The Eagles present the speediest opponent on the Cowboys schedule. They’ve drafted skill position sprinters that can stretch a defense laterally and vertically — DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin at the wideout spot, LeSean McCoy at running back. The addition of the fleet Michael Vick at quarterback means that blizing is a risky proposition for an opposing defensive coordinator. If his rushers hit their target, a negative play will result, but a blown assignment or a whiffed tackle will turn one or more of these burners free into your secondary, without safety help.
Ryan called a game to his reputation in late October, rushing his inside linebackers, strong safety and slot corner frequently in the early series to destabilize Vick. Ryan trusted his secondary to mark Maclin and Jackson until the pressure could get home. He knew Andy Reid and his OC Marty Morhinweg liked to run boot action and straight drops and throw deep to the receivers early. He planned on taking these deep throws away and forcing the Eagles to play a shorter game.
The Eagles passed up the head-to-head challenge, and got their big plays on the ground, courtesy of a counter run that destroyed interim DC Paul Pasqualoni in Philly’s 30-27 win last season. The Eagles’ use different nomenclature, but it’s a play familiar to Cowboys fans — in Dallas’ playbook it goes by bend x.
It’s a counter trap, run off a wing formation, or what the Eagles call trey. It puts both tight ends on one side of the line of scrimmage, creating an overload:
Here the Eagles run it from a tight set, putting F-back Clay Harbour (82) and TE Brent Celek (behind Harbour) on the right, with WR Jason Avant in a tight set.
A pet Eagles run from trey is boom, an outside zone run behind the power on the right edge. Dallas hasn’t overshifted heavily, but they’ve cheated a safety up to the double-tight side, putting eight men in the box. The Eagles line is all blocking towards their right, giving the play the initial look of a stretch play. Michael Vick has pulled from center and is presenting the ball to his right. On first glance, this is boom 14 right.
Harbour tips off something else. he’s pulling right-to-left. His target is DeMarcus Ware. The edge man on the line of scrimmage is Harbour’s responsibility. He’s supposed to kick that edge defender wide, so McCoy can run in the seam between him and left tackle Jason Peters (71) who has an angle block on the defensive end inside of him.
Defending this play depends on Ware and the DE holding their points, letting the inside linebacker and safety to their side flow to the ball carrier.
That will work if your defense is playing a softer, more disciplined front. Ryan had his front selling out to the plays power. Look at the inside linebackers and the linemen. All of them have slanted to the strong side, to the Eagles right. Jay Ratliff has blown past center Jason Kelce and would have blown up McCoy — were the play going that way. Both inside linebackers are also charging to the right edge. McCoy, however, has bent his run back to the right, where Marcus Spears has ridden himself out of the play with a charge to the strong-side. The LT Peters simply has to help him further along that path. The safety on that side of the field is the only one between McCoy and the end zone:
Gerald Sensabaugh cut off McCoy’s angle to the sideline, but good receiver blocking and a sharp cutback got McCoy inside the Cowboys five.
Many of the Eagles big plays came courtesy of heavy slants. The Cowboys defense went after big plays and frequently ran themselves out of the action. The Eagles had Ryan’s tendencies and beat him with simple runs away from his called charges.
It’s easy to say the Cowboys need to be more basic and more disciplined, but the Eagles will try running the straight boom and outflanking the D if the Cowboys front starts looking for counter. If Ware plays the edge run, Vick can call a play action and look down the field. In the 2010 game, Harbour let Ware go and proceeded into the left flat, where he caught a Vick bootleg pass.
Jason Garrett has had a lot of success in recent Cowboys wins pulling the quick-reacting Eagles linebackers with overload and misdirections, reverses and screens backside, once the fronts have over-committed.
The Eagles have had even more success with the same philosophy. It’s hard to temper your aggression, however, when McCoy has so much edge speed. If you’re slow in pursuit, he’ll simply out-run you to the sideline and keep going.
Ryan’s adjustments will be interesting to track. His aggression hurt his defenders badly in the first game. How will he respond this time? There’s no easy answer. Speed kills, in more ways than one.