THE LAST TIME the Eagles played the Cowboys, back on Nov. 8 at the Linc, Donovan McNabb was picked off twice and never looked comfortable in the pocket.
The Birds' offensive line got shuffled when left tackle Jason Peters suffered a first-half ankle injury, then was reshuffled when he returned. It gave up four sacks and seemed overmatched, most notably when it couldn't pick up a key fourth-quarter first down from the Dallas 45 on second-, third- and fourth-and-1. (The spots on third and fourth down almost certainly were wrong, but let's not rehash that again.) The home team lost a very winnable game, 20-16.
"There were a lot of miscues in that game, mistakes that we made," McNabb recalled yesterday. "They played well and they just capitalized on opportunities. When you play a game like that against a team that you see twice a year, those are the things that [make the difference]."
"They have good personnel and they blitz a little bit. They had some guys just kind of coming off of our guys free and making the tackle behind the line of scrimmage, but there were situations where I probably could have gotten the ball out a little faster . . . I think for all of us, we were not excited by any means by the way we played and we look forward to stepping out on the field and correcting that."
One of the big developments during the Eagles' current six-game victory streak has been the coming together of that o-line, which featured the same five starters in the same spots from Nov. 22 through last week. Now, though, with the Cowboys again on the docket, and the NFC East title hanging in the balance, the line once again is in a scramble. Nick Cole is moving from right guard to center to take the place of knee-injury victim Jamaal Jackson and Max Jean-Gilles is moving into Cole's spot.
This is a big switch, at a real bad time. A new guy calling the protections, trying to work the silent count, in a loud, hostile, domed venue? A return to patch-and-fill at right guard, a position Cole stabilized after half a season of so-so work (or worse) from Jean-Gilles and Stacy Andrews?
The stakes are substantial. The Eagles can be seeded second, with a first-round bye, if they win, but fifth or sixth, with a possible postseason return trip to Dallas, if they lose.
"It's exciting. It's an exciting time for the coach. I don't get caught up in what other people are saying or thinking, but I know this is why you coach and this is why you play this game - for opportunities like this," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "Every Sunday is exciting, and this has even a little bit more spice on it. That's what it's all about."
Cole declined to speak to reporters yesterday. McNabb noted that he and Jackson have put in a lot of hours of practice and film study, with Jackson starting every game since he took over for injured Hank Fraley in the middle of the 2005 season, 71 in a row (plus five playoff games). McNabb also expressed the obligatory confidence in Cole.
"It's obviously a tough task, because Jamaal was the guy. Jamaal was the guy that set the tone for those guys, made the calls, the leader up there, and I think Nick can fill into that role," McNabb said. "Nick obviously was a starting guard, so he knows all the calls . . . and where we need to block and things of that nature. We're going to take the time during the week of making sure we secure our quarterback-center exchange and being on the same page, and I think he'll be fine."
Right tackle Winston Justice said that though Cole has played mostly at guard during his 4-year Eagles career, he made the team as a center, "learned this offense as a center."
Left guard Todd Herremans said the silent count will be a big focus of preparation.
"Jamaal's always been really good at that," Herremans said. "Just getting used to the way Nick does it, because obviously, it's going to be a bit different - the timing with it, it might not be as dramatic a head turn as Jamaal would give, or something like that. We just have to start keying on it, to get used to it."
Cole, generously listed at 6-foot (and 350 pounds, which, frankly, does not seem generous), endures a lot of stature jokes; Herremans couldn't resist one, in reference to the silent count.
"And Nick's neck isn't as long as Jamaal's," Herremans said.
Jean-Gilles stressed that he isn't some rookie coming off the bench - he has started 15 games in his 4-year career, four of them this season.
"It's nothing new," he said. "I've gotten back in the rotation and I'm just having fun again."
Jean-Gilles, listed at 6-3, 358, said he will work on conditioning this week, since playing an entire game is a change for him.
The interior of the Birds' o-line, particularly Cole, will be tested by Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who had two sacks and two hurries in the first meeting.
"I think he's one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, he's so quick off the ball and he has so many moves," Jean-Gilles said.
"Usually, with your 3-4 teams, you get great pressure on the outside, and then inside, you get a run plugger or a gap clogger, Vince Wilfork or somebody like that," Herremans said. "Usually the nose tackle is more oriented against the run . . . In Dallas' case, Ratliff is a great pass rusher. He's relentless, and he also plays the run very well. Nick's got a good challenge ahead of him, but I'm sure he's ready for it."
On the outside, Peters said end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware ranks in his top five opponents.
"Quickness and power," Peters said. "He plays real low, and gets leverage, so he can get up under your pads and push you into the quarterback."
Peters said he obviously is healthier than he was the last time the teams met, and he feels the line has come a long way with run blocking, even taking into account this week's changes.
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