Commentary

Defense can't afford repeat performance

Rob Ryan's unit must adjust against Eagles after getting scorched in first matchup

Updated: December 23, 2011, 2:30 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan were talking about adjustments this week.

Ryan has never liked having to make them, but Jones thinks his coach has a knack for them.

"He's an adjuster," Jones said. "He'll scheme and react and use his talent. All of those things I really appreciate in coaching."

We'll find out Saturday night whether the adjustments Ryan makes will help his defense avoid a repeat of what happened in the Cowboys' first meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles this season.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Tim Heitman/US PresswireRob Ryan's defense was torched in the Cowboys' first meeting with the Eagles to the tune of 495 yards -- 239 of which came on the ground.

On Oct. 30, Philadelphia defeated Dallas 34-7. The Eagles scored 21 points on 26 plays. The Cowboys were down three touchdowns after just nine offensive snaps.

It was as if Ryan needed to call a 20-second timeout just to slow down the Eagles.

"I needed more than a 20," Ryan joked Thursday. "I was hoping for a power outage."

Ryan's defense allowed Andy Reid's offense to rack up 495 yards, with 239 coming on the ground. Now is his chance for redemption.

"Oh yeah, any time you embarrass yourself, I think you want to go back out and get a do-over," said Ryan, who is 0-2 versus Reid as a defensive coordinator in his career. "So this is my chance. We've been working really hard to do it."

The defense will get its chance at the most critical time of the season. Ryan has to minimize the damage in the rematch at Cowboys Stadium with a potential playoff berth at stake.

"I'd rather not have to adjust, but when you get your butt kicked like that, you have to adjust," Ryan said. "I think knowledge of the game is real important for anybody that [is] coordinating the defense or anything like that."

To solve the issues, the Cowboys will need a consistent pass rush and strong secondary play, and must find a way to slow down the Eagles' run game.

The Cowboys' two best pass-rushers, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (stinger) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (ribs), are nicked up. They participated in fewer than 10 snaps each last week at Tampa Bay, and the Cowboys will need them to play significant snaps versus the Eagles.

If Ware gets double-teamed, Anthony Spencer -- if he's not asked to play coverage -- has to pressure the pocket. Inside, when Ratliff gets doubled and Ryan blitzes more than four defenders, the defense has to force Eagles quarterback Michael Vick into mistakes. The Cowboys need to get hits on Vick and knock him down.

Inside linebackers Sean Lee, Bradie James and Keith Brooking have to make plays in the run game.

LeSean McCoy rushed for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting.

That can't happen again.

"He's tough, he's quick, he's everything," Ryan said of McCoy. "I saw Barry Sanders kill us one game and then I saw this kid, and I never noticed the difference except the decal."

After the first meeting, Vick joked the Cowboys' safeties were playing about 500 yards away from the line of scrimmage.

It didn't stop the Eagles from completing touchdown passes of 24, 20, 22 and 24 yards. There seemed to be communication issues between the safeties and cornerbacks, a problem that cropped up again for a few weeks with secondary players pointing at each other after completed passes.

At Tampa Bay last week, it was minimized. Safety Abram Elam said it's not so much whether a pass is knocked down or completed for minimal gain that tells you the communication gap is solved; it's when everybody is at the right spots on the field that things are working well.

"It was a point of emphasis that we understood that we had to be on the same page, because if we're not, bad things happen defensively," Elam said. "So moving forward, we know it's a key time in the season; we all have to be on board."

There are no guarantees this will work against an Eagles team that badly needs this game to keep its playoff hopes alive and would love to make Ryan regret saying it was the all-hype team during training camp.

But the Cowboys' defense needs to make a statement. It can't rely on the judge's scorecards for the decision.

A knockout is needed.

"We got a nice plan here," Ryan said. "We got 'em at our place. Who could ask for anything more for Christmas?"

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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