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Thursday, January 7, 2010
Cowboys seek third straight shutout

By Calvin Watkins

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have done something the past two weeks that they have never done in their five decades of existence -- shut out an opposing team in consecutive weeks.

It's a remarkable fact for an organization that boasts three defensive players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and three more in the team's Ring of Honor.

But those time-honored Cowboys defenses never did what this year's defense achieved.

The current defense will get a chance for a third straight shutout when the Cowboys again host the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC wild-card game at Cowboys Stadium.

Donovan McNabb
The Cowboys' defense has been able to limit the Eagles' effectiveness by forcing Donovan McNabb into early throws and by making him move out of the pocket.

Two weeks ago, the Cowboys shut out the Redskins 17-0. Last Sunday, the Cowboys blanked the Eagles 24-0 to close out the regular season and clinch the NFC East title.

"That's very impressive," cornerback Terence Newman said. "I was happy. I slept good that night."

The Eagles have a big-play, quick-strike offense led by veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb and two young and fast wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles also boast veteran running back Brian Westbrook and backup LeSean McCoy.

Of course, the man calling the offensive plays for the Eagles is head coach Andy Reid, whose offense has ranked in the top 10 in three of the past four seasons.

Part of the reason the Cowboys shut out the Eagles -- the first time since 2005 the Eagles had been held scoreless -- was their ability to shut down Philadelphia's deep passing game.

Cowboys cornerbacks Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick and Newman have the speed to keep up with Jackson and Maclin. Safeties Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh also provided deep help on any long ball and prevented McNabb from going deep for fear of throwing into coverage.

A mixture of man-to-man and zone coverages kept the Eagles' passing game off-balance. The Cowboys also were able to prevent the Eagles from getting screen passes to their running backs.

Philadelphia's offensive line, jumbled since training camp due to injuries to several players, failed to contain the Cowboys' pass rush. Led by outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, the pass rush forced McNabb to rush his throws and move around the pocket.

"Donovan is a really good player, and when you can really take him off his spot, he is elusive," Ware said. "He can [run bootlegs] and make plays and throw the ball downfield. He also [scrambles] and strings plays out. But you have to get pressure on him. And if we can't get pressure on him, he will beat you with all the weapons that he has."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the two games versus the Cowboys, McNabb had a 49.6 quarterback rating and completed just 41.2 percent of passes thrown 15 yards or more. McNabb has a 122.7 quarterback rating and completes 50 percent of his passes versus everybody else.

McNabb missed some open receivers against the Cowboys, and there were a few drops. Several Cowboys expect a different Eagles team this time around.

"We actually got some breaks in the game," linebacker Bradie James said. "We played well, and any time you stop a team and they don't score, you have to accept that you played well. But those guys dropped some balls. They were down in the red zone and they fumbled a snap. Who would have thought that would happen?"

The defense's overall success is attributed to Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. In the offseason, Phillips told owner/general manager Jerry Jones that the best defensive coordinator he could find was himself.

The Cowboys incorporated five new starters to the lineup. And two -- defensive end Igor Olshansky and inside linebacker Keith Brooking -- were familiar with Phillips' 3-4 scheme.

In 2009, the Cowboys' defense allowed the fewest points (250) in the NFC and ranked ninth in yards per game and fourth versus the run in the NFL. Improvements from the 2008 season are visible almost everywhere. The Cowboys allowed fewer rushing yards per game, touchdowns and total points this season.

The Cowboys believe the defense needs to keep the scoring down just enough to win Saturday night.

"If they don't get big plays, it's hard for them just to go 80 yards," Newman said of the Eagles. "[They have to] dink and dunk and dink and dunk and not have something go wrong. Without getting that big play, it takes a little bit more risk for them to score, drive 80 yards and score touchdowns."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.