There are so many intriguing matchups in this one. I think I’m just going to jump around all over the place.
– The Eagles’ 3 corners vs. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten – A number of the Philly beat reporters said that Nnamdi would be matched up on Jason Witten, with DRC and Samuel taking on the guys on the outside. That info is untrustworthy, at best, in my opinion. I’m not sure why the Eagles would reveal that. But if that is indeed the case, those matchups make sense if it’s 3rd and 8, but if Philly comes out with that personnel on 1st down, the Cowboys will be more than happy to to pound the ball against the Eagles’ nickle D. If the Eagles try to cover Witten with their LBs, Witten should have a big day. It could be a bit of a “pick your poison” situation for the Philly D with Witten, as it usually is. I also expect Miles Austin to line up quite a bit in the slot in long 3rd down situations. That could lead to matchups against Joselio Hanson.
– Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson, Derek Landri, and Trevor Laws vs. the Cowboys’ interior OL – If you were to ask me “From top to bottom on the Cowboys’ roster, what is THE biggest weakness?” the answer is easy – The interior OL. Phil Costa has been very bad this season at center. On one side of Costa you have the aging/declining/dinged Kyle Kosier. On the other you have Montrae Holland, a player that was cut in the preseason, but the team brought back in the middle of week prior to their Week 7 game against St. Louis. Jenkins is tied for the league lead with Richard Seymour for the most sacks by an interior defensive lineman. He likely had a large puddle of drool next to him on the floor of the film room watching tape of Costa this season.
– DeMarcus Ware vs. Um… the Eagles’ offense? – DeMarcus Ware is one of the top 5 defenders in the league, and this year is no different, as he’s on pace for 21 sacks. It’s so difficult to put Ware in a matchup against one specific player. Since Jason Peters joined the Eagles in 2009, he has played very well against Ware. If you take out the meaningless Week 17 game last year in which Ware abused tomato can Austin Howard all day, Ware has 2 sacks in 4 games against the Eagles since Peters took over at LT. Both sacks came in the Cowboys’ 34-14 rout of Philly in the ’09 playoffs, a game in which the Eagles dropped back to pass more than 40 times and the entire Dallas D could pin their ears back and go. The Eagles would be more than happy to see Ware line up opposite Peters all night, but the that’s likely not to happen. Expect Rob Ryan to move Ware all over the field tonight.
– Cowboys run D vs. the Eagles run O – The Cowboys have the #1 ranked run D in the NFL. The Eagles have the #1 ranked run O. The Eagles’ “#1 ranked run O” is a little misleading, as a large chunk of those yards were actually pass plays where Michael Vick tucked and ran. If we’re talking about the more traditional run game, the Eagles still do a great job running the football. LeSean McCoy is averaging 5.4 yards per carry this season. Last year, the Eagles dominated the Cowboys upfront. Jason Peters and Todd Herremans threw poor Igor Olshansky around like a rag doll. Here’s the Eagles’ 4 minute offense last year against Dallas:
Pure domination. But… Olshansky is gone, and the Cowboys signed Kenyon Coleman. Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher are playing better this year than they have the rest of their careers. The Alan Ball experiment at safety is over, and Abram Elam has vastly upgraded the position from a run D perspective. Sean Lee has emerged and already had 51 tackles. The Cowboys were 4-8 when they faced Philly last year. It’s not exactly the same group. I expect the Eagles to try to keep the Cowboys’ pass rush honest by mixing in a decent dose of the run. The enormous holes that opened up last year won’t be there this time around, but I do think the Eagles can have some success there based on their talent at the RB position and their quick and agile OL.
– Asante Samuel and DRC vs. the bubble screen – When you think about WRs that play more like running backs once they have the ball in their hands, you used to think of Anquan Boldin. There are a small handful of WRs league-wide that excel at breaking tackles, and the Cowboys have two of them. It’s no secret that Asante Samuel doesn’t tackle well, and if the Cowboys can somehow get Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the same side of the field, they’ll look to exploit it. The bubble screen is a staple of the Cowboys offense, and they’ve have spectacular success running it against Philly. I’m setting the Cowboys bubble screen over-under at 4.5.
– Trent Cole vs. Doug Free – Doug Free was clearly the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman last year. This year, he’s been a huge disappointment. Trent Cole is healthy and rested. It’ll be interesting to see what the Cowboys do upfront. Do you give extra attention to Cole, and leave your interior guys with unfavorable matchups against Cullen Jenkins and Co., or do you trust your $8 million/year LT to handle Cole on his own? The Cowboys will need to stay on schedule in this game and stay out of 3rd and long situations to help negate the Eagles’ big edge on the defensive line. I would also expect the Cowboys to run a large number of draws, another staple of the Cowboys O, and something that they’ve had success with against Philly.
– DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant vs. the Cowboys’ pass rush – The Cowboys’ secondary can’t cover the Eagles’ receivers if Michael Vick has time to throw. It’s imperative that the Cowboys get consistently heavy pressure on Michael Vick, or it could be a long day.
– Jay Ratliff vs. Jason Kelce – Jay Ratliff has owned the Eagles at times. In the past, the Eagles were trying to block him with the beefy Jamaal Jackson (6’4, 325) and the cube shaped Nick Cole (6’0, 350). Ratliff destroyed them with his quickness. This time around, on paper you look at Jay Ratliff vs. Jason Kelce and think “Hmmmm… Pro Bowl NT vs. 6th round rookie C,” and you’d immediate go “Oof, gonna be a long day for that kid.” I wouldn’t be inclined to disagree. It’s still obviously a matchup that favors Dallas. However, Kelce is actually a player that matches up far better against Ratliff than Jackson or Cole ever did. At 6’3, 282, Kelce is a very quick center. This may be one of the rare occasions we’ll see Ratliff rely more on his power moves than his quicks.
The Eagles’ safeties and LBs vs. DeMarco Murray – All this really comes down to is… Can the Eagles wrap up and tackle? DeMarco Murray isn’t going to juke anyone out of their drawers, but he does run hard and he hits holes fast. If the Eagles can build off their game a couple weeks ago in DC and make tackles, Murray shouldn’t pose a huge problem for the Eagles’ D. If the Eagles can’t tackle (and that’s kind of a huge “if”), well, it’ll look a lot like the first half against Buffalo, and the second half against the Niners.
Jason Babin vs. Tyron Smith – This is just a great football matchup. Cam Newton is probably going to be the offensive rookie of the year this year (as he should be), but if offensive linemen got acknowledgement for such things, Tyron Smith would be an outstanding candidate. Jason Babin already has 7 sacks this year and is a Tasmanian devil of a pass rusher. Smith hasn’t seen anyone quite like Babin yet this season, and he probably won’t get much help. Really, the closest player in terms of pass rushing talent would have been Cliff Avril of the Lions. Huge test for the kid.
Punters vs. punt returners – We’ll have two of the best punt returners in the game on the field tonight in DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant. The Cowboys have the edge here, with perennial Pro Bowl punter Mat McBriar kicking to Jackson. Meanwhile, Eagles rookie punter Chas Henry has been erratic.
I really think this one is going to be a beauty of a football game, with just an abnormal number of outstanding, intriguing matchups. I’m thinking that the game tape will be a lot of fun to dissect after the fact. It’s perhaps the best 2-4 team vs 3-3 team matchup I can ever remember.