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The Matchup: Nate Allen Against Donovan McNabb

Sunday's game between the Redskins and Eagles will be the first meeting between Nate Allen and Donovan McNabb. If Allen can limit Washington's vertical passing attack, it could be a long day for McNabb and his new team.

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One of my favorite lines from the great movie Airplane! is "Irony can be pretty ironic". That line describes the key matchup in the game between the Redskins and Eagles - Nate Allen vs Donovan McNabb. Last spring we traded McNabb to Washington for their second round pick, number 37 overall. We then spent that pick on Allen, who played free safety at South Florida.

Allen was given the starting free safety job early in the offseason. The Eagles had high hopes for him and didn't want to waste time in getting him into the lineup. Nate responded by fitting in immediately and playing like a veteran. He was impressive at training camp. He played well in the preseason. And then the regular season rolled around.

Allen stepped his game up. He picked off passes in each of the first couple of games. He had a sack in the third game. He's fourth on the team in tackles and has broken up three passes. He was just named NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. Set aside the numbers and watch the tape. Allen is playing well, not just for a rookie. He is a good free safety.

Donovan McNabb and the Redskins come to Philly on Sunday. This will be Nate's biggest test. Washington likes to throw the ball downfield and that will put a lot of pressure on the Eagles secondary, especially Allen.

The Redskins have an odd receiving corps, to say the least. They drafted Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas a couple of years ago to develop into big, physical receivers. Neither player has panned out to this point. Veteran Santana Moss is still the team's best receiver. Joey Galloway, Father Time's uncle ... yeah he's that old, is the other starter right now. Both Moss and Galloway are at their best streaking downfield for a deep ball. As you may recall, McNabb has one of the best arms in the NFL and loves to throw the ball deep.

So far the offense isn't clicking as well as coach Mike Shanahan, McNabb, or Redskins fans want it to. McNabb isn't rated in the top 10 passers and the team only has four offensive touchdowns. No matter how you slice it, that is very disappointing for them.

Washington likes to use a lot of play-action passes. They haven't gotten their running game going very efficiently, but teams know that Shanahan is a running coach so that makes the run fakes effective even without the on-field success. What makes things even tougher is that the offense uses a lot of roll-outs and bootlegs. That puts McNabb out in space and can give him a lot of time to get the pass off if the fake works well.

This is where things get complicated for the Eagles. While Moss and Galloway are a combined 237 years old (I used carbon dating to test them), they both still run very well. Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs are one of the slowest sets of cornerbacks in the NFL. That matchup could give the Redskins an advantage. Also, Hobbs and Samuel like to bite on short routes. They love to break on the ball and that leaves them susceptible to double moves. McNabb has a good pump fake and that could help sell a short route. There is a good chance that Moss and Galloway will get behind the Eagles corners a time or two in the game.

All of this is what makes Nate Allen so important. The free safety's job is to stay deeper than the deepest. Don't let receivers get open behind you. Go clean up plays where the corners get beaten. I'm sure defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will stick with mostly seven-man fronts and keep both safeties back as much as possible. While Allen is the rookie, he's more athletic than Quintin Mikell and is a more natural centerfielder. Allen is the guy you want back deep when McNabb launches a rocket to Galloway 50 yards downfield.

An interception from Nate would be great, but if he can just cover well and make life hard on the receivers that will suffice. Catching balls that far downfield isn't easy. A defensive back can disrupt the play just by being close and breaking the receiver's concentration. We do need Allen to avoid pass interference penalties. Make the receivers catch the ball and earn the yards. No gimmes.

McNabb knows Allen is a talented young player and will try to use his veteran quarterback/Jedi mind tricks on him. McNabb will look left before throwing to the right. McNabb will use pump fakes. He will do anything he can to get Allen out of position by a step or two. Believe it or not, that is all it takes on a deep ball. If Allen bites up or goes to the wrong side just by a couple of steps, the receiver going deep will get out of range. Allen won't have the recovery speed to get back to where he needs to be.

There is one bit of good news in this regard. McNabb doesn't have great timing with Moss and Galloway just yet. He's thrown deep for them quite a few times, but they've only completed a few of the passes. As an Eagle, McNabb had a habit of underthrowing his deep balls. That could help out Allen if he does bite on a play and then has to turn and get back deep.

Allen should have a huge influence on the outcome of the game. Washington's offense has really struggled in two of three games so far this year. Take away the deep ball and they are in trouble. They cannot sustain drives. Touchdowns are especially hard to come by. They didn't have an offensive touchdown in the opener. They scored one at St. Louis, but that came after a fumbled kickoff by the Rams. Washington wasn't able to drive the ball downfield and put it in the end zone. Allen could have a great game by being a stat-sheet stuffer and making plays. Or he could be great and have little to show for it. Just look at the Redskins point total to see what he did in that case.

The game is Washington at Philly. The game within the game is McNabb against Allen. That just adds another layer of intrigue to a showdown that will draw the attention of the NFL world this weekend. I can't wait.