Eagle Eye: Eagles-Cowboys predictions
Tony Romo completed 41 of 53 passes for 487 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles in 2012. (USA Today Images)
For all the offseason talk about new Cowboys offensive coordinator (and playcaller) Bill Callahan balancing the offense and straying from his pass-happy roots, the Dallas running game has taken a backseat to Tony Romo and the passing game.
Which, for the Cowboys, hasn’t necessarily been a problem.
They enter Sunday’s showdown against the Eagles at the Linc toting the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense, averaging 30.5 points per game. They've scored 82 points in their last two games.
But this isn’t a perfect Cowboys offense and their scheme isn’t nearly as diverse as the high-powered Broncos attack that broke down the Eagles’ defense in Week 4. Special teams has really helped the Cowboys' field position, and despite the gaudy point totals, Dallas has the league’s 13th-ranked offense in total yards and 11th-ranked third-down percentage. In their past two road games, the Cowboys have scored 21 points and 16 points, respectively, and totaled just three offensive touchdowns.
Outside of a 194-yard rushing effort against the Rams in Week 3, the Cowboys haven’t shown much dedication to the run. Making matters worse, they lost fragile running back DeMarco Murray to a knee injury Sunday night against the Cowboys and there’s a better-than-good chance that Murray won’t play, leaving the running game in the hands of rookie Joseph Randle, a fifth-round pick who’s nowhere near Murray’s level. Randle gained just 17 yards on 11 carries after Murray went out against the Redskins.
But the Cowboys are still prolific because they have two receivers who have to be accounted for on every snap -- wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten. And because Romo is playing the best football of his life.
Romo, who has always been accurate, is completing 70.2 percent of his passes, well above his career average of 65.1. Turnovers are always his problem, but he’s thrown just three interceptions this year, which puts him on pace for around nine after tossing a career-most 19 last year.
Romo has always had problems under duress, but the Cowboys improved their offensive line. They moved former first-round pick Tyron Smith from right tackle to left, moved Doug Free to right tackle, drafted center Travis Frederick in the first round and coaxed six-time Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters out of retirement. Frederick was a reach in the first round, but he’s improved since the season opener. Waters isn’t an elite guard anymore but he’s better than what the Cowboys had. Free has ups and downs but is much better suited on the right side. Smith, who has boundless athleticism, is maturing into one of the game’s elite left tackles.
Romo has still been sacked 14 times, but he’s getting rid of the ball much quicker and capitalizing on open space across the middle as teams double-cover Bryant (34-for-459) and pay close attention to Witten (31-for-340). So far, the Cowboys have thrived off intermediary routes and moved the chains with several long drives over quick strikes. Eight QBs with at least 10 pass attempts have a higher yards-per-attempt average than Romo (7.8).
But in last Sunday’s game against the Redskins, Romo passed for just 170 yards, threw an interception and another couple balls under pressure that he was lucky to not have picked off. He can still be the guy who will make those one or two bad throws when the pass rush barrels down on him.
The Eagles have spent the past three weeks playing deep coverages and giving up the middle to limit big plays downfield. They could afford to yield yards to Giants tight end Brandon Myers (who didn’t kill them) and Bucs tight end Tim Wright (who did), but they can’t play that way against Witten, who in 19 games against the Eagles has seven touchdowns and four 100-yard efforts.
Inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, who were active in the “A” gaps last Sunday against Tampa as run stoppers and pass rushers, will have to be used differently this week. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis might be limited in how frequently he can dial up five-man and six-man rushes and leave his defensive backs in single coverage.
The Eagles need defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton to replicate their performance against the Bucs. Cox’s quickness should help him win battles against Waters and first-year left guard Ronald Leary, who’s the weak spot on Dallas’ line. Thornton has been winning battles when lined up over center and should be a handful for the rookie Frederick. Vinny Curry logged more snaps last week against the Bucs and continued to play well. He could be a real factor in pressuring Romo.
The Cowboys go back and forth between “12 personnel” (two receivers, two tight ends) and “11 personnel” (three receivers, one tight end). On short-yardage, they go with an extra tackle (Jeremy Parnell) and use reserve linebacker Kyle Bosworth as a lead blocker.
Bryant, who leads the NFC with six touchdown catches, moves around but mainly lines up right side, which will match him against against left cornerback Bradley Fletcher. Teams have tested Fletcher, who’s one of the league’s top targeted corners, but Fletcher is also among the league’s best at breaking up passes.
On the other side, right cornerback Cary Williams will see plenty of rookie Terrance Willams, who has 18 receptions for 309 yards and two TDs. He averages more than 17 yards per catch. Miles Austin was once a very promsing wideout, but he’s always nursing injuries and is again battling hamstring tightness. He sees most of his action in the slot.
The X-factor is receiver Dwayne Harris, a 5-foot-10 speed demon who has become one of the league’s most dangerous returners. He racked up 222 yards in punt and kick returns against the Redskins, including an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown. He’s averaging an NFL-best 23.6 yards per punt return and almost 35 yards per kickoff return, third-best among those with at least five returns.