Cowboys week is here. The NFL loves the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry and pushed both games to December to hope that a playoff spot and/or the division title would be on the line, making the games even bigger than normal. The Eagles did their part and in fact are playing to move closer to a playoff berth and to stay atop the division. Jerry Jones and his team decided to take off much of the 2010 season and now can only hope to play spoiler. No wonder everyone hates them, right?
The Eagles-Cowboys rivalry has been very interesting in the Andy Reid era. They have been some defining games. Reid's first win came in a game against Dallas in 1999. The season opener in 2000 established the Eagles as a team on the rise. A December win over Dallas in 2003 all but sealed the NFC East crown for the Eagles. In 2004 the Eagles traveled to Dallas the week after getting manhandled by the Steelers in embarrassing fashion. The Eagles took out their frustrations in a 49-21 romp. The Cowboys ended Donovan McNabb's 2005 season in painful fashion in a Monday night game. The Eagles got revenge on Christmas day 2006 when they shut down Tony Romo and the Boys. The 2008 season finale was a great game. The Eagles clinched a playoff berth by destroying the Cowboys, 44-6. I think that score will stick with Eagles fans for quite a while.
Things weren't so rosy in 2009. Dallas won the midseason showdown, but that was only a small taste of misery. The NFC East title was on the line in the season finale. Dallas won easily, even more embarrassing was the fact that the game was a shutout. The Eagles returned to Dallas the next week for a playoff game and got embarrassed again, 34-14. That was a bad, bad time for Eagles fans. I don't know if it was an all-time low point, but it sure felt like it. The saving grace of the situation was watching the Cowboys get whipped by the Vikings the following week. Jared Allen, Ray Edwards, and the gang put a little bit of sunshine back in our hearts by wiping the field with Romo and company.
Sorry for bringing up some tough memories, but it is better to acknowledge the situation and deal with it. That's what Andy Reid and the Eagles did in the offseason. The coaches decided that more speed was needed at linebacker. That led to the trade for Ernie Sims and the move to Moise Fokou at SAM. The Eagles knew that safety had to be addressed aggressively. That led to the early pick of Nate Allen. Sean McDermott and Reid also wanted younger, faster guys on the line. The Eagles traded for Darryl Tapp, moved up in the draft for Brandon Graham, and took Daniel Te'o-Nesheim as well.
Now the Eagles get to find out if the roster moves worked. Dallas had a lot of success with wide receiver screens in those two games. The Eagles didn't have the speed to pursue out wide very well. Safeties weren't able to come up quickly and make tackles. The cornerbacks didn't play the screens particularly well. While the Eagles have yet to play the Cowboys this season, other teams have tried to run wide receiver screens. They have not been nearly as effective this year. Dallas isn't the only team that the moves were made for, but the two losses opened some eyes and cemented the fact that changes had to be made.
The Eagles also didn't get nearly enough pressure on Romo. The pass rush has been very good at times, but has been shut down by some offensive lines. The blitz has been pretty effective. It doesn't always lead to sacks, but quarterbacks have had to deal with pressure.
Dallas killed the 2009 Eagles with draw plays, especially from the shotgun formation. The Cowboys piled up almost 400 yards on the ground combined in those two losses. A lot of the big plays came when they spread out the Eagles defense and then ran Felix Jones and Marion Barber right up the middle. Linebacker play was dreadful last season. Draw plays have not been nearly as problematic this year. Stewart Bradley and Ernie Sims are physical players that run well. When the Eagles go to the nickel defense those are the two guys who stay on the field and patrol the middle. All teams have some success with draw plays. They are built to take advantage of a weak spot in the defense (since a linebacker is out and a defensive back is in his place). The point is to limit draw plays. That didn't happen last year, but has generally been the case in 2010.
This won't be just another game to the Eagles. Andy Reid isn't big on speeches and getting his team fired up, but you can bet he'll make it clear that this is a big game. Last year after the regular season finale Reid admitted that the Eagles might have been too uptight for the game. The team was flat early on and made a lot of mistakes. The players came out fired up after halftime. That helped the defense to play better, but the offense remained helpless.
Reid has been good at pushing the right buttons with this year's Eagles. He got on the players for not being physical enough in the early loss to the Skins. The next week the Eagles shut down Frank Gore and the Niners power run game. Reid was very upset with his team with their showing in Chicago. They responded by coming out and beating a desperate Texans team on a short week.
I don't know how Reid will approach this game exactly, but I guarantee you he won't treat this as just any game. Reid knows the importance of the rivalry with Dallas. He will also push the importance of this game for the obvious reasons involving the division lead and playoff implications. I tend to think Reid will try to set the tone early with aggressive playcalling. The game should be pretty interesting from the opening kickoff.
Things have been back and forth with the Cowboys in recent years. After destroying them to end 2008, the Boys swept the series last year. That should, at least theoretically, bode well for the Eagles this year. The Eagles laid a couple of major eggs in Dallas last season. I can't promise you the Eagles will win Sunday night, but I don't think there is any chance this team comes out flat. Reid will have his guys ready to go.
Odds and Ends
* The Eagles offense is ranked number one in the NFL in yards and number one in the NFC in points. Last season the offense did some very good things, but this group is really a lot better. The 2009 Eagles were held to less than 300 yards in a game five times. This year the low total for yards is 320, in the season opener. The 2009 Eagles were held to single digits by the Raiders (9) and shutout by Dallas in the season finale. The 2010 Eagles worst game was a 12-point showing in the first meeting with the Skins.
* I don't know if Nate Allen has hit the rookie wall or what. He played really well at the beginning of the year. Allen looked like a star free safety. Things have cooled since then. He has only one pass break-up in the last six games. He had six break-ups in the first five games, to go along with three interceptions. Allen did have a huge strip-sack late in the win over Houston. I think he'll develop into a very good player, but one challenge for young guys is being consistently good. Even Brian Dawkins had issues with this when he was young. Allen has outstanding potential. Getting this year of experience under his belt will do him a world of good next year and into the future. While Allen isn't setting the world on fire, he is playing better than the guys that manned the free safety position last season.
* Against the Texans Antonio Dixon had his quietest game since becoming a starter. I don't think he did anything wrong. Dixon simply went up against a pair of good blockers. They won the battle with him. That's a good lesson for Dixon. He's played well this year, but all players can be blocked. It happens to Trent Cole at times. I even heard it happened to Reggie White. Once. Just once. I'm interested to see how Dixon responds this week. I won't complain if he comes out and plays like a man on a mission. Dixon could be a key player in Sunday night's game.