Rafael Vela runs the great Cowboys blog, Cowboys Nation. If you’re a Cowboys fan and you don’t know his site, you’re a jerk. If you’re an Eagles fan and you like the great work of Tommy Lawlor over at IgglesBlitz, Raf’s style is similar to Tommy’s, but obviously, Cowboys. You can follow Raf on Twitter at @CowboysNation1.
Jimmy: Let’s start with injuries. Obviously, DeMarco Murray is done for the season. Do you think we’ll be seeing Felix Jones this week? Did you like what you saw out of Sammy Morris last week?
Raf: This is the Felix Jones people had been hoping to see. Aggressive, explosive and finally getting more than 20 touches a game. He’s been out with a touchy hammy, so there’s the bad Felix. Sammy Morris was all you could expect from a 13th week pickup. And he may be THE man Saturday.
Jimmy: What has happened to Doug Free this season? I felt that he was clearly the Cowboys’ best O lineman last year, and this year he might be the 2nd worst behind Phil Costa. Do you see it differently, and is he in trouble against Trent Cole this week?
Raf: Don’t know about Doug Free. I’ve heard speculation he’s playing with a back injury, which would explain a lot, but I have not been able to confirm that rumor. He’s been better, but he’s also a guy who’ll give up a bad play or two. Romo’s return to full mobility makes it hard to sack him. Cole could get a sack on Free, but I don’t think he’ll dominate him. Hasn’t done it before.
Jimmy: Conversely, I’ve been very impressed with Tyron Smith. How do you think he matches up with Jason Babin?
Raf: I’m looking forward to this match-up. Babin worked Smith with an inside spin. Got Tyron over-extending. The kid has been talking about the rematch. He’s got a bit of a nasty streak. It would be fun, in my opinion, just watching those two go for 60 snaps.
Jimmy: I was looking for Cullen Jenkins to manhandle Phil Costa in the first matchup, but Costa held up fairly well in that game. How big a concern is Costa against Philly’s interior DL this time around?
Raf: Costa has trouble with quick power players. Don’t recall him vs. Jenkins, so you’re probably right, but he’s the weak link. The Barry Cofields and Vince Wilforks have eaten him up. So did Brandon Spikes. I’m VERY happy Jeremiah Trotter is well into retirement. He’d get five sacks against Costa.
Jimmy: Obviously, the weakness of the Eagles’ defense is the LB corps. Play Jason Garrett for a minute – Ignoring the last matchup where the Cowboys were forced to be one-dimensional after getting behind big early, how would you attack the Eagles’ D if you were game planning for Philly?
Raf: I’d attack them the way he did in ’09 and the way he attacked the Giants two weeks ago. Pull them left and right. Sweeps, then counters, then bootlegs, then reverses, then screens, then play action over the top. Get them thinking and wondering if the initial play action is true or a set-up?
Jimmy: OK, now play Rob Ryan: The LBs were absolutely torched in the first matchup. It was bad even before Sean Lee left with an injury, and only got worse when James and Brooking were forced to chase Philly’s speedy skill position guys all over the intermediate zones. What adjustments would you like to see?
Raf: Rob got punked by Andy and Marty in game one. He blitzed, and they were ready for all of his pressure. I think he’ll be a lot more controlled. You can’t empty your back seven. He made it very easy for Shady McCoy to get into the secondary running counters. Then, it was cross your fingers and hope he doesn’t go 60 for the score. Ryan will be much more controlled. No 6 man blitzes. Any pressure will be a zone blitz this team. He has to let the secondary keep McCoy and Vick in their sights at all times.
Jimmy: The improvements on defense from 2010 to 2011, at least statistically, have been pretty drastic: Is that a result of better players like Abram Elam and Sean Lee filling in? Is it Rob Ryan? Is it simply that the Cowboys actually have meaningful games in the 2nd half of the season this year? What do you see?
Raf: Dallas is better in its spine. Elam has helped take away the 60 yard, one-play drive. Lee is miles ahead of Keith Brooking, who is cooked. Jason Hatcher gave Jay Ratliff some rush help inside. They’ve all made the inside of that D stronger. Schematically, Ryan has given these guys swagger again. They lost all their confidence by week six last year. They played defensively, no pun intended. His assistants have also gotten guys to play better. Matt Eberflus has DeMarcus Ware playing the best ball of his career. Bryan Baker has every single D-lineman playing better this year.
Jimmy: Ryan sort of likes to use DeMarcus Ware as the queen on the chess board, using him to attack from all angles. How would you deploy Ware against the Philly OL?
Raf: Ordinarily, I’d have him attack the right tackle, but that just lets Vick roll to his natural throwing side. I’d want Ware looping inside, from Vick’s left. Make him move to his right to throw. But it’s all relative. You really want him staying in the pocket, to minimize his damage.
Jimmy: Sean Lee is a player a lot of Eagles fans have followed, with Penn St. just a few hours away from Philly, and Philly trading out of that spot in the 2010 draft. How about just some basic thoughts on his overall game so far in the pros (strengths, weaknesses, etc)?
Raf: Very smart. Very aggressive. It took him a year to catch up to the speed of the game. Now, he sees it all and can move and think at the same time. He’s old school.
Jimmy: If you could steal one Eagle on offense and one Eagle on defense and put a star on their helmets, who are you stealing?
Raf: On offense? Peters. Love his power. With Peters and Smith at OTs, the run game would explode. On D, Babin. I think you can stand him up or use him in nickel. A second plus rusher with Ware and Ratliff would hide a lot of secondary flaws.
Jimmy: Ignoring age (as in, I’ll pick Nnamdi because he’ll be 40+ in 10 years), if could you take one Eagle starter on offense and one Eagle starter on defense, and guarantee that they continue to start for the Eagles for the next 10 years (so the Cowboys can pick on them), who are you picking to stay right where they are?
Raf: Hmmm. On offense, either Kelce or Herremens. Ratliff gave the rookie a hard time the last time, but I think the kid will improve. Going with Herremens. On D? Can you keep Asante? He’ll make his share of plays, but he’ll give us some shots too.
Jimmy: And finally, prediction?
Raf: Closer game this time. I think Ryan will overcome his ego and play his D under control.
I’ll say 27 – 24 Eagles. Keep the NFC East story cooking until Dallas beats the Giants in the final week.