IRVING, Texas -- It’s one of the biggest mysteries of the NFL season.
How did this Dallas defense dominate that Philadelphia Eagles' offense? How did Monte Kiffin’s vulnerable bunch shut down Chip Kelly’s explosive group?
The Cowboys rank last in defense, allowing an average of 418.6 yards per game. The Eagles average 420.7 yards of offense, ranking second in the league. Kelly’s Oregon offenses put up an average of 601 yards and 50 points in three Pac-12 matchups against Kiffin’s USC defenses.
But the Cowboys limited the Eagles to 278 yards and a field goal Oct. 20 in Philadelphia, keying a 17-3 Dallas win that was critical to making Sunday night’s rematch a win-or-go-home affair.
“We hustled and just really played well that day,” Kiffin said. “We have to do it again. They’re better now.”
The Cowboys defense, to put it kindly, is not better now. Middle linebacker Sean Lee, whose outstanding performance against the Eagles earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors, is sidelined with a strained neck. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher hasn’t recently resembled the dominant force who wreaked havoc that afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field. Cornerback Brandon Carr, who frustrated Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson (three catches, 21 yards), has been struggling.
The Eagles offense, on the other hand, is better than ever, coming off a 54-point explosion in last week’s win over the Chicago Bears.
It appeared on Oct. 20 that Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, who was still considered Michael Vick’s backup at the time, was exposed. However, his poor performance (11-of-29 for 80 yards) turned out to be the exception.
Foles has the NFL’s highest passer rating (118.8) and has thrown 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions, putting him in position to set the league record for touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has averaged a league-high 10.0 yards per attempt since looking so bad against the Cowboys, leading to some speculation about when he actually suffered the concussion that caused him to leave that game in the third quarter.
“I felt like he just missed a couple of throws that game,” said Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who repeatedly referred to the Eagles offense as an “extreme challenge.”
To the credit of the Cowboys’ front four, it affected Foles frequently that afternoon despite DeMarcus Ware missing the first game of his NFL career. But the Cowboys haven’t been able to generate a consistent pass rush often, ranking 31st in the league in sacks (29) and last in sack percentage (4.5).
Defensive end George Selvie had two sacks in that Week 7 win. He’s had two sacks since.
Hatcher had seven tackles, a sack and four pressures in that game. He has a total of seven tackles, zero sacks and five pressures in the Cowboys’ past four games.
The consensus opinion among the Cowboys is that containing LeSean McCoy, the league’s leading rusher, was the key to their defensive dominance in Philadelphia. McCoy gained only 55 yards on 18 carries, about half his average in the rest of the Eagles’ games this season.
“We just ran and hit and got to the football,” Hatcher said. “There’s nothing different. We’re just going to go and get after the football, contain 25 and affect the quarterback.”
The Dallas defense did that miraculously well in Philadelphia. We’ll find out Sunday night whether that was a fluke.