Cowboys passing game could take advantage of Eagles secondary

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Tony Romo and the Cowboys' passing game has the ability to take advantage of the Eagles secondary. (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports)

There was this play last Sunday, during the Eagles' loss to the Seattle Seahawks, that you probably remember and that Bradley Fletcher said he's already forgotten.

Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin ran a fly pattern and pretty much ran over Fletcher, one of the Eagles' two starting cornerbacks, along the way. But Fletcher never turned his head around to pick up the flight of the football, and when he and Baldwin came together in a tangle and tumbled to the ground, Fletcher was penalized for pass interference. It was a 44-yard penalty. Four plays later, the Seahawks scored a touchdown. It was a big sequence in an Eagles loss, and it was the kind of play that, fairly or not, people around here have come to expect from Fletcher.

"I move on to the next game," he said. "After a game ends, I think about what happened, think about everything that I went through in the game that night going into the next day. Then I flush it going into the next game. You've got to think like that. Got to think of the next play, the next game. Can't sit and think about what happened in the past game or three weeks before."

Cornerback can be a thankless job, and Fletcher gets less gratitude than most at the position, and there will be a spotlight on him and Cary Williams against the Cowboys on Sunday night. Yes, the Eagles had an easy time with the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, winning by 33-10 and limiting Dez Bryant - perhaps the NFL's best wide receiver - to one significant catch, a 38-yarder early on. But Tony Romo is likely to be healthier and sprier this time, and for all the discussion over the last several days about whether the Eagles can neutralize DeMarco Murray again, Sunday's game and, in turn, supremacy in the NFC East will come down to whether the Eagles can prevent Bryant and Romo from beating them.

"They could do anything," Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox said. "They could come out and run quarterback power, zone read, whatever they want to run. We're not going to let them run the ball."

The Cowboys might just be fine with that strategy, because even when the Eagles stop the run - as they did against the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch - they remain vulnerable to the pass. Still taking pain-numbing injections for the two fractured vertebrae in his back, Romo will have had nine days of rest and recovery since his last game, compared with the three he had ahead of Thanksgiving. He'll be better able to pick on Fletcher and Williams, who combined for five defended passes and an interception (by Williams) against the Cowboys two weeks ago, by finding Bryant.

This is what teams do to the Eagles defense, really. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown at Fletcher 101 times this season, the third-most of any cornerback in the NFL, according to the scouting and statistical firm Pro Football Focus. Those quarterbacks obviously see something favorable when he lines up across from one of their wideouts. They have a 91.1 passer rating on their throws toward Fletcher, which is about average compared with the league's other starting corners, but the Eagles haven't exactly faced a future Hall of Famer every week. Chad Henne, Kirk Cousins, and Zach Mettenberger picked Fletcher and the secondary apart for all or part of their games against the Eagles, and last month in Green Bay, defensive coordinator Bill Davis came close to benching Fletcher because he was struggling so much against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers receivers.

The Eagles are at their best when they can apply pressure on an opposing quarterback, in no small measure because it makes things easier on their corners and safeties in coverage, and that's their plan to counteract Romo and Bryant on Sunday.

"Hit the quarterback," Cox said. "Hit him early. Hit him often. Shake him up a little bit."

It's a fine plan, assuming Cox and Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham get to Romo. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bryant has 73 catches, including 10 touchdowns, for 1,034 yards this season, and Fletcher will be on him most of Sunday. It's not a matchup that one would expect the Eagles to win again if their pass rush is ineffective.

"Just his size - he can catch all kinds of balls thrown his way," Fletcher said. "Just watching him on tape, I know he can go up and grab a ball. You have to play the ball before it gets to him."

If Fletcher can't . . . well, forget about it.

 


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski