Big huge mountain sized game for the Pokes tonight when they face arch rival Philadelphia for a third time this season.
The tale of both games ended up being the unmitigated dominance the Cowboy's rush defense enjoyed against the Eagles, holding the battery chuckers to under 3.7 yards per carry on the ground in both games. It's a constant both teams will be able to hang their hat on going into tonight's battle at Jerry's World. With that fundamental premise in mind here are some keys to the game determining how this one shakes out.
The Beating a Team 3 Times Psychology
First off, the cliche that it is tough to beat a team 3 times in one season isn't even accurate enough to be considered a cliche because the numbers don't support it. The 2-0 team is something like 12-7 in this same scenario. In this year's example, the Cowboys can hang their hat on the fact they have physically dominated and imposed their will on the Eagles on both sides of the ball. Physical dominance isn't something that can be easily trumped by psychology. If a guy in front of you can consistently whip your ass because he's bigger, stronger, and more talented, the laws of physics aren't going to take a back seat to some sort of overconfidence or "due" factor. Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode are going to continue to shove the interior of the Eagles smallish defensive line off the ball, and the Eagles linebackers will continue to have their pursuit angles cut off by the trash created by this push two yards off the line of scrimmage. On the other side of the ball, is the next key.
Who's Nick Cole? Exactly. Answering the non-rhetorical aspect of this question, Nick Cole is the back up center for the Philadelphia Eagles. He's responsible for handling snaps, protections, and, oh by the way, Jay Ratliff, the Pro Bowl nose guard for the Dallas Cowboys. If we've established the likelihood that the Eagles can't run the football, then that means Ratliff can pin his ears back and go around, over, and through Cole on his way to McNabb. I know it, you know it, and in a meth lab somewhere, Andy Reid's kids know it. Which means the Eagles will have to give help to Cole in a rob Peter to pay Paul exercise in pass protection. Anthony Spencer and Demarcus Ware will be the beneficiaries.
The Eagles can't sit back in zone and allow the Cowboys to run the ball down hill. Look for slants and games by the Dline to counter the Cowboys strength advantage along the line of scrimmage, but more importantly, the Eagles will have to run blitz behind their line movement with safeties and linebackers to account for the extra running lanes this strategy is vulnerable to. The Cowboys will have to play backwards at times, doing things to counter the blitz by throwing on first down with max protection, wide receiver screens, and draws. On obvious passing downs like third and long, Tony Romo needs to take his medicine by throwing the ball away so his team can punt and play defense. Make no mistake, the Eagles will have to play aggressive or they're toast. They'll make big plays available if the Cowboys pick their spots.
Alligator Arms and Injuries
Deshaun Jackson and Jeremy Maclin may be the fastest pair of wide receivers in the NFL. They're also undoubtedly the smallest. The Cowboys must do a good job of hitting these cats every time they catch the ball, which means keeping them in front or keeping Hamlin and Sensabaugh over the top. Why is this so important? First Jeremy Maclin is a complete pussy when it comes to contact. I got a huge belly laugh with a continuous rewind of a Maclin play in last week's game, where the rookie eyeballed Ken Hamlin for a full five steps on a Go route before the football bounced harmlessly off of Jeremy Maclin's chest, anti-climatically landing in the endzone. I have never seen a play like it. I've seen alligator arms, but this was the most cowardly example I can remember. And Maclin's entire game of drops and pussing out was a prologue to this side-splitter. As for Jackson, the dude can't be healthy after pulling a groin last weekend. His whole game is speed and if he's got a groin issue I take away straight line routes and make him run honest to goodness pass catching routes that lead to contact. The Cowboys need to hit these guys early and get into their heads. Maclin's looking for a reason to quit and if Jackson is indeed hurt, he won't be far behind.
Overall, if the Cowboys play even in the turnover category, they'll win. They're a better team and have proved that fact in the last two ball games outclassing Philadelphia from a physical standpoint. Unless Leonard Davis and Marcus Spears have gone on the Subway diet, I don't suspect that will change tonight.