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Eagles can't let Harris be a factor

Cowboys’ return man is leading league in punt, kickoff returns

Dwayne Harris. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Dwayne Harris. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)Read more

IF YOU WATCHED their 31-16 win over the Redskins last week, then you know Tony Romo and the Cowboys' big-and-tall-shop receivers aren't the only people the Eagles need to keep out of the end zone on Sunday.

They also need to neutralize the Cowboys' dangerous return man, Dwayne Harris.

Eagles fans who haven't managed to purge last season's 4-12 disaster from their memories no doubt remember Harris, who had a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Cowboys' 38-23 Week 10 win at the Linc.

Six weeks into his third pro season, Harris is leading the league in both punt (23.6) and kickoff (34.7) returns. Against the Redskins last week, he returned a second-quarter Sav Rocca punt 86 yards for a touchdown and added a 90-yard kickoff return in the third quarter that Romo parlayed into a touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams that gave the Cowboys a 21-9 lead.

Given that the Eagles are ranked 32nd in the league in total defense and 29th in points allowed, they really can't afford to let Harris be a factor in Sunday's game. If he is, you probably will be heading for the exits midway through the third quarter.

"He's a great player," Eagles special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. "He's hot right now. He's had a bunch of big returns this season."

Harris has returned nine kickoffs. The 90-yarder against the Redskins has been his only really big return. He also had a 35-yarder against the Chiefs in Week 2 and a 33-yarder against the Chargers in Week 4.

He has handled 12 punts, including four fair-catches. Has had 38-, 23- and 22-yard returns in addition to his 86-yard home run vs. the Redskins.

"He's definitely a difference-maker," said safety Colt Anderson, who is on both coverage teams. "We've got to cover our [butts] off this week."

Said safety Kurt Coleman: "Their whole special-teams units are good. But he does a great job of seeing the hole, and he doesn't really stop. A lot of guys, you'll see them slow their feet down. But he knows where the hole's at and he hits it. That's imperative, especially with a kick returner, because the hole closes so fast. Also, his guys do a great job of blocking. They have a good scheme."

Coleman and Anderson found that out last year when the Cowboys set up a wall return down the left sideline for Harris on his long punt return against them. One second it looked like they were going to hold him for a minimal gain, the next he was celebrating in the end zone.

"They have a lot of guys [on their special teams] around 220-250 [pounds] that can move," Coleman said. "They do a good job of doing a lot of traps.

"Punt returns, if you look at the one he had against the Redskins last week, a guy had a shot at him and ended up pulling his hamstring right when he was coming up to make a tackle. But those guys do a good job of staying with their blocks or finding new blocks."

The 5-10, 207-pound Harris isn't shifty like Devon Hester. He's not overly fast. But he is a decisive returner with excellent vision who can spot a crease and get through it.

The best strategy against him would be to keep it out of his hands. They might be able to do that on kickoffs. Alex Henery has found his groove on kickoffs and has 13 touchbacks in his last 19 kicks.

Punter Donnie Jones has one of the league's better return rates. Just 11 of his 28 attempts this season have been returned. But the Eagles probably aren't going to kick it out of bounds to prevent Harris from getting his hands on the ball.

"It's easier said than done to put it out of bounds every time," Fipp said. "If you punt it out of bounds every time, are you [willing to] accept the 20-yard punts? If you're willing to accept that, then you can do it. But if you don't like that, at some point the ball may end up in his hands."

Jones said the best strategy is to get good hang time on your punts and have your coverage get down the field and cover.

The Eagles' coverage units have been inconsistent this season. They are 31st in the league in kick coverage (28.8) and 15th in punt coverage. They gave up a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to the Broncos Trindon Holliday in Week 4 and a 40-yard punt return last week to the Bucs' Eric Page.

"I said the very first day we got here that we had a lot of work to do," Fipp said. "We still have a lot of work to do.

"There have been times when we've covered real well. Last week, we had a 40.8 net [punting average] and we held them to the 20.8-yard line on kickoffs. If you can do both of those things every time, then you're top 10 in the NFL. But it obviously hasn't been that way."

Shutting down Harris this week would go a long way to bolstering the special teams' confidence, not to mention improving the Eagles' chances of beating the Cowboys.

"He's a great returner, but he can be stopped like anybody else," said cornerback Brandon Boykin, who is one of the gunners on the Eagles' punt coverage team. "We've been able to keep them contained for the most part except for a couple of plays. We'll be all right."

Third-down woes

You no doubt have noticed that the Eagles' defense has had a little bit of difficulty getting off the field on third down. They are 26th in the league in opponent third-down percentage (.425), and have been particularly inept at just saying no on third-and-long.

In the first six games, opponents have converted 17 of 47 (36.2 percent) third downs of 7 yards or more against the Eagles. That's disgraceful.

Last week, they allowed the Bucs to convert a third-and-14, two third-and-9s and two third-and-7s. The Bucs parlayed those extra opportunities into 13 of their 20 points.

In their three-point Week 2 loss to the Chargers, they gave up a third-and-8 and third-and-10. Both led to Chargers TDs.

The Chiefs converted third downs of 10, 15 and 19 yards in their 26-16 Week 3 win over the Eagles. Two of those third-down conversions resulted in field goals.

The defense's current 42.5 percent third-down rate is the highest by the Eagles since 1982.

Since '85, the Eagles have had a third-down defensive rate above 40 percent just once. That was last year (40.9).

"On third down right now, we just have to kind of tighten the screws a little bit and make sure we get ourselves off the field, especially on third and winnable distance," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said.

Figuring the Eagles * 

The Eagles' have given up 33 catches and 399 yards to opposing tight ends in the first six games, including seven receptions for 91 yards to Bucs rookie Tim Wright last week. That's an 88-catch, 1,064-yard pace. The good news is they have yet to allow a touchdown catch by a tight end. A look at the tight end pass-catching numbers against the Eagles the previous four seasons:

Rec. Yds. TD

2012. . . 71 787 4

2011. . . 66 765 5

2010. . . 79 912 11

2009. . . 102 1079 10

* In the 18 quarters that Michael Vick has played this season, the Eagles have averaged 118.8 yards and 6.5 points per quarter. In the six that Nick Foles has played, they've averaged 93.5 yards and 8.0 points per quarter. They've averaged 5.52 points per 100 yards under Vick, 8.56 under Foles.

* The Eagles' defense is 28th in the league in sacks per pass play. They are averaging a sack every 21.2 pass plays. According to data by Pro Football Focus, they have managed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks on just 30.7 percent of their pass-rushing opportunities. A game-by-game breakdown of their pressures vs. dropbacks:


Bucs. . . 47 18

Giants. . . 53 17

Broncos. . . 35 5

Chiefs. . . 47 15

Chargers. . . 49 12

Redskins. . . 56 21

* Cornerback Bradley Fletcher has played pretty well in the first six games. He has a team-high 10 knockdowns, including five against the Giants, and has allowed just 19 completions in 37 passes (48.7 percent) thrown in his direction. He has given up two touchdown passes. The Eagles' other starting corner, Cary Williams, has six knockdowns and two interceptions and has allowed completions on 25 of 37 passes (67.6) thrown in his direction. He also has allowed two TDs. Williams has held opponents to 10.1 yards per catch, Fletcher 14.6.

* The Eagles have scored 38 points off 10 turnovers in the first six games and have allowed 30 points off eight giveaways for a plus-8 point differential. That's considerably better than last season's minus-100 point differential off of turnovers. Last year, they scored just 40 points off 13 takeaways and gave up 140 off 37 giveaways.

* DeSean Jackson suddenly has become a red-zone threat. In the last two games, he has three receptions in the red zone, including two for touchdowns. In the previous four seasons, he had a total of 11 receptions and just five touchdowns in the red zone.

* Nine of the Eagles' 18 touchdown drives have been four plays or less. Fourteen of them have lasted less than 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

* The Eagles' final scoring drive last week was the second longest of the season in both time (5:29) and plays (12). They had a 15-play, 73-yard drive that lasted 6:32 against the Broncos.

* Trent Cole has just 1 1/2 sacks in his last 19 games.

* The Eagles' average starting field position in their three wins was the 34.5-yard line. In their three losses: 21.1.


* "It's a crude word to define a Native American, and I would think if Native Americans feel offended, it would make sense to change it."
— Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy on the furor over the Washington Redskins' nickname
* "There will be situations, and that's why \[defensive\] guys don't want to pull up. It's happened in the past with Michael Vick or someone like that who has run toward the sidelines, stopped, and then gotten 20 more yards because the \[defensive\] guy runs out of bounds trying not to hit the quarterback."
— Redskins QB Robert Griffin on sideline hits on QBs
* "He's a way better athlete than I am. He moves better and he's faster. He has so much speed that it allows him to play a little differently than I do. I have to play straight technical football. He gets to play a little looser because he can recover in a flash and get back in a play."
— Seahawks Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman on Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson
* Redskins punter Sav Rocca had a 47.0-yard gross average against the Cowboys last week and a 10.7-yard net, thanks to 86- and 23-yard punt returns by Dwayne Harris.
* The Titans have held opponents to 19.2 points per game this season, which is the eighth best in the league. Last year, they allowed a league-worst 29.4 points per game.
* The combined passer rating of the league's quarterbacks through the first 6 weeks is 86.8. If that number doesn't drop, it would be the highest overall passer rating in league history. The previous high was 85.6, last year.
* QB Alex Smith has led his team to a 6-0 start. With a win against the Texans on Sunday, he can tie the post-merger (1970) record for most consecutive wins to start a season in a quarterback's first year. The only guy to do it so far? Dieter Brock of the '85 LA Rams.
* The Chiefs already have 30 sacks in their first six games. The record for most sacks in the first seven games of a season is 45 by the '87 Bears.
* The Broncos have scored 265 points. That's the most ever by a team in its first six games. The old record was 262 by the 2000 Rams.
* The Eagles occasionally have used an unbalanced line this season, but never as much as they did in the fourth quarter of the Bucs game. They used an unbalanced line on 10 of 15 snaps on their final two scoring drives in the 31-20 win. Six times, they moved left tackle Jason Peters over to the right side alongside right tackle Lane Johnson. The other four times, they had Johnson move over to the left side. They used an unbalanced line on Riley Cooper's 44-yard catch and run, but not on Nick Foles' 36-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. The benefit of an unbalanced line? "First of all," center Jason Kelce said, "the defense has to adjust. It's used to lining up in a certain situation over and over again. It's used to seeing a center, two guards and two tackles. All of a sudden you move a guy to the other side of the ball and it completely changes the dynamic of what they're trying to defend. They have to line up in different situations and it puts them in uncomfortable situations and positions." Expect to keep seeing it.
* With a third Bucs player — rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks — diagnosed with MRSA late last week, many Eagles players were more nervous about the possibility of catching an infectious disease at Raymond James Stadium than they were about winning the game. "It was scary stuff," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "When you go in there \[to the locker room\] and are changing, you don't want to touch anything. You don't want to touch anything that hits the floor. When you're changing and something hits the floor, you're like, man, this could be contaminated." Kendricks still was concerned Wednesday after discovering a slight cut on his right elbow. "Is there pus coming out of that?" he asked a reporter. "Ah, man. Do you think I have MRSA?"
* Phil Savage is the executive director of the Senior Bowl. In 2010 and '11, the former Browns general manager served as a player personnel consultant for the Eagles. Earlier this week, he sent out this interesting tweet regarding Cowboys return ace Dwayne Harris: "During time @Eagles, if there was one prospect I really 'pushed' to decision-makers, it was WR/KR Dwayne Harris. He's a 'FOOTBALL' player." The Cowboys took Harris, an East Carolina product who leads the league in punt and kickoff returns, in the sixth round of the '11 draft, with the 176th overall pick. The Eagles selected Pitt running back Dion Lewis and Iowa offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde in the fifth round and Cincinnati center Jason Kelce in the sixth, 15 picks after Harris. Kelce has turned out to be a great pick. Vandervelde is Kelce's backup. Lewis had just 36 carries in two seasons with the Eagles before being traded to the Browns in April. According to a club source, the Eagles had Harris rated higher than the Cowboys, but "we didn't really go off our \[draft\] board."
* Donovan McNabb rushed for 3,459 yards in his career, which is the sixth most by a quarterback in history. Yet he always detested talking about his ability as a runner. Felt it somehow disparaged his ability as a passer. "It just bothers me when they try to label guys by their abilities," McNabb told me this summer. "Yes, I was blessed with the ability to run. But a lot of people are. It wasn't like I ran a 4.2 or 4.3 \[40\]. I knew how to utilize my legs when I needed to. But when you label somebody as a running quarterback, it takes away from what they do. We're all quarterbacks." The Redskins' Robert Griffin III has no such reservations about his running ability. When asked about running nine times for 77 yards in the 31-16 loss to the Cowboys, he said, "I felt that's what I have to do. That's what I've always had to do. You've got to use every ability that you have. I'm just focusing on being the playmaker that I know I can be and not letting anybody else tell me how to play this game."
* How much value does a victory over a winless team have? According to online oddsmaker Bovada, apparently a lot. With last week's win over the Bucs, the Eagles' odds of winning the Super Bowl improved from 66/1 to 50/1. The Cowboys are at 25/1.
Rk. Team (W-L) Pvs.
1. Broncos (6-0) 1
2. Chiefs (6-0) 2
3. *Seahawks (5-1) 5
4. 49ers (4-2) 6
5. Patriots (5-1) 7
6. Saints (5-1) 3
7. Packers (3-2) 8
8. Colts (4-2) 4
9. Bengals (4-2) 9
10. Lions (4-2) 10
11. Bears (4-2) 11
12. Titans (3-3) 12
13. Ravens (3-3) 13
14. Cowboys (3-3) 16
15. Dolphins (3-2) 14
16. Chargers (3-3) 22
17. Eagles (3-3) 20
18. *Cardinals (3-3) 15
19. Panthers (2-3) 26
20. Rams (3-3) 28
21. Texans (2-4) 17
22. Browns (3-3) 18
23. Jets (3-3) 19
24. Falcons (1-4) 22
25. Steelers (1-4) 29
26. Bills (2-4) 23
27. Vikings (2-3) 24
28. Raiders (2-4) 25
29. Redskins (1-4) 27
30. Giants (0-6) 30
31. Buccaneers (0-5) 31
32. Jaguars (0-6) 32
*Note: Thursday  night's game not included.