Eagles and Cowboys Battle With Quarterback Protection at a Premium
The Eagles need to protect Michael Vick against the exotic blitzing schemes of the Cowboys.
The Philadelphia Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys tonight at 8:20 p.m. in another pivotal NFC East game. Philadelphia can ill-afford a loss after a 1-4 start left it scrambling to get back into the hunt and a 20-13 win two weeks ago at Washington provided a measure of renewed hope. The Eagles, coming off of their bye week, now have an extra week of rest on the Cowboys and Andy Reid is 12-0 after the off week in the regular season. The Cowboys are fresh off of a 34-7 victory over the winless Rams.
While the rivalry is familiar, with this being the 105th all-time meeting including the playoffs, this season brings change as it’s Jason Garrett’s first full season at the helm in Dallas and Rob Ryan’s first year running the Cowboys’ defense. While Dallas still primarily runs a 3-4 front, it’s a far cry from Wade Phillips’ version.
“Obviously, [Rob Ryan's] flavor is put on that defense,” said Reid. “He uses a lot of different personnel groups, and moves people around, and blitzes, fire zones. He’s got the whole works there, it’s an aggressive package.”
Dallas’s top defensive weapon is DeMarcus Ware, who leads the team and sits second in the NFL with eight sacks. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound pass rusher has caused problems for the Birds in the past. In 12 games against the Eagles, Ware has 9.5 sacks.
“They move him all over the place, inside, outside,” said Reid. “He’s one of the best in the business. Again, tremendous athlete, football player.”
By shifting Ware around before the snap, the Cowboys can try to gain favorable matchups for their best pass rusher. At times, Ware may end up blocked by a tight end or running back, like LeSean McCoy, who has high praise for his opponent.
“He’s probably the best player, physically, in the league,” said McCoy. ”He’s surely talented, athletic, big, strong, smart, he’s all around one of the better players.”
He’s not the only Cowboys defender that gives the Eagles fits by getting to the quarterback, though. Jay Ratliff, a 6-foot-4, 287-pound nose tackle, has 6.5 sacks in nine games against the Eagles. Ratliff has gotten to the quarterback nearly three times as often against the Birds as opposed to the rest of his opponents. Tonight he’ll line up over rookie center Jason Kelce.
“I do think that I match up pretty well against Jay, seeing him from film, we’re both athletic guys [in] the interior,” said Kelce. ”He’s a smaller, undersized nose tackle. I’m a smaller undersized center. So it’s really just going to be athleticism versus athleticism, so I’m looking forward to the matchup.”
In addition to the physical matchups, the Eagles have the mental challenge of trying to identify pass rushers before the snap if Ryan resorts to some of his more unorthodox tactics. In the past, Ryan has occasionally lined his defense up with zero, one or two down lineman and numerous other defenders walking up to the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. It will fall on the Eagles, and largely Michael Vick, to figure out who is coming and adjust the play and the blocking schemes to create good protection. Seven of Vick’s eight interceptions this year have come against the blitz.
“I think we have a pretty good feel of what they’re trying to do,” said Vick. “We’ve seen these looks before. They get some different things here and there, but I think for the most part we’re comfortable picking everything up.”
It won’t hurt that left tackle Jason Peters is back in the lineup after missing two games with a hamstring strain, allowing the Eagles to line up with what they believe are their five best offensive lineman: Peters, Evan Mathis, Kelce, Danny Watkins and Todd Herremans. The Birds get a boost on the defensive line as well, with Trent Cole returning after a two game absence because of a calf strain.
“I want to be there for my team,” Cole said. “I might be a little banged up, but I still got the heart of the lion and I’m coming this Sunday. If I hurt a lot, it don’t matter, I’m bringing as much as I can. If I’ve got to bring it one half and have to come out for the rest, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”
In the first three games of the season, with Cole in the lineup, the Eagles racked up 12 sacks. The defensive end was knocked out in week four, and the Eagles managed just six total sacks in weeks four, five and six. Not only does Cole’s return shift the matchups, it helps keep the rest of his fellow pass rushers fresh.
“Oh it’s going to be huge,” said Jason Babin who leads the team with seven sacks. “I know personally the bye week for me couldn’t of come at a better time because I was just worn out, you know? I had to kind of pick up the slack because we had some guys dinged up and it’s tough, week to week, you know playing that many snaps. I’m super excited to get those guys back.”
Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker are also closer to 100 percent, as they have been playing through nagging injuries. The Eagles pass rush will be critical against a Cowboys team that ranks fourth in the NFL in passing offense. Even if Dallas follows the trend of the season and tests the Eagles rushing defense early, expect them to resort to the pass more often than in years past.
Getting pressure on Tony Romo could be key. While the signal caller comes off a win over the Rams in which he threw a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions, he’s had his struggles as well. In the three prior weeks, Romo tossed four touchdowns and five interceptions. In eight career games against the Eagles, Romo has thrown for 1,793 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while losing three fumbles.
The Eagles know all too well the importance of turnovers in the NFL. When they’ve won or tied in the turnover battle this year, the Eagles are 2-0. When they’ve lost, they’re 0-4. So at the end of the night, it might really be as simple as protecting Vick, pressuring Romo and letting the turnovers take care of themselves as a result.
While the Eagles are 12-0 coming out of the bye week under Andy Reid, they’ve also lost five straight home games.
The Eagles have lost four of their last five games against the Cowboys.
The Eagles have started three different quarterbacks in their last three games against the Cowboys: Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb.
Eagles Injury Report
Probable: Safety Nate Allen (knee), defensive end Trent Cole (calf), defensive end Darryl Tapp (pectoral), defensive end Juqua Parker (ankle), tackle Jason Peters (hamstring), tackle King Dunlap (back) and tackle Winston Justice (knee)
Cowboys Injury Report
Probable: Quarterback Tony Romo (ribs), safety Barry Church (shoulder), kicker David Buehler (groin), punter Mat McBriar (foot).
Questionable: Guard Derrick Dockery (knee), guard Kyle Kosier (foot) and defensive end Jason Hatcher (calf).
Out: Running back Felix Jones (ankle).
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