Cowboys vs. Eagles preview: 3 questions that will decide the NFC East
The Cowboys and Eagles meet again this week for a game that will likely decide the division crown. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White previews the game.
I was soooo looking forward to the Cowboys playing the Eagles in Dallas for the NFC East lead on Thanksgiving Day. I had the afternoon all set up to eat my Thanksgiving dinner just as the game started. I fixed my plate, sat down to eat, blessed the food, looked up and the score was already 17-3 Eagles.
Talk about a huge letdown. The Cowboys looked utterly unprepared for the pace of the Eagles’ offense, and while the Cowboys’ offense was able to move the ball up and down the field, it kept sputtering when it got close to the goal line, unable find a way to punch it in. What was supposed to be a great game was pretty much a blowout by halftime, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered if the jig was finally up for a Cowboys team that had overachieved in every sense of the word all season.
Here we are two weeks later, and after an Eagles’ loss to the Seahawks and a Cowboys’ win over the Bears, both the Cowboys and Eagles once again have the same record and are about to face off for the division lead. So, what will have to change this time around for the game to have a different outcome?
Here are the three questions that will be central to determining who wins on Sunday:
1. Can Tony Romo throw for over 300 yards?
The subtitle to this question should be “can Terrance Williams get off a milk carton?” Seriously, Williams has been MIA for weeks now, and he only had two catches for 38 yards with no touchdowns in the first meeting between the two teams. That just isn’t good enough.
One thing that became apparent to me from the Thanksgiving Day game is that no matter how well the Cowboys run the ball, they are still going to have to take and make some shots down the field from time to time to keep up with the Eagles on the scoreboard. Oh, they can take a lot of time off the clock with their running game, but if the passing game isn’t producing chunk plays and helping them convert third downs, the Cowboys will lose again on Sunday … and it won’t be pretty. I don’t think Romo needs to throw the ball 40 times, but I do think he needs to make the most of when he does throw the ball down the field.
With Demarco Murray eating up turf on the ground, the Eagles will be forced to commit more people to the box. That is going to leave their secondary, which is already hot garbage, even more vulnerable than normal. The Eagles generally combat that by sending guys from everywhere on blitzes. They know teams will try to take advantage of them through the air when they see a safety roll down, so the trade off, in their minds, is the quarterback is going to get smashed in the process. The key is to be able to get passes off quickly and throw deep. That way, if the quarterback does get hit, the payoff of a big gain is more than worth it.
It should be apparent by now that there isn’t a defensive back who can hang trying to match up one-on-one with Dez Bryant out wide all game. However, when Williams isn’t balling, that allows opposing defenses to pay extra attention to Bryant even when they blitz. That’s unacceptable. If the Cowboys expect to have any chance to beat the Eagles, then Williams had better go to see the wizard to try to get his swag back before this game.
Williams caught six touchdown passes during the first seven weeks of the season, but he hasn’t caught one since. He’s been shut out without a catch in two games. If Williams shows up against the Eagles, it will force them to either even out their coverage, allowing Bryant to get off too, or they will be hard headed and just keep letting Williams knock them upside their head by winning his one-on-one matchup. No matter how the defense adjusts, if Williams plays well, it should open up the passing game and allow Romo to throw for over 300 yards with a lot of it off play-action passes.
If not, you can expect a repeat of the ass kicking the Cowboys took at home for the holidays a couple weeks ago.
2) Will the Eagles get to the perimeter of the Cowboys defense with ease again?
This is pretty much a repeat of a question I asked last week before the Eagles took on the Seahawks. Their offense is set up to threaten the edge. LeSean McCoy is constantly looking to bounce runs outside. On passing plays, they run a lot of bootleg action to get the quarterback out of the pocket and away from the pass rush.
Too many times in the last game, the Cowboys did not do a good job of setting the edge, allowing McCoy to get to the perimeter of the defense and Mark Sanchez to stay on the move to let his receivers get open down field. If that wasn’t bad enough, the defense appeared to wear out running from side to side against the uptempo offense after several long drives in the first half. I’m not sure it ever fully recovered.
The Seahawks were pretty much already set up well to keep the Eagles’ offense contained because they use so much cover 3, which drops an extra defender down in the box. The Cowboys, on the other hand, use what is generally referred to as a Tampa 2 scheme. That doesn’t mean they run Tampa 2 coverage all the time, but they don’t have either safety in the box much either. That puts more pressure on just the front seven to be able to set the edge and funnel everything back to their help. They didn’t do a great job of it in the first game, and they had better be prepared to fix it this second time around or they’ll be feeling déjà vu once the game is over. This is one week where their defensive ends will have to be disciplined as hell to get the job done.
3) Can the Cowboys sack Mark Sanchez three or more times?
Don’t laugh. I said stop laughing, dammit! Yes, I know the Cowboys only rank 28th in the league in sacks with a paltry 19 on the season. They’ve gotten away with a weak pass rush all season and still managed to win nine games so far. That’s great, but a weak pass rush isn’t going to cut it this week.
As I mentioned previously, the Eagles like to move the pocket a lot and send Sanchez on bootlegs to get him away from the rush, so it’s not going to be an easy task to get him on the ground three times. The two teams that have done that this season — Green Bay and Seattle — also happen to be the two teams that beat the Eagles with Sanchez at quarterback. That isn’t a coincidence. And it’s not just because of the direct consequences of a sack, usually a huge drag on any drive. It’s apparent that Sanchez does not play well when he is under duress.
I said last week he would throw several balls for the Seahawks to intercept. He did, and they picked him off once. When Sanchez is worried about guys trying to take his head off he tends to very reckless with the football. That’s when the Cowboys can potentially come home with some interceptions of their own. Picking off the ball is something they are much better at doing, ranking 12th in the NFL with 12 interceptions on the season.
If the Cowboys allow Sanchez to feel comfortable in the pocket, he does have the ability to carve them up like so much Thanksgiving turkey. The Cowboys didn’t get to him much in the first game, and he ended up completing just under 70 percent of his passes. They cannot have a repeat of that on Sunday.
So, yeah, three sacks is asking a whole lot, but it’s what the Cowboys will need to do if they want to get a win on Sunday.