Here are 15 things to know about Sunday night’s Philadelphia Eagles – Dallas Cowboys matchup:
1. The Eagles are going to have their hands full with Diamond Dez Bryant. The second-year receiver has 19 catches for 339 yards in five games. He’s averaging 17.8 yards per catch and has scored four times. Bryant has six catches of 25+ yards, tied for seventh-most in the NFL, according to STATS.com. And that doesn’t mean it’s just Tony Romo taking shots deep down the field with Bryant. Yards after the catch are a big part of the equation. Bryant is tough to bring down, and if the Eagles’ defensive backs don’t tackle, Bryant will pile up the YAC. Bryant caught one ball against the Rams at the St. Louis 37. Quintin Mikell met him 6 yards later, but couldn’t bring him down. Bryant broke the tackle and scampered all the way to the 21 for a 34-yard gain, which included 16 yards after the catch. The previous week, against the Patriots, he turned a 5-yard catch into a 33-yard gain, juking two New England defensive backs to the ground.
2. But specifically, there are three areas to watch with Diamond Dez Bryant: third down, red zone, against the blitz. He has nine third-down catches for first downs, tied for seventh-most in the league. Five of those have been on 3rd-and-7+; that’s second-most in the league.
The Eagles haven’t blitzed much this season, and that’s probably a good thing this week. Romo found Bryant multiple times against the blitz in the last two weeks. And in 2010, four of Bryant’s six touchdowns were against the blitz.
Surprisingly, Bryant has just two red-zone receptions this year, although both were touchdowns. In 2010, five of his six scores were in the red zone. Against St. Louis, Romo threw the fade to Bryant, but Al Harris had it defended well and forced the incompletion. On another play, Romo read the blitz, got rid of the ball on a slant to Bryant for what would have been a touchdown, but he dropped it. I noticed Bryant lining up on both the left and right sides. Given that Nnamdi Asomugha is the Eagles’ most physical cornerback, it probably makes sense to put him on Bryant, but Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will probably find themselves matched up with him at times as well.
3. Romo’s completing 64.5 percent of his passes this season and averaging 8.09 yards per attempt. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns and six interceptions for a QB rating of 93.4. Romo has been picked off once every 36.2 attempts. Michael Vick is being intercepted once every 25 attempts. What the Eagles have going for them is that Romo will force the ball into coverage and make some risky throws, particularly when he’s pressured. What Romo has going for him is that he is surrounded by some very good weapons and has been hitting on big plays. He ranks tied for third in the league with 18 pass plays of 25+ yards and is tied for fourth with 28 pass plays of 20+ yards.
4. So, how should the Eagles attack Romo? Is blitzing a good idea? I don’t think so. Last year, Romo had a 118.7 QB rating when blitzed, completing 72 percent of his passes and averaging 8.52 yards per attempt. This year, the numbers have not been as good. Romo’s completing just 53.8 percent of his passes against the blitz and has a QB rating of 70.7. By my unofficial count, the Eagles are blitzing on just 15.3 percent of pass plays this season. With Trent Cole returning and the defensive line healthy, I expect them to rely primarily on their front four with only a handful of blitzes mixed in.
5. The Cowboys have allowed just 11 sacks on the season, and they have the fifth-best sack rate in the league, one spot ahead of the Eagles. Against St. Louis, left tackle Doug Free got beat by James Hall, who sacked Romo on one play. Free got beat for a sack by Andre Carter the previous week against New England. It looked like center Phil Costa got beat by Gary Gibson against the Rams. And rookie right tackle Tyron Smith got beat around the edge on a Romo interception against the Patriots. Smith also gave up a sack to Carter in that game. The Eagles were reportedly interested in adding Free this offseason. According to PFF, he leads the Cowboys in sacks allowed (2) and pressures allowed (2). Free also has a team-high five penalties. Cole will be lined up against him for much of the game.
6. On the ground, as you know by now, DeMarco Murray went off against the Rams, piling up a franchise-high 253 yards on 25 carries. Murray went literally untouched on the 91-yard score in the first quarter. He got a nice lead block from the fullback, and Jason Witten got just enough of the linebacker to open up space. Murray also had a 43-yard run in the fourth. It would have been a 2-yard gain, but a Rams defensive back missed a tackle. As I’ve said many times, the major difference in the Eagles’ run defense against Washington was better tackling. We’ll see if they can build on that performance against Murray.
7. While Bryant is probably the Cowboys’ most dangerous receiver, Jason Witten leads the team in receptions (36), targets (52) and receiving yards (449). He’s averaging 12.5 yards per reception, which would be a career high if it held, and Witten has seven catches of 20+ yards. The Cowboys scored on play-action passes to Witten in each of the past two games. That’s concerning for an Eagles team that constantly struggles to cover tight ends. The Redskins’ Fred Davis beat Moise Fokou on several occasions a couple weeks ago, and Fokou had trouble with play-fakes. Twenty-five of Witten’s 36 catches on the season have picked up first downs. The Eagles could put one of their cornerbacks on him, but Witten’s another tough matchup.
8. As for the Cowboys’ other receivers, Miles Austin is always dangerous. He was injured earlier this season, but is averaging 5.75 catches and just under 81 yards per game. Austin’s also scored four touchdowns in four games, although three of them came in Week 2 against the 49ers. Austin, Bryant and Witten have accounted for all 11 of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Wide receiver Laurent Robinson played 21 snaps last week and has 14 catches for 233 yards on the season.
9. The Cowboys’ run defense has been impressive. Opponents are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry against Dallas. That’s a league-best. The Cowboys had not given up a run of 20+ yards until last week. What I noticed against the Rams was that a bunch of Cowboys defenders made plays against the run. DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff up at the line; linebackers Sean Lee, Bradie James and Keith Brooking; safety Abram Elam. At one point or another, each of those guys made a play near the line of scrimmage or in the backfield against the Rams. Steven Jackson’s biggest run went right up the middle on 3rd-and-3 for 40 yards. He gained just 30 yards on his other 17 carries (1.76 YPC).
10. Opposing quarterbacks have an 80.0 QB rating against the Dallas Cowboys, 11th-best, and Dallas is allowing 6.7 yards per attempt (tied for 8th-best). That’s quite a difference from a year ago. In 2010, the Cowboys ranked 29th in opposing QB rating (92.8). They allowed a league-worst 33 touchdown passes and gave up 57 completions of 20+ yards, tied for fourth-most.
11. Rob Ryan will of course give Vick several different looks at the line of scrimmage and bring pressure in a variety of ways. On one third-down against St. Louis, the Cowboys showed five at the line of scrimmage. Ware dropped back into coverage, and Lee blitzed up the middle. Michael Jenkins came away with the interception as A.J. Feeley made a poor decision and a poor pass. Against New England, the Cowboys brought a defensive back on a blitz from the slot and forced an incompletion.
12. Ware leads the pass rush with eight sacks, second in the NFL to only Jared Allen. The Cowboys sacked Tom Brady three times and picked him off twice a couple weeks ago. On one play, Anthony Spencer brought pressure and forced Brady to step up into a sack by Ware. Ware later blew by the left tackle and sacked Brady again. On another play, Marcus Spears brought pressure up the middle and got to Brady. And Ratliff pressured Brady on a third-down pass, forcing an incompletion. Overall, the Cowboys rank 13th in adjusted sack rate; the Eagles rank third. Jason Peters will likely see a lot of Ware, but the Cowboys do move him around.
13. Brent Celek had a team-high nine targets against the Redskins and ended up with four catches for 42 yards. Could he have more of a role as a receiver against the Redskins? Dallas is giving up 72.1 yards per game to opposing tight ends, third-most in the NFL.
14. The Eagles and Cowboys rank 25th and 26th, respectively, in red-zone scoring percentage (touchdown rate) at 41.38 percent and 40.91 percent. The Cowboys are 18th in red-zone defense (53.3 percent), while the Eagles rank dead last (70.59 percent).
15. The Birds have turned it over 17 times, most in the NFL. The Cowboys, however, are not far behind, tied for third-most with 13 turnovers. The Eagles’ -8 turnover margin is second-worst to only the Steelers. The Cowboys are a -1.
Sheil Kapadia | Philly.com | Philadelphia Inquirer