Five on the Desperate Cowboys
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) – You can make a strong argument that the first 2015 meeting between the Eagles and Cowboys was the low point for each team.
Rod Marinelli's game plan to slant and penetrate with his defensive front exposed Chip Kelly's offensive scheme and Philadelphia rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks knocked Tony Romo out of the contest with a broken clavicle.
Dallas won the battle 20-10 but may have lost the war because the 'Boys haven't won since, while making the move away from original backup Brandon Weeden to recently acquired veteran Matt Cassel at the game's most important position.
Sunday night's rematch in North Texas may be the last stand for a Cowboys team which would be the prohibitive favorite in the moribund NFC East with a healthy Romo and Dez Bryant.
Bryant, who has been out since suffering a Jones fracture in his foot during a Week 1 encounter with the New York Giants, was able to return last week but clearly wasn't his dynamic self against Seattle. The hope is Romo can be back by Week 11, probably an optimistic timetable if anything.
"(Bryant is) obviously just getting back, but he's as talented a receiver as we're going to face," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "So you have to be aware of where he is at all times. Most of the time, (he and tight end Jason Witten) are on opposite sides of the field, so it makes it difficult to double both of those guys."
Whenever Romo returns, however, it might be moot unless Dallas can garner a win or two before and the Eagles can go a long way in rendering the Cowboys irrelevant by dumping them Sunday night in Jerry's Palace outside Dallas.
The 'Boys are now 2-5 after dropping their fifth straight since topping the Eagles (3-4) at Lincoln Financial Field, by falling 13-12 to the Seahawks last weekend.
"We're 2-5, we've got to live with that," Bryant said. "But I'm going to continue to keep saying it's not over."
The Eagles can emphatically state that it is over.
"We just want to win," cornerback Byron Maxwell countered. "It's about time we get this rolling and get it going in the right direction. We need a winning streak. This is the first one. We have to start here. They're just in the way."
CASSEL IN COMMAND?
Cassel was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills for future draft picks on Sept. 22 following the injury to Romo and was inactive for his first two games in Dallas before taking over as the backup against New England before the team's bye week.
The extra time prompted Jason Garrett to make the move and the veteran has been the guy in the team's past two setbacks. Cassel completed 17-of-27 passes for 227 yards with one touchdown with three interceptions against a bad Giants defense, and then connected on 13-of-25 for just 97 yards with no TDs nor picks against a great defense in Seattle.
While he's never been anything special, Cassel has started 74 NFL games and put together double-digit win seasons with both New England and Kansas City at one time. He's at least a competent game manager, who is able to distribute the football. The real trouble with Cassel is when he is playing from behind because the Southern Cal product doesn't have the arm talent to push the football down the field or fit it into tight windows.
"The one thing that stands out with him that’s a little bit different is his ability to run," Kelly said when discussing Cassel. "I think he had over 40 yards rushing this past Sunday. So you've got a guy who is not only an accurate passer, (but) when things break down, he can make things happen with his feet. So he's a little bit different than some of the other guys that we face.
"So you have to take that into account in terms of his -- They don't have any designed runs, it's not like going against Cam (Panthers QB Cam Newton) where you're going to see zone-read or quarterback power or anything like that -- but if guys are covered and you're in coverage and you have your back turned to the quarterback because you're in man coverage, there is the ability for (Cassel) to pull it down and run. With some guys that's not a big deal and in other guys it is a big deal, and we have to be real conscious of that."
DEMARCO PART DEUX
Dallas held the Eagles to season lows of seven yards rushing and 226 total yards in the first encounter and also was whitewashing Philadelphia until the fourth quarter.
In his first game against his old teammates DeMarco Murray mustered two of those paltry seven rushing yards on 13 carries. The aforementioned slanting of the front generated penetration again and again, resulting in negative plays and keeping the Eagles behind the sticks.
That has to stop this time and if anything the Cowboys are better up front because Greg Hardy was suspended in the first game.
"They do it a lot," right guard Matt Tobin told 973espn.com when asked about all the slanting up front in the first game. "They may have bumped it up a little but it's Tampa-2, they want to do that against every team they play."
Kelly agrees with that assessment.
"Yeah, (Cowboys Defensive Coordinator) Rod (Marinelli) does the same thing against everybody," the coach claimed. "He's very consistent in what he does, and they do it very well."
Since that game Philadelphia's offensive line has steadied itself but All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters has not been able to practice this week and that will cause a domino effect with Lane Johnson flipping sides and Dennis Kelly handling right tackle.
Murray, meanwhile, who had over 1,800 yards as the rushing champion in Dallas last season, has slowly started to pick things up himself and has averaged 74.0 yards per game over the last four encounters.
“If JP (Peters) can go on Sunday, I’ll go back to right (tackle),” Johnson said. “If he can’t, then I’ll play left.”
As a whole the Eagles went from a NFL worst 35.0 rushing yards per contest over the first two games to over 146 per game since, although a lot of that production can be attributed to backup Ryan Mathews, who also missed practice Thursday with a groin injury.
"It takes a village," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "You've got to play all the running backs when you're running the ball like we want to."
MEAT ON THAT BONE
Murray surely hasn't been what the Eagles had hoped for but then again the Cowboys haven't been able to replace him despite the fact they still have the best run-blocking offensive line in football.
Joseph Randle was supposed to be the guy and he made the laughable "Murray left meat on the bone" comment in the offseason. Randle, on the other hand, left the entire chicken intact when he was waived this week due to some serious personal issues.
Instead veteran Darren McFadden has taken over the lead role and while Dallas' running game has still been effective, ranking sixth in the NFL at 127.9 yards per game, it's a far cry from what it was last season when Murray was the NFL's rushing king and a serious MVP candidate.
BEWARE OF THE KRAKEN
He may be a horrible human being but Hardy can sure play football. As people who attended the Eagles' first open practice at Lincoln Financial Field in the preseason know, Hardy promised that “sacks are coming” and he's lived up to that after serving a four-game suspension.
The former Carolina star has three sacks in three games and his athleticism off the edge and versatility to line up and down the line of scrimmage has got the Eagles' attention.
"He's had three sacks, had an interception and he's forced a fumble, so he's obviously been very impactful in the three games he's been back." Kelly said. "You have to know where he is. They line him up in multiple spots, but he's been very productive for them in the three games that he has played."
Having Peters would certainly help because if Dennis Kelly is forced to play right tackle, which looks more and more likely, you can bet he is going to see Hardy in some key pass-rushing situations.
"Hardy is a good player, a strong player and an explosive guy," Tobin admitted. "We will all have to block him at some point (in the game). You just need to do your job and play sound technique."
STOP THE DROPS
What has been the biggest problem with the Eagles offense?
Take it away coach ...
"Missed opportunities, drops," Kelly said. "We've dropped too many balls."
The Eagles lead the entire NFL in dropped passes, a reality that has hampered the team on the most important down in football. Philadelphia has converted just 31.9 percent of the time on third downs, 29th in all of football.
"We have a lot to work on and we're all confident we're going to find the answers," tight end Zach Ertz said. "We have a chance to get things right against a great defense. We're all up for the challenge."
The Cowboys have a top-10 defense but the strength is up front with Hardy and weakside linebacker Sean Lee leading the way. The secondary has missed its best cover cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, who tore an ACL in the preseason, and the ability for the Eagles to make plays on the back end should present itself on at least a few occasions.
973espn.com prediction: A desperate team is supposed to be the most dangerous but a desperate bunch without a quarterback? Make it six losses in a row for the 'Boys. Eagles 23, Cowboys 21
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.