Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Keys to Stopping Mike Vick and Philly
Philly has stumbled out of the gate to a 2-4 start, but they are still one of the most talented teams in the NFL. However, another loss would all but eliminate any chance of them winning the NFC East.
The Cowboys have also gotten off to an up-and-down start to the year, but they come into the game with a 3-3 record and sit just one game back of the first place New York Giants.
A win for the Cowboys on Sunday could be a springboard to a nice division lead if they beat the teams they are supposed to beat.
They'd effectively be three games up on the Eagles with a two game lead in the loss column and a win in the head-to-head matchup. They'd be 2-0 in the division and have a much easier strength of schedule ahead than their chief competition the rest of the way.
The Cowboys have a soft stretch of schedule—they play Seattle, Washington, Miami and Arizona in a five-week span—coming up after this one. Building on Sunday's dismantling of the lowly St. Louis Rams, another win would enable Dallas to head into that stretch with some momentum and confidence.
Conversely, after an easy matchup with Miami this week, the Giants head into their toughest stretch as they end the season with games at New England, at San Francisco, vs. Philadelphia, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay, at Dallas, vs. Washington and at the New York Jets.
To say this game is the turning point of the season comes close to being an understatement. All Cowboys-Eagles games are huge events, but this one feels even bigger.
The Cowboys know exactly what it's like to have a season crumble amidst outsized expectations—they experienced it last year—and now have a chance to make the Eagles feel their pain.
Don't Give Up the Big Play
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The Eagles have perhaps the most explosive offensive weapons in the league with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy surrounding quarterback Michael Vick.
However, a large portion of their scoring comes from quick strikes on big plays, and they struggle to go on sustained drives. Vick is as talented as any quarterback in the NFL, but he's not especially accurate, and therefore can be contained when forced to check down and beat the defense in incremental amounts.
Both his completion percentage and yards per attempt are down from last year's career highs, and the Cowboys will have to keep him down to get the win.
Dallas comes into the game with the best rushing defense in the league to this point, but they've yet to face a running back as talented or as shifty as LeSean McCoy.
Keeping McCoy in check in both the running and passing games will allow them to focus on pinning their ears back and getting pressure on Vick to force him into rushed decisions and poor throws.
DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, among others, need to get pressure on Vick early and often.
After being intercepted just six times in 12 games last season, Vick has already been picked eight times in the Eagles' first six games this year.
The Cowboys' defensive backs will have to keep DeSean Jackson in front of them and not allow him to hit on the deep ball. Dallas has held Jackson to just eight catches over the last four regular season games and three catches for 14 yards in the 2009 playoff game after Jackson infamously boasted that he would "sting they ass" in the week leading up to the playoff tilt.
Rob Ryan ratcheted up the trash talk by referring to—presumably—the Eagles as the all-hype team. DeSean responded by saying Ryan's comments were uncalled for and he never heard of a coach talking trash like that.
Keeping Jackson in check and off the scoreboard is a huge key for Sunday's game.
Run the Ball to Control the Clock and Set Up Play Action
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Rookie running back DeMarco Murray had a breakout game against the St. Louis Rams last week, setting a rookie and franchise record with 253 rushing yards.
The Philadelphia Eagles come into this matchup with the league's 23rd ranked rush defense and are allowing 123.8 rushing yards per game.
Philly's linebackers have not gotten off to a good start to the season at all and their defensive linemen are more pass rushers than run stoppers.
The Cowboys' offensive line was not opening holes at all for Felix Jones while he was healthy, but they had a great game creating lanes for Murray to run through against the Rams. Granted the Rams' run defense is brutal, but it was encouraging to see the line play so well.
Montrae Holland was re-signed and inserted into the starting lineup and played a terrific game. Tyron Smith continued his strong play and Doug Free broke out of a slump. If the Cowboys' offensive line is gelling, they could have another big day running the football against the Eagles' soft run defense.
Running the ball and being able to control the clock is important because it keeps Vick and the explosive Eagles offense off the field. You need the defense to be rested so the pass rush can get after Vick and the secondary has enough energy to chase Jackson, Maclin, McCoy, Brent Celek and Jason Avant.
A successful running game also opens up the play action pass, which is one of quarterback Tony Romo's strengths. Romo has an excellent ball fake, he's able to freeze linebackers and safeties to open up passing lanes for Dez Bryant and Miles Austin over the top or Jason Witten over the middle.
The Eagles' linebackers struggle in coverage, so Witten could potentially have a huge game if the running game is really working.
Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are tougher to throw on, but haven't been as elite as expected this year, so Austin and Bryant could have big days as well.
Third Down Defense
As I discussed on Monday, the Cowboys' defense on third downs leaves a lot to be desired.
The goal of a defense is to get the ball back for the offense, and if you're allowing the opposition to repeatedly convert on third down, you're not doing your job.
Dallas has been vulnerable on third downs so far this year, and that will have to change on Sunday to get the victory.
Dallas ranks 21st in the league in this category, allowing opposing offenses to convert 42.0 percent of their third downs into firsts.
The Eagles' offense comes into the game ranked seventh in the NFL with a 42.9 percent conversion rate on third down.
Holding Philly below that number will be essential to the success of the Cowboys defense.
They'll have to get pressure in Vick's face quickly so he doesn't have time to wait for Jackson to get deep and unleash a bomb.
Expect Rob Ryan to mix up his coverages and his blitzes to confuse Vick and cause him to force throws into tight windows and be hurried. He'll also likely use a "spy" on some plays to prevent him from breaking contain to run for the first down.
Dallas will do as much as they can to make the Eagles offense react to their defensive formations and alignments so they can control the tempo of the game.
Red Zone Offense
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The Dallas Cowboys have the NFL's 26th ranked red zone offense.
The Philadelphia Eagles have the NFL's 32nd—that's last—ranked red zone defense.
On Sunday, something will have to give.
The Cowboys have one of the best red zone weapons in the league at their disposal, but they have criminally underused him so far this season. Dez Bryant had caught nine of the 11 passes directed his way in the red zone coming into Sunday's game with the Rams and turned seven of those catches into touchdowns.
He scored on just one of three red zone targets on Sunday, but he usually doesn't struggle with drops so you can expect a better percentage moving forward.
If Tony Romo sees Dez in one-on-one coverage at any point in the red zone, he would be wise to check to a back corner fade and let Bryant do the work on a jump ball. And yes, the jump ball is what should be thrown instead of the back shoulder pass.
Bryant is a huge physical specimen, an explosive leaper and has big, strong hands. Let him go up and snatch the ball at it's highest point. Save the back shoulder throws for a better technical route runner like Miles Austin.
The Cowboys should also look to get Jason Witten involved in the red zone on Sunday considering how poor the Eagles linebackers are in coverage.
Because the Cowboys' running backs are not "power" types, I also think they'd do better to spread the defense out at the goal line instead of running out of their jumbo set. More blockers means more defenders in the box, which clogs running lanes. If your backs can't power through, you'll get stopped for a loss nearly every time.
Limit Mental Mistakes and Turnovers
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This is always the biggest key for the Cowboys, and the responsibility falls on head coach Jason Garrett. As much talent as there is on this roster, there is a tendency to make boneheaded plays and take unnecessary penalties.
Jason Garrett's play-calling has been curious and questionable at times, especially in the red zone. I'd like to see a lot less shotgun draw and a lot more of the Cowboys' offense imposing their will on the defense.
The Cowboys' offense is 12th in the league in penalties and seven of the 11 teams ahead of them have played one more game.
Tony Romo has essentially blown two games all on his own with back breaking interceptions.
Even in wins, the Cowboys have shown they will not always do the right thing.
When trying to run out the clock against the Washington Redskins, Tashard Choice ran out of bounds, subsequently giving Washington a chance at a comeback. Choice also lost a fumble in each of the last two games.
You can do these types of things and still beat the St. Louis Rams, but you can't expect to win against the Philadelphia Eagles when making silly and unnecessary mistakes.
Garrett must impress this on the team all week as they prepare to go to Philadelphia for a Sunday night showdown.