Nick Foles has enjoyed a terrific, emergent season as the signal-caller of the future for the Philadelphia Eagles, but last Sunday against the Chicago Bears, running back LeSean McCoy demonstrated once again why he’s still the franchise’s Most Valuable Player. Now will head coach Chip Kelly let his All-Pro back lead the Birds to an NFC East championship over the Dallas Cowboys?
Last week, Shady lobbied to have the offense placed on his back, and Chip did just that in the Birds’ 54-11 victory. The NFL’s leading rusher gained 133 yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground—and hauled in six receptions—as Philadelphia’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense marched up and down the field all night long against Chicago’s defense.
To his credit, Foles expertly managed the action, tossing just four incomplete passes—at least a couple of which were throwaways. It wasn’t seven touchdowns or 400 yards, but it was arguably the second-year passer’s best performance of his brief career, as he set a single-game club record for accuracy with an 84 percent completion rate.
McCoy’s success undeniably took some of the pressure off of the quarterback, though. Pounding the rock into Chicago’s soft underbelly created favorable down-and-distances throughout the contest, while the heavy use of the back in the passing attack made for some easy, short throws.
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The Eagles are simply more successful when the offense runs through Shady. Kelly’s squad is 8-2 this season when McCoy touches the ball 20 or more times, 1-3 when he doesn't. Maybe that’s only a coincidence—teams tend to run the ball more when they have a lead to begin with—but the record suggests the game plan should always lead with the ground attack.
It will be no different in Dallas this week. The Cowboys are extremely vulnerable against the pass, ranking 31st in the NFL, yet we’ve seen Foles struggle against bad secondaries before. Two weeks ago, the Birds tried to exploit the 32nd-ranked pass defense in Minnesota, but the 24-year-old’s accuracy was inconsistent and drives stalled.
And of course, who can forget earlier this season when Foles experienced the most inaccurate game of his pro career, completing just 38 percent of his passes in the Eagles’ Week 7 meeting versus Dallas. Philly’s offense failed to reach the end zone against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
The Cowboys are equally as porous defending the run as they are the pass. Dallas is 27th overall against the run, which isn’t good, but perhaps more telling are the 4.8 yards per carry surrendered—that is tied for 30th. And 28.0 percent of all attempts against Dallas result in first downs as well, which comes in 31st—right behind Chicago.
It seems so simple. Hand the ball off the McCoy and let that open up the rest of the offense for Foles. The young field general is capable of great things, but when you have a workhorse running back and the division championship is up for grabs, you ride him across the finish line.
Philadelphia’s Defense vs. Dallas’ Offense
It’s honestly a shame if Tony Romo is inactive for the Cowboys this Sunday, as is widely anticipated. As McCoy lamented on Monday, you want an opponent’s best shot every week, especially in a title game.
The Cowboys are trying to create the appearance that Romo could suit up in wake of Adam Schefter’s devastating report that the three-time Pro Bowler is out for the remainder of the season, but their actions say more than their words. The team signed 41-year-old Jon Kitna nearly two years removed from the NFL to serve as the emergency quarterback this week.
Assuming Romo is out, that means Kyle Orton will make his first start under center since 2011. Orton has a 35-34 record to go with a mediocre 79.7 passer rating over his nine-year NFL career. However, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis cautioned the drop-off from starter to backup isn’t always as huge as it may seem during his weekly meeting with reporters, via PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
I don't think there is a big dropoff anymore. There is such a great importance and emphasis on the back up quarterback. I think Dallas has done a great job of signing Kyle Orton. He can be a starter for a lot of teams in the NFL. ... You look at them as both starting quarterbacks, even though he's in a back up role right now, but 70 starts in the NFL is a starting quarterback.
The Eagles in particular have to be on alert after what Minnesota backup Matt Cassel did to the secondary less than two weeks ago. Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings dropped a 48-spot on Philadelphia’s defense, which had just gone nine consecutive games without allowing more than 21 points.
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That being said, there’s no denying Romo’s absence gives the Birds an advantage. The signal-caller is frequently the butt of jokes thanks to a 15-21 record in December and January and one career playoff win, but statistically he’s great. Orton’s got some mighty big shoes to fill.
One of the differences between Orton and Cassel is the latter had played rather extensively this season, appearing in six games and starting three before carving up the Eagles. Orton has been in a handful of games for Dallas over the last two seasons, but almost exclusively in garbage time.
Davis should dial up the pressure on Orton in the game’s early stages. Don’t expect an NFL veteran to curl up into the fetal position at the first sign of a pass rush, but he may be rusty and therefore a little slow to go through his progressions to start with. After hardly playing for two years, how will Orton fare when this double A-gap blitz leaves a linebacker running straight at him?
Those are the kinds of questions Orton will have to answer for Dallas on Sunday if the Cowboys are going to advance to the playoffs. If he somehow pulls off a victory against the Eagles, it will be the first time he’s taken a team to the postseason.
X-Factor: DeMarco Murray
If there’s one player on the Cowboys offense the Eagles truly must contain, it’s DeMarco Murray. The third-year back is enjoying his finest season to date, eclipsing the 1,000-yard milestone for the first time as a pro on Sunday.
Murray is one of the most explosive backs in the league, his 5.4 yards per carry second only to Arizona’s Andre Ellington. If he breaks off a long run in a tight ballgame, such a play might give Dallas a momentum boost the club might desperately need with Orton at the helm.
Fortunately for the Eagles, their defense has only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season. Rashad Jennings went over the century mark for Oakland back in Week 9, and a sizable chunk of that came during garbage time.
The Eagles have shut down a number of top-flight rushers and rushing offenses this season. They’ll need to stop one more in order to secure the Eagles’ path to the playoffs this Sunday.