Monday, November 02, 2009

Eagles turn to Cowboys

By Bob Brookover

Having disposed of the New York Giants in most convincing fashion, the Eagles turned their attention yesterday to the Dallas Cowboys, their other bitter NFC East rival who will be at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday night for a nationally televised game.

In the ever-changing NFL, the Cowboys appeared to be the lesser of the Eagles' two rivals a few weeks ago when they lost at Denver to fall to 2-2 while the Giants raced to a 5-0 start.

Now, it's the Giants who are reeling after three straight losses and the Cowboys who appear to present the biggest challenge to the Eagles' quest for their sixth division title in the last nine seasons. The Cowboys, 5-2, have won three straight and are tied for first place with the Eagles.

"I think they're playing aggressive," Eagles coach Andy Reid said the day after his team's 40-17 demolition of the Giants. "I think their offensive line and defensive line are playing physical football. They're giving [quarterback] Tony [Romo] time to get back there and throw and then match it with a good running game."

The last time the Cowboys came to town, they were in need of a victory for the NFC's final playoff spot and instead received a 44-6 season-ending beating that allowed the Eagles to make a postseason run to the NFC championship game.

This Dallas team isn't the same as that Dallas team and Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said that may be why it has taken the Cowboys some time to hit their stride.

"This is an outsider looking in, but it seems like the makeup of their team has changed and now they seem to be getting comfortable in terms of the different roles each player has on that team, at least offensively speaking," McDermott said. "We're in Week 8 and they seem to be rolling on all cylinders."

It's an interesting point, because the Eagles, on both offense and defense, may be experiencing that same sort of growth as the season heads toward the second half. Both teams made some major changes and in an era when the preseason has become more about protecting players from injury than getting them ready to play in the regular season, it is only natural that it takes some time for teams to get in sync.

"Each week that goes by, people kind of get a feel for where they fit into the scheme and their role on that team," McDermott said. "You see the chemistry start to develop both on the field and off the field."

The Cowboys' most publicized change, of course, was the departure of Terrell Owens, the polarizing wide receiver who shuffled off to Buffalo after three seasons without a playoff victory in Dallas.

Roy Williams, acquired in the middle of last season, was the leading candidate to become the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver, but that role has instead gone to Miles Austin, who is 10th in the NFL with 563 receiving yards, thanks in large part to a 250-yard game three weeks ago against Kansas City.

"Just facing him over the years, I always had a lot of respect for the way he played the game," McDermott said of Austin. "His skill set is number one. He's a very fast receiver and then the way he approaches the game. He always plays hard-nosed football. You would see it when he played special teams as a returner and he was a guy who when he came into the game on offense, we always had to be aware of him."

Austin, since taking advantage of a Williams injury to move into the Cowboys' starting lineup three games ago, has 21 catches for 482 yards and five touchdowns.

The Cowboys, who rank second in the NFL on offense, have a lot of their same weapons in place. Romo has overcome a slow start to throw eight touchdowns without an interception in the Cowboys' last three games.

Marion Barber remains the featured back, but Felix Jones, who is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, and Tashard Choice give the Cowboys a dangerous trio at running back. And, of course, tight end Jason Witten has always given the Eagles and a lot of other NFL teams a difficult time.

Reid said defensively the Cowboys are blitzing more with head coach Wade Phillips calling the signals.

"They're blitzing from all over the place," Reid said. "They're utilizing everybody there."

Perhaps, but the defense has definitely been the weaker link for the Cowboys through seven games. Despite having DeMarcus Ware, who led the league in sacks last season, the Cowboys have forced just nine turnovers and they've allowed 12 touchdown passes, tied for eighth most in the league.