1. When looking at the Cowboys’ offense, you’ll notice many of the same issues that have plagued the Eagles in the last year and a half. Dallas is sixth in yards per game (382.5), tied for eighth in yards per play (5.8), and Football Outsiders has them ranked 11th. Yet the Cowboys are averaging just 18.8 points per game, tied for 25th. The reasons? Turnovers and failures in the red zone. The Eagles, meanwhile, rank 19th in scoring defense, allowing 22.9 points per game. Football Outsiders has them ranked 14th – 13th against the pass and 11th against the run. The Eagles are coming off two bad defensive performances against the Saints and Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a 13-point outing Sunday night against Atlanta.
2. Now, back to the turnovers. Dallas has given the ball away on 20.2 percent of its offensive drives (per Football Outsiders), second-most in the league to the Chiefs (28.7 percent) and slightly worse than the Eagles (20.0 percent). Tony Romo leads the NFL with 13 interceptions, which is three more than he had all of last year. When he’s not turning it over, Romo’s been pretty good. He’s completing 66.4 percent of his passes (seventh) and is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt (tied for ninth). Romo has 26 pass plays of 20+ yards (tied for 13th). The Eagles, meanwhile, have created just 10 turnovers all season (26th). The last two weeks have not been good, as Matt Ryan and Drew Brees completed 76.8 percent of their attempts against Todd Bowles’ unit. Overall, the Eagles rank seventh in opponents’ completion percentage (57.4) and tied for 10th in yards per attempt (6.8).
3. The run game hasn’t been much of a factor for the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray is out, meaning Felix Jones will carry the load. Jones is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, and Dallas is averaging 3.6 yards per carry as a team, tied for 31st. They haven’t been trying to run the ball much with just 23.4 attempts per game. Last week, the Saints ran all over the Eagles (25 times for 140 yards, 5.6 YPC). The linebackers didn’t do a good enough job of getting off blocks, and missed tackles have been an issue all around.
4. Jason Witten leads the team in receptions (58) and targets (81). He’s averaging a career-best 7.3 catches per game. The Eagles have gotten worse at covering tight ends this year. In 2011, they ranked fourth, according to Football Outsiders. Through eight games this season, they rank 17th. Part of the reason is Nnamdi Asomugha hasn’t been used a lot on tight ends in 2012. He was a factor in keeping Witten in check (eight catches, 52 yards in two games) last season. We’ll see if he gets a shot at him on Sunday.
5. The Cowboys offensive line features Tyron Smith (LT), Nate Livings (LG), Ryan Cook (center), Mackenzy Bernadeau (RG) and Doug Free (RT). Smith, a 2011 first-round pick, will get matched up against Trent Cole. Cole’s had a disappointing season, but he was active against the Saints with three hurries and a season-high seven tackles. Jason Babin and Brandon Graham will line up opposite Free. Babin had one of his more active games vs. New Orleans, with a sack/forced fumble and a pair of hurries. Graham had a sack/forced fumble last week too. According to reports, the Eagles pursued Free in free agency in 2011, but he re-signed with Dallas. The right tackle has struggled this season and is tied for the league-lead among tackles with 10 penalties, per PFF. Smith’s not far behind with nine. As a team, the Cowboys have only allowed 14 sacks on the season.
6. Miles Austin battled an injury-plagued 2011 season but is playing well so far this year, averaging 79.6 receiving yards per game and 15.5 yards per reception. He’s fifth in the league with 11 catches of 20+ yards. Austin lines up in the slot 70 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus, meaning rookie Brandon Boykin has a tough task ahead. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will likely also get a shot at Austin. He got off to a strong start this season, but has fizzled. Rodgers-Cromartie leads all cornerbacks with eight penalties and at times looks like he has no interest in trying to get off blocks. Dez Bryant has 42 catches for 503 yards. He’ll likely see a lot of Asomugha. Kevin Ogletree’s played 52.2 percent of the snaps. He has 24 catches for 344 yards.
7. When the Eagles promoted Bowles, some thought he’d blitz more, but that hasn’t really been the case. And when he’s dialed up extra pressure, the results have not been good. Ryan and Brees were 9-for-11 for 111 yards (one sack) against the Eagles’ blitz. Part of that is on Bowles, but part of it is on the players for failing to execute. For example, one blitz last week freed Cole up for a shot at the quarterback, but he got juked by Brees, and the result was a big play to Lance Moore. Those are the kinds of things Bowles is referring to when he says the players are in position to make things happen. Romo, meanwhile, is completing 65.3 percent of his passes against the blitz. Given Dallas’ weapons in the passing game, I wouldn’t expect to see Bowles blitz a lot Sunday afternoon.
8. Romo’s improvisation can lead to turnovers, but it can also lead to big plays. I’m talking about the plays that cause announcers to make statements like, “This guy’s just having fun out there!” For example, last week against the Falcons, Asante Samuel initially had good coverage on Ogletree in the end zone.
By my count, Romo had the ball in his hands for about 5.7 seconds. It’s pretty much impossible to cover for that long. The defensive backs need to be disciplined when Romo improvises, but more importantly, the Eagles linemen need to finish when given the opportunity, something they have not done all season.
9. Play-action has given the Eagles problems all season long. Part of the reason why is that the safeties have responsibilities in the run game. The Birds get Nate Allen back this week after he was sidelined against the Saints. And while they’ll still need to avoid big gains off play-action, they probably won’t see a lot of those throws. Romo’s only run play-action 9.2 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus, the lowest percentage of any starting quarterback in the league.
10. The Cowboys rank 27th in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns 44 percent of the time. The Eagles’ defense is fourth, allowing touchdowns 40.7 percent of the time. …Dallas is ninth in third-down success, converting 42.6 percent of the time. The Eagles are sixth in third-down defense, allowing conversions 34.7 percent of the time. …Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will call the game for Fox.