WHEN THE PASS-HAPPY Eagles run the ball effectively, as they have the past few weeks, their offensive players are eager to tell you how much of a difference balance makes, how it pushes defenses back on their heels.
This Sunday night, when the Cowboys come to town, we'll see the other side of that coin - Sean McDermott's Eagles defense will be faced with a Dallas offense that in recent weeks has run and thrown very well, with multiple backs and multiple receiving threats. Kinda makes one pine for the old days, Eagles safety Quintin Mikell said yesterday.
"You don't have a guy that wants the ball every play, one guy you can key on,'' Mikell said, referring to a former Cowboy and former Eagle who talked his way out of the Birds' locker room 4 years ago this week. Mikell said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo now "is spreading the ball around to different guys, and they're running the ball more, and everyone is happy. Now it's a team that just wants to win, and that's more dangerous than anything."
The Eagles defense has played well this season, especially given the challenges it has faced at middle linebacker, but the Birds haven't seen a really elite offense since their 48-22 home loss to New Orleans in Week 2. The Giants have the tools to be an elite offense - they currently rank fifth in the NFL - but they certainly weren't playing at that level last week. The Cowboys are ranked second, right behind the Saints.
McDermott seemed concerned about some matchups yesterday - such as the Cowboys' "big hogs up front" against his smaller, quicker defensive line - and the fact that hot-and-cold Romo, very hot the past few weeks, can scramble around and make you look bad on a play you had defensed perfectly.
"I mentioned to the team this morning that part of their success on offense is due in part to those plays. Those Brett Favre-type plays, where he scrambles, the play breaks down, he checks the ball down to a running back, finds a tight end, gains a first down with his feet, or throws the ball down the field, finding a receiver . . . Yards after breakdown, so to speak,'' McDermott said. "I don't know if that's a stat, but he does a great job with it, and we have to be aware of it."
Mikell recalled a play from the Eagles' 44-6 victory in last year's regular-season finale, one of the few that didn't go the Eagles' way.
"We thought we had a sack and he threw the ball to [tight end Jason] Witten, and Witten threw the ball deep," Mikell said, to Terrell Owens for a 42-yard gain. "It's just stuff like that where you're just kind of like, 'Wow.' I think the thing that we have to do is let our front seven, our front eight, whoever is handling that, handle that, and on the back end we have to cover. We have to keep our eyes on the receivers, and we can't let any blown coverages go, and I think if we do that we'll be OK."
Witten is a familiar adversary who certainly has caused problems for the Eagles in the past. Miles Austin, the Cowboys' emerging star wideout, was mainly a special-teams player the last time the Birds saw him.
"He's strong, he can break tackles, and he has tremendous speed," Mikell said of Austin. "If you don't get a lot of guys there, tackling and getting to the ball, he can take anything the distance . . . He's strong enough to break tackles, and he has enough speed to outrun everybody."
"He has a big lower body," agreed corner Asante Samuel. "That's how he breaks through those arm tackles . . . you wrap him up when he catches the ball."
(Yup, Asante Samuel was delivering insights on tackling. It was like listening to a Ryan Howard lecture on avoiding strikeouts.)
McDermott and several players said it would be important to stick to basics, to not gamble or overanticipate, given the array of options Romo has.
"We just try to focus on ourselves and make sure we're fundamentally sound," McDermott said. "You're not going to be able to know when they're going to run and pass. We have to make sure everything we do is fundamentally sound, schemewise and techniquewise, that we tackle well, and I thought that was one of the best things we did last week, was we tackled well as a team."
Defensive end Jason Babin, who has a sack in each of the last two games, said that if a defender has a chance to sack Romo "you can't miss," and let him improvise. Babin said the rule when looking at a lot of offensive options is "playing what you see" rather than playing hunches. "Play your keys, play the man in front of you," he said.
The Eagles' defense is ranked 10th in the NFL, but the team is tied with New Orleans for first in takeaways, with 21. In fact, the biggest statistical edge the Birds enjoy over the Cowboys is turnover margin - they are plus-12 and Dallas is minus-1. That's one reason the Eagles are scoring more points per game (29 vs. 28.1) while gaining fewer yards (344.4 vs. 411.1) than the Cowboys.
Turnovers fueled the Eagles' rout in that regular-season finale, in which departed safety Brian Dawkins forced two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. Dallas lost four fumbles and an interception that day, along with a playoff berth.
"That's the No. 1 thing we want to do - help out the offense and put them in a position to score,'' McDermott said. "The difference this year, primarily, I believe, has been, you're looking at corners that are planting and driving on the football, and attacking the football. That goes across the board to the linebacker position, the safety position, and so on and so forth. It has to start with corners who can cover, which we have, and then it goes right back to our core, which is playing aggressive, nasty football.''
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