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Eagles' run defense all that shines

DeMarco Murray again held under 100 yards, but pass defense and turnovers are killers in 38-27 loss to Dallas.

Cedric Thornton tackles Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Cedric Thornton tackles Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

RIGHT THERE at the top of the Eagles defense's things-to-do list last night against the Cowboys, just as it was 17 days earlier in Arlington, Texas, was stopping DeMarco Murray.

They held the NFL's leading rusher to 73 yards on 20 carries in their 33-10 rout of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

Did another good job against him last night, which might've been enough to win the game if cornerback Bradley Fletcher hadn't had the worst game of his career, giving up three touchdown passes to Dez Bryant in a 38-27 Dallas win.

"There's no question that the Dallas Cowboys have weapons everywhere," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said after the game. "DeMarco Murray is what they've kind of hung their hat on this year to get going. But there's no doubting Dez Bryant's talents, [Jason] Witten's talents, [Cole] Beasley, [Tony] Romo when he's hot.

"We did an OK job [against] the run game tonight, but the passing game got us. We gave up too many big plays. The first half, the third downs were awful. We had some penalties we didn't need that hurt us. They had a better night tonight than we did."

The Eagles held Murray, the NFL rushing leader, to 81 yards on 31 carries. He had a pair of short touchdown runs, along with 21- and 14-yard runs in the second half.

But holding the league's leading rusher to 2.6 yards per carry is a pretty impressive accomplishment, and one that should have helped translate to a victory.

And if Fletcher hadn't gotten burned three times by Bryant, it might have.

Instead, it ended up being small consolation in a loss that just might've extinguished the 9-5 Eagles' playoff hopes.

"They have weapons all over the place," Davis said. "It's not just Murray. They made more plays than we did. We got the score tight again in the second half, and then they made a couple of more plays.

"We were changing who we were giving help to on every snap. A lot of it, Dez is getting it. So Romo goes to the other guy who's open. He spreads the ball well. He recognizes coverages early. He gets the ball to single coverage."

Bryant finished with six catches for 114 yards and the three TDs. Witten, who had just one catch for 8 yards in the Eagles' Thanksgiving Day win, had seven catches for 69 yards last night.

After falling behind in the first half, 21-0, the Eagles battled back and took the lead, 24-21, on a 1-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles with 5:42 left in the third quarter.

But the Cowboys drove 78 yards on eight plays, including a pair of 22-yard completions to Bryant and a 2-yard touchdown run by Murray, to regain the lead for good.

"They out-executed us, they absolutely out-executed us," a frustrated Davis said.

Romo, who completed 22 of 31 passes for 265 yards, connected with Bryant on a 25-yard touchdown pass over Fletcher early in the fourth quarter to seal the Eagles' fate.

"I just had a terrible game, and that's what happened today," said Fletcher. "I got beat. I got beat today. I came up short today. I didn't play well."

Davis has defended the oft-maligned Fletcher all season, and he defended him again last night.

"I believe in Bradley Fletcher," he said when asked if he considered replacing him. "We didn't have that discussion. We were nicked up anyway. Nolan [Carroll] was up and then he was down. I don't know if I had a move even if I did [want to replace him]."

Murray has been held under 100 yards just three times this season. Two of them have come against the Eagles.

While their pass defense has frequently failed them — they now have given up 29 touchdown passes this season, including the three last night — the Eagles' run defense has been solid most of the season.

Right now, that and $6.50 will get them a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Their three starting linemen — ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton and nose tackle Bennie Logan — are as good a 3-4 front as any in the league.

They went into the game ranked eighth in yards allowed per carry (3.9). They had allowed just one running back to rush for 90-plus yards all season. That was the 49ers' Frank Gore back in Week 4 (119 yards).

They held Murray, the NFL rushing leader, to a season-low 73 yards on 20 carries in their 33-10 Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys.

Even in defeat last week, their run defense played well. They held the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch to 86 yards on 23 carries. Lynch gained 2 or fewer yards on 12 of his 23 carries and had just two double-digit-yard runs. After a 21-yard run against the Eagles' dime package on a third-and-15 play in the first quarter, he managed just 36 yards on his next 16 carries.

After selecting an offensive lineman — Zach Martin — in the first round of the draft for the third time in 4 years, the Cowboys made a commitment to the running game in the offseason.

No longer were they going to put the weight of the world and 99.9 percent of their playoff hopes on Tony Romo's shoulders. They had a talented, young offensive line and they had a thoroughbred running back and they were going to pound the rock.

And they have. They went into last night's game ranked third in the league in run percentage (49.0) and fifth in rushing attempts per game (30.8). Last year, they had a 35.1 run percentage and averaged just 21.0 carries per game.

Murray, who pretty much already has locked up the league rushing title, went into last night's game with a league-high 320 rushing attempts. He has a chance to become just the sixth back in history to lug the ball 400 times in a season.

He went into the Thanksgiving game against the Eagles having rushed for 100-plus yards in 10 of the Cowboys' first 11 games. His only sub-100-yard performance had come in a 28-17 Week 10 loss to Arizona when he was held to 79 yards on 19 carries.

The Eagles' front seven took the fight to Martin and the Cowboys' offensive line on Thanksgiving and stuffed Murray. Held him to 24 yards on his first nine carries and a season-low 73 yards on 20 carries for the game.

Held him to 2.0 yards per carry on second down and 1. on third down. He didn't have a single double-digit-yard run against the Eagles.

The Cowboys finished with just four rushing first downs.

-- Rookie defensive lineman Taylor Hart was inactive for the 13th straight game. He is the only player who has been with the Eagles since the start of the season who has not been active for any games.

-- Donnie Jones had a 68-yard punt in the first quarter with no return. When no one covered the Eagles' left gunner, punt returner Dwayne Harris had to come up and take him, allowing Jones' punt to roll.

-- Tight end Zach Ertz lined up in the backfield with LeSean McCoy on a play in the first quarter. The play was a pass to McCoy, which went incomplete.

-- The two costly illegal-contact penalties on Eagles cornerback Cary Williams in the first half.

-- On the short opening kickoff by the Cowboys' Dan Bailey, Brad Smith signaled to return man Josh Huff to come up and take it. But Huff apparently didn't hear him. The ball bounced between them and the Cowboys' C.J. Spillman recovered the kick at the Philadelphia 18.

-- Huff was whistled for an illegal-motion penalty on a late first-quarter punt by Jones.

-- The Cowboys converted their first four third-down chances.

-- Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who had one catch for 8 yards in the first game with the Eagles, had five catches for 54 yards in the first half.

-- The Eagles ran just six plays in the first quarter, going three-and-out on both of their first two possessions.

-- Cornerback Bradley Fletcher gave up both of Tony Romo's first-half touchdown passes to Dez Bryant, then another in the fourth quarter.

-- Cowboys safety Orlando Scandrick was booed by the crowd when he went down with an apparent hand injury in the second quarter during the Eagles' first scoring drive. The crowd at the Linc clearly felt he was faking the injury in an attempt to slow up the Eagles' tempo offense.

-- The costly drop by rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews on the Eagles' second scoring drive in the second quarter. It stalled the drive and the Eagles ultimately had to settle for a Cody Parkey field goal.

On Twitter: @Pdomo