15 observations about the Cowboys
Normally, we do 10 observations.
15 observations about the Cowboys
Normally, we do 10 observations.
But, hey, this is a huge game. And I've been able to watch three of the last four Cowboys games pretty closely so I have a lot to say.
Don't forget we'll be live chatting at 4:15 Sunday afternoon.
And we'll do our weeekly "Who's picking the Eagles?" piece before then.
We start with the Cowboys' offense and then move to the D.
1. Tony Romo is probably playing the best football of his career. Quick decisions. Accurate throws. And not a lot of mistakes. Romo threw one pick last week against the Redskins. It was his only INT in his last 186 pass attempts. Romo has tossed nine touchdowns and one interception in his last five games. From 2006 to 2008, he averaged more than 15 INTs a season. This year, he's thrown only eight. His interception percentage of 1.6 is third-best in the league behind Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre.
2. To that end, the question becomes: How do the Eagles get to Romo and force him into mistakes? In the first meeting, when they tried to blitz him, they failed. After that game, I detailed how Romo hurt the Eagles when they blitzed, completing 16 of 23 passes for 234 yards on those plays. Two keys for the Eagles when they do blitz (that are fairly obvious): One, they have to get there. Blitzing ineffectively could be disastrous, given the Cowboys' big-play ability. And two, they must tackle better. Even if the blitz doesn't get there, Romo will be looking to get rid of the ball quickly. That means Eagles DBs and linebackers making sure they bring Miles Austin, Jason Witten and company down before they're able to pick up big yards after the catch. Austin's 555 yards after the catch is second to Wes Welker among wide receivers.
3. The Cowboys' ground game features three backs, who all do different things well. Marion Barber is the physical, bruising option, who gets the ball in short yardage and goal-line situations. Barber is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in his last four games. He's rushed for more than 63 yards just once in his last 12 games. And has not had a carry for more than 12 yards in his last four. But he is still their closer, averaging 5.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, according to STATS.com.
4. Felix Jones is an impressive player and a threat to break off a big run every time he touches the ball. He was clearly their most effective runner last week, carrying 10 times for 58 yards. Jones had a season-high 14 carries the previous week against the Saints. He had just 10 yards on four attempts in the first meeting against the Eagles. Romo will dump it off to the running backs too. Jones and Barber combined for eight catches last week.
5. And finally, there's Tashard Choice. Choice's last touchdown came in Week 9 when he took a direct snap to the end zone from 2 yards out against the Eagles. He hasn't touched the ball a lot with just six carries in his last four games. Choice has not had a catch in his last seven games, despite showing flashes of being an effective receiver earlier this season. Against the Redskins, the Cowboys had him on the field to pick up the blitz on third down multiple times, and he did a nice job there.
6. At receiver, Austin is the guy. He's having a huge season with 74 catches for 1,230 yards and 11 touchdowns. Austin is averaging over 110 yards per game in his last five, and no team has held him to fewer than 71 yards during that stretch. Austin had just one catch against the Eagles in the earlier meeting, but it was the big 49-yard game-winning touchdown. He leads the league in receptions of 25 yards or more with 14. As a point of reference, DeSean Jackson has 13.
7. Roy Williams is still not on the same page as Romo. Two catches for 18 yards in his last two games. He had five catches for 75 yards in the first meeting. Patrick Crayton had the big 64-yard grab in the first meeting. Romo looked for him a couple times on third down last week. And Kevin Ogletree hurt the Birds with a pair of catches for 38 yards the first time around. Williams, Austin and Sam Hurd had one drop each last week against Washington.
8. Then there's Witten. He's always a tough matchup for the Eagles and is averaging 94.6 receiving yards per game in his last five. On the season, 88 catches for 954 yards, but just one touchdown. How will the Eagles match up with Witten? Will Dimitri Patterson come in on third down? Can Akeem Jordan stick with him? Tracy White? One of the key matchups to watch Sunday.
9. The one new name you'll notice on the Cowboys' offensive line is right tackle Doug Free, who's filling in for an injured Marc Colombo. Free has drawn praise for his performance as a starter. He made a very nice block on a 15-yard Jones run last week against the Redskins. At left tackle, it's still Flozell Adams. He won the battle against Trent Cole in the first meeting. Cole had a sack but did not get the type of consistent pressure we've seen all season. Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley both had good games against the Cowboys' interior during the first meeting, limiting Dallas to just 3.3 yards per carry.
10. The Cowboys' offense moved the ball efficiently last week, but they struggled in short yardage. Dallas ran three straight times in the third quarter (2nd-and-2, 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1) but came up short. On their very next possession, the Cowboys faced an almost identical situation (2nd-and-2, 3rd-and-2, 4th-and-1) and turned it over on downs again. You'll remember that the Eagles' short-yardage woes killed them in the first meeting.
11. The Cowboys' defensive line is really tough. Let's start on the interior, where Dallas' Jay Ratliff turned in a dominating performance last week, practically living in the Redskins' backfield. Ratliff gave the Eagles' interior linemen a lot of trouble the first time around (two sacks), and it won't get any easier without Jamaal Jackson. Nick Cole, Max Jean-Gilles and Todd Herremans face a huge challenge. Keep in mind that Stacy Andrews was in the mix the last time these two teams played, and he had a terrible game. I'd be surprised to see him out there this week, but you never know.
12. On the edge, two guys to watch. The obvious one: DeMarcus Ware. The less-obvious one: Anthony Spencer. Spencer was all over the place against the Redskins. He's got four sacks in his last five games. Ware had the two big sacks in the Cowboys' win over the Saints. In the first meeting, Jason Peters did an outstanding job on him, but Ware made some noise when Peters left the game and he faced Herremans.
13. The Cowboys blitzed their linebackers (Keith Brooking, Bradie James and Bobby Carpenter) against the Redskin, often times up the middle. Again, the spotlight is on Nick Cole to set up the Eagles' protections. It won't be easy. The linebackers also did a good job in coverage last week, but then again, it was against the Redskins.
14. Jason Campbell actually had some success last week with play-action and getting out of the pocket. Don't be surprised to see the Eagles go that route with Donovan McNabb, especially if their protection doesn't hold up early.
15. In the secondary, we heard Mike Jenkins' comments earlier this week about Dallas not getting beat deep. Jenkins has looked very good every time I've watched the Cowboys this season. Analyst Cris Collinsworth said last week Jenkins has probably improved more than any other Dallas player from last year to this year. On the other side is Terrence Newman, who missed some tackles against Washington. The Cowboys brought Orlando Scandrick on a blitz from the slot (much like the Eagles do with Joselio Hanson), and he crushed Campbell from the blind side.
Extra point: I'm not sure we're making enough of the kicking advantage for the Eagles. The Cowboys are going with Shaun Suisham, a guy who the Redskins (4-11) cut because they thought they could improve at the position. Overall, his numbers are not bad (19-for-22). And Suisham is 5-for-6 on attempts from 40 yards or more. But he missed big kicks in big spots against the Saints and Cowboys earlier this season. How will he perform when the pressure is on late and the game is potentially on the line? Gotta give David Akers a big edge in that respect.