Less than nine months after completing a 4-12 season, the Eagles are off to a 3-3 start in 2013 and set to battle it out for first place in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Want to know the secret behind Philadelphia’s relative success through six games?
It’s not Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense, the head coach’s cutting-edge conditioning programs or any of that other voodoo. It’s a simple fundamental Kelly preaches to his team.
Don’t commit turnovers.
Until recently, the Eagles couldn’t get out of their own way in large part due to the overwhelming number of turnovers by the offense and special teams. In fact, no franchise was responsible for more giveaways (75) over the 2011-12 seasons, which not surprisingly happens to coincide with years they missed the playoffs.
2013 has been a different story thus far. Only seven clubs have turned the ball over less often than Philadelphia with eight. That’s like subtracting one whole turnover every week compared to a season ago.
A perfect example of how turnovers doom a football team was the Eagles’ Week 3 loss to Kansas City. The Birds were on the hook for five that night—including a pick-six—losing by a final score of 26-16. Had they even coughed up just one fewer possession, they might have been able to climb back in.
Other than that, the Eagles haven’t committed more than two turnovers in another contest this season and even managed to go three games without any. Surprisingly, they don’t have a winning record with optimal ball security (1-2)—but trust me, they will if it can continue.
The team that wins the turnover battle wins somewhere around three-quarters of the time in the NFL. Protect the football, and the Eagles could probably hang with any remaining opponent on their schedule.
On to this week’s game plan for the Dallas Cowboys, beginning with the Birds’ defense first.
Dallas Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
Take Dez Bryant Out of the Game
This subheading would probably read “Take Jason Witten Out of the Game” if I believed the Eagles were actually capable of it.
As usual their defense has demonstrated little to no ability to cover opposing tight ends, while Witten has spent the better part of a decade terrorizing Philly, averaging 5.7 receptions, 64.9 yards, and 0.4 touchdowns over 19 career meetings with the Birds.
So, if Witten is going to get his anyway, and with running back DeMarco Murray likely out due to a knee sprain, Philadelphia's defense might as well target the only big fish left in the pond. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is easily Dallas' most dangerous weapon, his 34 receptions for 459 yards are good for 15th in the NFL and six touchdowns tied for third.
At 6’2”, 225 pounds with 4.5 speed, Bryant is a matchup nightmare for any defense.
Canceling that out is easier said than done. That said, it’s been done this season, at least it terms of volume. Bryant has been held to 38 or fewer yards in three games this season, with one touchdown between the three.
Although interestingly enough, the Cowboys have won all three games that Bryant was contained. Still, I think it’s probably a good idea to double-cover him pretty much wherever he goes.
Blitz Tony Romo
When defenses blitz Tony Romo, they all run the risk of the same thing happening—Romo pulling off a miraculous escape, then throwing a perfect strike to a wide open receiver streaking to the end zone.
The conundrum is that’s still the most effective way to stop him.
Not unlike many quarterbacks I’m sure, there is a marked decline in efficiency when blitzed. According to the advanced metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only), Romo has a 116.8 passer rating versus a standard three- or four-man rush compared to a 91.9 against five or more. That’s still very good, but if you’re defensive coordinator Bill Davis, you have to call the game for that drop-off.
You certainly can’t let the three-time Pro Bowler sit in the pocket.
PFF’s signature stats show Romo has the best rating in the NFL three of the last four years when he’s allowed to hold the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is tied for 24th with 11 sacks, so it probably needs to send the extra man.
The problem exists when the rush doesn’t get there. The fewer defenders in coverage, the more vulnerable they become to Romo ripping off a big play.
It’s a compromise the defense has to make.
If the Eagles blitz often enough, sooner or later they should catch up to Romo—or better yet, panic him into a crippling turnover. Sometimes it only takes one.
Dallas Defense vs. Philadelphia Offense
Spread the Ball Around
One of the more underrated aspects of Nick Foles’ NFC Player of the Week-worthy performance in Tampa Bay was the way he got everybody involved in the offense—literally. Every receiver and tight end that was active for the Eagles caught a pass in last Sunday’s 31-20 win over the Bucs. Add in LeSean McCoy, and eight players finished with at least one reception.
Take this for whatever it’s worth, but Nick Foles has a passer rating of 127.9 this season, Michael Vick a 90.6.
So, what’s made Foles so much more efficient as a passer?
One reason is he’s shown a greater willingness to dump the ball down to the likes of Riley Cooper, Damaris Johnson or Jeff Maehl rather than force something deep or take a sack. Any positive gain is better than nothing or a loss of yards.
Foles’ ability to get Cooper involved at all was a bonus as well.
Heading into Week 6, the fourth-year receiver’s season bests were two receptions, 29 yards and one touchdown. He blew that away with four for 120 and matched with a score. It wasn’t necessarily all down the field though—on one play, Foles hit Coop for a five-yard gain that turned into 40.
DeSean Jackson is having a great season, but the quarterback can’t go to him every time. Foles has been getting more out of his secondary receivers than Vick did, which is something that needs to continue against Dallas.
Pound the Rock
The way Foles is flinging the football right now, and faced with a Dallas defense that’s ranked 30th against the pass, Chip Kelly might be tempted to call in air strikes on the Cowboys’ secondary all afternoon. This game is a perfect example of one where a coach might be better served by not getting too enamored with the aerial attack, however—especially if left tackle Jason Peters were to miss the game with a shoulder injury.
The Eagles have to take their shots, of course, but this has the makings of a defense they can ground into submission just as easily.
The Cowboys’ defensive line is woefully thin heading into this contest. DeMarcus Ware is likely out with a quadriceps strain. Jay Ratliff has been absent since last year (now cut?). The relatively unknown George Selvie missed practice on Wednesday and Jason Hatcher was limited as well, according to multiple reports.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of most of the guys who are left.
Only seven teams are conceding more yards per rushing attempt than Dallas at 4.4, but it’s more than just a good matchup for Philadelphia. The more that offensive line leans on a Cowboys front lacking talent and depth, the more the opponent should wear down as the game goes along. By the fourth quarter, LeSean McCoy could probably cut through the point of attack like a hot knife in butter.
Kelly and Foles will no doubt pick their spots to unleash the long ball, but McCoy has the potential to run wild if he’s handed the ball 20-25 times. Shady’s fantasy owners should be salivating at the prospect.