PHILADELPHIA – The quarterbacks are driving the pregame narrative, but come Sunday night, everyone could be talking about the Eagles and Cowboys running backs.
Nick Foles has had to answer one million questions about what happened to him when the Eagles lost 17-3 to Dallas in October. And that’s because Foles played his worst game that day and left with a concussion. But the Cowboys also shut down LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher.
And while the airwaves crackle with Tony Romo updates, DeMarco Murray’s availability for this game could have an enormous impact. Romo played in that October game. Murray did not, and the Cowboys had just 74 rushing yards.
“They’re not going to change their offense if it has to be Kyle Orton,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “They are who they’ve shown to be on tape. They’ll have their running back back, so I’m sure they’ll try to run the ball more.”
Last week’s game against the Chicago Bears illustrates how the Eagles defensive approach can be most effective. The Eagles held running back Matt Forte to 29 yards. They stuffed the run early and, after their offense built a 21-0 lead, were able to focus on pressuring the quarterback.
Whether it’s Orton or a physically limited Romo, the pass rushers won’t have to be concerned with the quarterback running the ball.
The Eagles’ running game is a more complicated issue. It went awry for three of four games in October. The Giants and Cowboys did some things along the defensive front to disrupt the Eagles’ blocking scheme. But McCoy was also making decisions that took him away from open space and into crowds.
“It was both, for sure,” center Jason Kelce said. “But I think that (the disconnect between McCoy and the line) was a huge part of it. Shady sees things the way we’re seeing things. We’ve just gotten better and better the more reps we’ve taken.”
The Eagles’ scheme is based on getting a blocker on each member of the defensive front and then let McCoy handle a single defender one-on-one. Against Dallas that day, the single defender was often linebacker Sean Lee, and Lee won those one-on-one matchups. He tackled McCoy five times, once for a loss. Lee had 11 tackles overall -- no other Cowboy had more than five -- plus an interception.
Lee is injured and unlikely to play Sunday. It would be overstating things to suggest that’s a bigger loss than Romo, but not by much. Not in this game.
“He’s one of the best ‘backers in the league,” Kelce said. “He makes a difference.”
“It’s a big loss,” Barwin said. “That’s a big challenge for them. If we lost DeMeco (Ryans), that would be a huge challenge for us. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. But he’s respected around this league as a hell of a player.”
“He’s obviously one of the top linebackers in the game,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “Nine games, he's got 99 tackles and four interceptions, and seeing him up close and personal when we played them in October, he was all over the field.”
The Cowboys defense is vulnerable against the pass, to say the least. McCoy won’t be required to carry the offense. But keeping the offense in balance will help take pressure off Foles and, if the Eagles are able to get the lead, run down the clock on the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.