Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles preview

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
11:57
AM ET

Scout's Eye
The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 34-7 rout of the St. Louis Rams, now travel to Philadelphia for the first of their two NFC East matchups against the Eagles. Since Lincoln Financial Field opened in 2003, the Eagles have enjoyed a 44–28 record on their home turf -- but they're only 4-4 against the Cowboys at "The Linc."

The Eagles are coming off a bye after holding on for a 20-13 victory against the Washington Redskins two weeks ago. They forced Redskins QB Rex Grossman into four interceptions, which led to 10 huge points. It's also worthy noting that the Eagles are a perfect 12–0 under Andy Reid in the game after the bye.

Cowboys defense must keep big plays to minimum

If the Cowboys are going to win this game, it'll be up to Rob Ryan and his defense. This Eagles' offense is built on big plays and the ability to pressure you with multiple formations that highlight some of the NFL's most skillful players. Obviously, it all starts with QB Michael Vick, who now is just as dangerous with his arm as he is with his legs.

Under Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, Vick has become a real quarterback and not the run-first threat he was in Atlanta. Vick has become an accurate passer and has the ability to deliver the ball downfield to give his receivers a chance to make a play. In two of the three games that I studied, the Eagles opened the game with Vick taking a deep shot. He can hit receivers on the move, allowing this talented group to make huge plays after the catch.

This will be a tremendous challenge for Cowboys corners Mike Jenkins, Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick. But the Cowboys do match up well against Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson due to their ability to play with quickness and downfield speed. Ryan's secondary is also better equipped to handle the ball going down the field with safeties Abe Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, who have done a much better job of being in position in coverage and not allowing the ball to go over their heads.

Defense must force Vick into turnovers

For all the wonderful things that Vick can do now throwing the ball, he will make mistakes with it. The Eagles have thrown 11 interceptions, the most in the NFL.

Vick will get careless under pressure because he has so much confidence in how his receivers will go get the ball. Vick gets in the most trouble when he is on the move and he throws the ball into the middle of the field without setting his feet. Some of these attempts have ended up badly for him.

Something I have also noticed, the more you hit Vick, the less he wants to become a runner and he will look to make the throw first. A banged up Vick becomes a slowed-down quarterback.

Defending the entire field: Watch the screens

Mornhinweg likes to try to make you defend the entire field. He loves to call screens in the red zone with LeSean McCoy or Brent Celek. His running game is like that of a college offense with the different number of formations out of the gun formation -- running the sprint draw, inside handoff and the toss. Mornhinweg will also use McCoy in the gun to take direction snaps on third down, not in a "Wildcat" but with Vick in the backfield also.

The Cowboys have to also be careful where the Eagles personnel lines up in their formations. Mornhinweg will put McCoy in the backfield and motion him out wide to create a one-on-one match up. He will also take Jackson and put him in the backfield and at the snap, hustle him into the flat to try to get the ball quickly in his hands, usually on third downs.

Eagles' weak link: Offensive line

The Eagles offense's weak link is the offensive line. The more you studied Vick and this offense, the more you understood what a special player he is when it comes to avoiding a sack. Even when Vick is in the gun, you see him have to dodge pressure -- and it’s quick pressure.

The Cowboys have an advantage here with their front seven and what Ryan can do scheme-wise to this Eagles line.

Jay Ratliff, who has played outstanding the last two weeks, has an advantage of rookie center Jason Kelce. Kelce is undersized and will struggle with the quickness of Ratliff, but he will also struggle when Ratliff wants to get up field with strength.

Left tackle Jason Peters has been banged up at times this season and will have his hands full with DeMarcus Ware, who will take him hard around the edge because Peters struggles to move his feet. Where the Cowboys have to be careful is not allowing Vick to escape the rush when they have him pinned in the backfield. There were too many plays where defenders looked like they were trying to tackle jello when going after Vick.

Where Ryan has to be careful is how much man coverage he runs in this game. One of Vick’s greatest strengths is his ability to make plays with his feet when he sees defenders with their backs to him. Ware spoke of a spy to watch Vick in certain situations. We'll see Sunday night if that indeed is part of the plan.

Cowboys offense vs. Eagles defense

Much has been made of the struggles the Eagles have had under new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who scheme calls for his defensive ends to play almost one man removed from the offensive tackle and tilt inside. This is called a “Wide 9,” and it's designed to get your pass rushers up the field quickly to put stress on the tackles blocking them. This creates gaps between your tackles, which causes them -- and the inside linebackers -- to have to cover a great deal of space.

Where the Eagles have had problems is when teams have been able to work the ends up the field, then get bodies on the tackles and linebackers. The Eagles linebackers aren't that big -- Mike linebacker Jamar Chaney is 242 pounds, and Brian Rolle and Moise Fokou are in the 230 range. Last week, the Cowboys did a really nice job of not only securing the Rams' down linemen, but also getting bodies on the linebackers -- whether it was Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, John Phillips or Tony Fiammetta.

These Eagles linebackers will struggle some to fight blocks. But if you leave them unblocked or don’t sustain your blocks, they have the athletic ability to run and make plays. When the Cowboys played the Eagles in the past, they always had a thumper at middle linebacker -- such as Jeremiah Trotter that played close to the line of scrimmage and was physical against the run. The Eagles don’t have that now.

The game plan for the Cowboys will be to try to spread the Eagles out and create the ability to run against a light box of defenders. Without a stout defender to consistently stop the run, the Cowboys need to take advantage of these situations when they present themselves.

If Cowboys attack through the air, then target Asante Samuel

In the passing game, the Eagles like to get their defenders up the field and squeeze from the outside. You see more four-man pressure with games and twists than just straight blitzes. The Eagles no longer have a Brian Dawkins-type on this team to cause problems from the backside. I believe the reason you haven’t seen the exotic blitz packages from Castillo is because he hasn’t got the concept of how to tie his blitz schemes with fronts and coverage.

Nnamdi Asomugha is the Eagles' best corner and cover man. He will line up in the slot and also over the tight end in coverage as well. Against the 49ers, Asomugha lined up over Vernon Davis on third downs, so I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see him defend Witten at times. Asomugha is a press corner that will use his long reach to get his hands on the receiver and throw him off his route. He'll line up on the right side with Asante Samuel on the left side.

If the Cowboys are going to attack a corner, then it's Samuel, who wants nothing to do with the physical side of the game. Samuel will play in off coverage. When he does, it’s a good opportunity to run the slant on him inside because he will not challenge the ball. The more you run to his side, the more he will shy away from contact. When he is forced to tackle, he will usually go low and try and cut the ball carrier down.

In the past, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has taken advantage of how Samuel has played. However, I will say that Romo needs to be careful if he tries to just float a pass to the outside because Samuel will try to jump routes.

How much success the Cowboys have on offense relies on how physical they are with the Eagles' defense. It’s not a big front seven, but it's a very active one. The Cowboys will need to find a way not to leave plays on the field or struggle with execution.

If the Cowboys are going to win this game, they will need to find a way to beat up this defense. There is no other way around it.

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