, is as explosive as any rusher Smith will face all season. As a matter of fact, Babin was the rusher who gave Smith the most trouble with his inside move. Talking to Smith, he now understands what he is up against and I think he is better for it.
Babin is unique with this move because he is able to do it at the depth and level of the quarterback's drop. He has a real feel for how to push up the field and get all of the weight of the tackle on his outside foot then quickly duck underneath. Smith really struggled when Babin used this technique on him.
At the other end is Trent Cole against Free. There should be serious cause for concern here because of the struggles that Free has had with technique this season. Cole is a better run player than Babin.
The Eagles are at their best in run defense when the ball goes wide and they are able to handle the play. It is when teams have run the ball at them that they have had their struggles. I thought the Seahawks did a real nice job with this in the regard that they physically came off the ball, getting hats on hats and making the Eagles fight blocks then have to deal with Marshawn Lynch.
The Eagles' weakness on defense is at linebacker. In studying Akeem Jordan, Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews, I didn't feel like they did a good enough job of taking on blocks. With the injury to Felix Jones, I would not be one bit surprised to see Jason Garrett try to attack this Eagles defense with fullback Tony Fiammetta, Jones and Sammy Morris going straight ahead.
Teams have had also had success running the ball with misdirection plays. By that, I mean starting flow one way and getting the defense to react then bringing the ball backside with an H-blocker or fullback. If Jones was healthy, this is something you might see more of.
In the secondary, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the corners with Joselio Hanson as the nickel. Asomugha will play the slot. The last time that these two teams met, he covered Jason Witten when he was in line and in the slot.
Something else to watch for is that Castillo has gone back to some of the old exotic blitz schemes that former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used. In the Jets and Dolphins games, Castillo used two down linemen and had Cole, Babin and Matthews standing up in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys have had their troubles with blitz pickups when teams put pressure in the middle of the pocket with twist stunts.
Two things must happen this week: the Cowboys receivers must find a way to win on the outside and the offensive line must be able to pick up blitzes in the middle of Eagles defense. If they struggle in either area, you will see sacks much like Mark Sanchez and Matt Moore suffered in their games against the Eagles.