Didinger's Eagles-Cowboys scouting report
November 9, 2012, 10:00 am
Sizing up Sunday’s game between the Eagles (3-5) and Dallas Cowboys (3-5) at Lincoln Financial Field.
When the Eagles have the ball
The Eagles' offense can’t get much worse. Managing just 13 points and going 0 for 5 in the red zone against the worst defense in the NFL (New Orleans) was an embarrassment. The lone exception was LeSean McCoy, who was underutilized, but still ran for 119 yards.
The line, which wasn’t very good to start with, was further weakened when right tackle Todd Herremans went down with a foot injury. Demetress Bell replaced him and was a turnstile for Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. Mike Vick was sacked seven times, a season high, in the Saints' 28-13 win.
It is an ugly situation. Right now the Eagles have one lineman, left guard Evan Mathis, who should be starting in the NFL and even he is not playing well. Dallas Reynolds and Dennis Kelly are overmatched at center and guard. King Dunlap will start at right tackle Sunday with Bell moving to left tackle where he has more experience, although when he played there earlier this season he wasn’t much better.
Rob Ryan, the blustery and badly-coiffed defensive coordinator of the Cowboys, must have enjoyed putting together a game plan this week knowing he can win every matchup across the line. Ryan also has DeMarcus Ware who can dominate a game all by himself. Ware is tied with Clay Matthews of Green Bay for the NFC lead in sacks with nine.
Each week, teams design protection packages to block Ware but Ryan counters that by moving the 6-4, 260-pound linebacker around to put him in the most favorable matchup. Going against this makeshift Eagles' line, Ware could line up anywhere and cause havoc but he probably will start on Bell’s side. The Eagles will keep the tight ends in to block and secure the edges, but that limits what Brent Celek and Clay Harbor can do in the passing game.
If the Eagles are forced to use a lot of two-receiver patterns with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, that will favor the Cowboys because they have two good cornerbacks, rookie Morris Claiborne and $50 million free agent Brandon Carr, who can match up with the Eagles' receivers. They are physical corners who like to jam opponents at the line.
The Cowboys' defense ranks fifth in the NFL, but they suffered a huge loss when inside linebacker Sean Lee was injured. Dan Connor (Strath Haven High School) has filled in along with Ernie Sims, who flopped as a free agent with the Eagles, but they aren’t Lee.
We spent the week discussing the Eagles' miserable performance in the red zone. It is an ongoing problem. Their red-zone offense ranks 30th in the league. They have scored 10 touchdowns in 27 opportunities inside the 20-yard line. They are 8 for 25 in the last six games, which means they are going from bad to worse.
The play-calling against the Saints was horrific. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg once again abandoned the run after it was successful in the first half. They used empty backfield sets that exposed Vick to even more pressure behind that shoddy line. The Eagles had goal-to-go four times and were outscored, 7-6, thanks to Patrick Robinson’s interception return. I doubt that’s ever happened before.
Just a thought, but McCoy’s two biggest games came against the Cowboys -- 185 yards on 30 carries last season and 149 yards on 16 carries in 2010. The Eagles won both games. Reid and Mornhinweg might want to consider that when they map their strategy for this game. Give the ball to your best player. What a concept.
When the Cowboys have the ball
In many ways, the Eagles and Cowboys are mirror images. They have the same record, the same air of uncertainty regarding the head coach (the Dallas fans are as fed up with Jason Garrett as Eagles fans are with Reid) and many of the same problems.
Like the Eagles, the Cowboys are bad in the red zone (they rank 26th), bad in giveaway-takeaway (they are minus-11, the Eagles are minus-nine) and they have a quarterback in Tony Romo who has actually thrown more interceptions (13) than Vick (nine). In fact, Romo has thrown more interceptions than any other quarterback in the league.
Both teams have issues with running the ball. The Eagles don’t want to run it and the Cowboys can’t run it. DeMarco Murray is their best back, but he missed the past three games with a foot injury and isn’t expected to play this week. Felix Jones also had injury issues and while he is playing now, he isn’t the game-breaker the Cowboys thought he would be (3.6 yard per carry average). Lance Dunbar, a 5-8 rookie free agent, may get a few touches in a reserve role.
Dez Bryant (42 catches) and Miles Austin (41) are the wideouts. Kevin Ogletree (24) is the third receiver. Bryant has all the tools but has lapses in concentration, which result in poor route running and dropped passes. He is a high-maintenance player who is easily frustrated. Last season, Nnamdi Asomugha had his best game when he played Bryant one-on-one in the 34-7 win at the Linc. Bryant could not elude Asomugha’s press at the line and was a non-factor (three catches, 28 yards).
Romo’s favorite target remains tight end Jason Witten, who has recovered from his spleen injury. Witten leads all tight ends with 58 catches. The Saints had great success throwing the ball to Jimmy Graham on Monday (eight catches, one touchdown) so Romo is sure to look Witten’s way a lot this week.
Like Vick, Romo is a polarizing figure. Some Cowboy fans still believe in him, others can’t wait to get rid of him. He still puts up big numbers -- he is completing 66 percent of his passes for 2,394 yards -- but he is killing the team with turnovers. He threw five picks in the 29-24 loss to the Giants and he ranks near the bottom in passer efficiency on third down. He has no touchdowns and four interceptions in 82 third-down attempts, a rating of 62.0, which ranks 29th among the 32 quarterbacks.
Romo is capable of getting hot and playing very well as he did in the opener, a 24-17 win over the Giants. But that’s when he has a running game to work with. That night, Murray ran all over the Giants' defense and Romo had great success on play-action. Now there is no running threat to speak of with Murray injured, so the whole burden falls on Romo. It is tough to throw the ball -- and pass protect -- when the defense knows that’s all you can do.
The Dallas offensive line is better than the Eagles' line but that’s not saying much. Jerry Jones, the owner and general manager, tried to overhaul the line this season but it is still average at best. Guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings signed for a combined $30 million and they aren’t very good. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free seem to be improving. Smith will be blocking Trent Cole this week, while Free will be matched up against the tag team of Jason Babin and Brandon Graham.
The Eagles' special teams finally made a big play Monday with rookie Chris Polk forcing a fumble on a kickoff return, which set up a great scoring opportunity for the offense. The Eagles got just a field goal out of it when the offense died in the red zone, but nevertheless it was a lift for coach Bobby April’s guys.
The Eagles almost hit another big play on Brandon Boykin’s pass to Riley Cooper but it was thrown forward, so instead of a touchdown the Eagles wound up with a penalty. The execution was slightly off but you have to give April points for imagination.
Former Cowboy Mat McBriar has improved the punting game. He ranks seventh in the league with a 48.2-yard average and a 39-yard net. Alex Henery has only missed one of his 15 field goal tries. Dallas kicker Dan Bailey is 15 for 17 on field goals and he kicked four game-winners last season.
Neither team has done much in the return game. The Eagles rank 27th in punt-return average (6.7 yards) and 29th in kickoff returns (19.9), while Dallas ranks 19th on punts (7.5) and 23rd on kickoffs (22.1). The Dallas coverage teams are better than the Eagles. Their punt coverage team ranks first, allowing a long return of nine yards.
There was a time when Dallas week got Philadelphia’s blood boiling. Even in other years when the Eagles were lousy, the fans got fired up to play the Cowboys because they were America’s Team and all that stuff. Not anymore.
These are just two 3-5 teams spiraling downward. The Eagles have lost four in a row. The Cowboys have dropped four of their last five games. The Cowboys haven’t been relevant, really, in years. They haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1996 and since then they are 2-7 in the postseason. They are just another mediocre team.
It is a big game in the sense that the team that wins will continue to breathe for at least one more week. Both teams have easy schedules the rest of the way, so Sunday’s winner can cling to hope that the Giants (who have a tough schedule) stumble and that will allow them to climb back into the playoff hunt. It is a stretch but that’s all these two teams have going for them now.
As their records indicate, there isn’t much to choose between the Cowboys and Eagles. They are similar in many ways but after watching the Cowboys play Atlanta tough last week, I have to say the Cowboys at least appear to be trying. I can’t say that about the Eagles at the moment.
The Eagles could win Sunday if they leaned heavily on LeSean McCoy but how likely is that?
Cowboys 24, Eagles 16
E-mail Ray Didinger at email@example.com.
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Posted 09 November 2012 - 02:45 PM