In what was set up to be a game for the ages, the Dallas Cowboys' Week 17 meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles lost a lot of its luster when Dallas revealed that quarterback Tony Romo has a herniated disc. Although he could still play, according to the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota, it looks unlikely at this point.
Vegas took notice, shifting the odds of the game to make the Eagles seven-point favorites, per Vegas Insider, with Kyle Orton starting at quarterback. That number should increase more once news (presumably) breaks that Romo indeed won't play.
It's really amazing how the loss of one player can drastically alter a game plan. With Orton at the helm, the Cowboys need to completely change the way they approach this game. If they enter it with the same high-variance approach that they might with Romo leading the way, it will backfire on them.
Specifically, Dallas needs to swallow their pride and realize they're big underdogs to win. With that in mind, it should change how they play. They need to do two things, in my mind, to increase their chances of winning: shorten the game as much as possible and secure big plays.
Both shortening the game and generating big plays have the same purpose, which is to increase the luck inherent to this contest as much as possible. If these teams played under these circumstances 1,000 times, the Eagles might win 750 games. The times the 'Boys would win are when things get a little bit chaotic.
Here's how Dallas can get lucky with Orton at quarterback.
Run the ball to shorten the game
I'm not a huge fan of running the ball unless you do it in a way that neutralizes the defense's advantage, much in the way that the Eagles run the ball. Nonetheless, the run should help Dallas on Sunday.
Second, the Eagles aren't nearly as good against the run as their traditional stats show. Although they've allowed only 3.8 YPC this year (third-best in NFL), Philly has just a 55.8 percent defensive run success rate, per AdvancedNFLStats.com. That means that 44.2 percent of runs have increased the opponents' chances of scoring, which actually ranks the Eagles 22nd in the NFL.
Philly has benefited from either an abundance of runs against them in low-upside situations, such as 3rd-and-1, or else they've just been lucky in not allowing long runs. Both are relatively fluky factors that would decrease the YPC they've allowed (but not the run success rate), meaning they just aren't as good at stopping the run as it appears.
If Dallas has early success on the ground, keeping it there will do two things: limit their exposure to Orton and reduce the overall number of plays for both teams.
With a reduced sample of plays, there's a greater chance that the underdog can win. There's a big difference between a game with 120 total plays and one with 160.
Take shots downfield when they're available
As much as everyone thinks Orton is a capable quarterback, I don't think he's going to be able to consistently beat the Eagles through the air. If you look at Orton's career efficiency, you see he's been well below average in every category.
Whether it's simple yards per attempt, net YPA (which accounts for sacks) or adjusted net YPA (which accounts for sacks, touchdowns and interceptions), Orton hasn't been good.
Because it seems unlikely that Orton will lead multiple long-touchdown drives, it makes sense to take some shots downfield to acquire "easy" scores.
Get the ball to wide receiver Dez Bryant at all costs
Bryant is clearly one of the game's elite wide receivers, but I still think the Cowboys are underutilizing him. He has 143 targets on the year, which ranks him eighth in the NFL. As the clear-cut top receiver on an offense that's suddenly pretty bare when it comes to weapons on the outside, Bryant should be closer to Pierre Garcon's 165 targets.
Either way, Bryant's skill set is so ridiculous that he creates outstanding efficiency for his quarterbacks. Even though he's been doubled much of this season, Bryant has still generated a 104.4 passer rating for Romo, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Rookie Terrance Williams actually checks in ahead of Bryant, which isn't surprising since Bryant draws all of the attention. The fact that Bryant can be that efficient with so many more targets and so much more defensive attention suggests the 'Boys need to go to him every chance they can.
Go for it more on 4th down
The Cowboys should be doing this anyway, but in a game in which they need to increase variance as much as possible, they can't afford to leave points on the table.
The Eagles seem highly unlikely to not reach the 30-point mark. To do that with Orton at quarterback, Dallas will likely need to keep their offense on the field.
Blitz a lot
Defensively, the Cowboys need to strike a balance between making the Eagles earn their scores and pressing the issue to try to generate takeaways. Without an effective pass rush of late, Dallas must find a way to get to Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and get the ball back to their offense.
You never want to give up quick scores, but it seems likely that Philly will matriculate the ball down the field if the Cowboys play conservatively. If the Eagles are going to score anyway, you might as well try to create a little havoc and hope for a mistake.
The one area of the field where I wouldn't blitz the Eagles is just outside of the red zone. With wide receiver DeSean Jackson as the Eagles' primary offensive threat outside, Philly has the potential to struggle in the red zone. Take a look at Jackson's career red-zone touchdown rate compared to Bryant's.
Thus, I'd play conservatively around the 20- and 30-yard lines to "force" the Eagles closer to the goal line, then focus on stopping wide receiver Riley Cooper and their tight ends once there.
Don't press wide receiver DeSean Jackson
Defensive coordinators seem tempted to press smaller receivers, but a guy like Jackson is more difficult for cornerbacks to press because he's so quick off of the line and has a small area to jam.
More importantly, the downside of missing on a player like Jackson is huge. If the Cowboys miss on pressing Cooper, they can potentially catch up to him anyway.
Place cornerback Brandon Carr on wide receiver Riley Cooper
In my opinion, Jackson is going to absolutely torch cornerback Brandon Carr if the two square off. The Cowboys would be much better served shadowing Jackson with cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who has a legitimate chance to shut down the Eagles' top receiver with the way he's playing.
With Carr being a bigger cornerback with a higher chance of getting beat deep than Scandrick, it makes sense to use him on Cooper. Even if cornerback Morris Claiborne is able to suit up, I'd start Scandrick and use him to shadow Jackson.
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