Friday, January 8, 2010

2010 NFL Wildcard Playoff Preview, Part 2: Eagles at Cowboys

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Favorite: Cowboys (67.8%)

Team Efficiency
(Using FO's Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)):

Eagles: 20.6% (7th)... Offense DVOA: 13.3% (10th)... Defense: -11.0% (6th)... Special: 4.3% (2nd)
Cowboys: 31.2% (3rd)... Offense DVOA: 24.2% (3rd)... Defense: -0.7% (10th)... Special: 1.0% (14th)

This is arguably the best Wildcard game of the weekend, with two of the NFL's top teams in efficiency squaring off. Like the Jets-Bengals matchup, the Eagles and Cowboys met in Week 17, with the Eagles laying a goose egg in a 24-0 loss. Unlike the Bengals, the Eagles did have a bit at stake: A win would have given them home field during Wild Card Weekend, but now they're relegated to traveling to Dallas for the rematch. They laid their egg in Week 17 with no help from the running game, managing 37 yards total, while the Cowboys got 91 yards apiece from Marion Barber III and Felix Jones as the Eagles rang up 474 yards on one of the Cowboys' weaknesses: the defense.

The Cowboys not only have a home field edge but have the momentum following the rout. While the Eagles have a powerful offense led by Donovan McNabb with plenty of support from receiver DeSean Jackson, the Cowboys (when they haven't turned the ball over) have one of the league's most efficient offenses led by talented but turnover prone Tony Romo, with minimal but productive help from a deep, powerful running game. Other than the momentum factor, I'll ignore week 17's results in this analysis, as a) Philly may have packed it in effort-wise once they fell behind and a) in taking the loss Philly will likely make adjustments and be better prepared for the wildcard game.

Team and player rankings are below. According to Football Outsiders, DYAR indicates a player's total value to his team. DVOA indicates a player's value per play.

Every player listed will come with a grade based on the NFL Average per Football Outsiders' DVOA rating. Average is considered 70% on an academic grading scale, equal to a C. If your DVOA or relative ranking is below average, you'll get a D or an F. Even if it's above average, if your DVOA isn't far enough above average you may still get a C or C+, but a B or A is possible. A B requires a DVOA of at least 14.3% (80 is 114.3% of 70, or 14.3% above average) and an A requires a DVOA of 28.6% or higher. Getting an F takes a DVOA of -15.0% or worse.

Eagles Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 1.97 (B-)
Drive Success Rate: .665 (C)
Turnovers per: .107 (B)

Offense Line Run Blocking: B
Left End: C
Interior: C
RT: C+
Right End: C
Pass Protection: C

QB: Donovan McNabb: B- (Rushing: A)
Wildcat: Michael Vick: D+ (Rushing: C)
RB: LeShon McCoy: C- (Receiving: D)
FB: Leonard Weaver: A (Receiving: C)
RB: Brian Westbrook: B- (Receiving: C)

WR: DeSean Jackson: B (Running plays: A+)
WR: Jason Avant: A-
WR: Jeremy Maclin: B-
WR: Kevin Curtis: F
WR: Reggie Brown: F
TE: Brent Celek: B+

When healthy, Brian Westbrook is an excellent open field runner, and good thing too, because aside from off left tackle the Eagles have struggled to run behind their offensive line. I'd be quicker to credit LT Jason Peters if the line wasn't also average in allowing sacks. Though Leonard Weaver is one of the league's best blocking fullbacks, he has also emerged as an excellent rushing threat in his own right. As much as coach Andy Reid has tried to utilize Michael Vick, aside from his arm strength and ability to scramble Vick has minimal value aside from the Wildcat's change of pace aspect.

The Eagles are loaded at wide receiver and if not for Weaver's abilities the Eagles could get by with a three wide set utilizing their three talented receivers, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin with talented playmaking tight end Brent Celek. Trying to keep these talented receivers all involved is a challenge most coaches would love to have.

One knock on Philly is that their 2009 schedule was a bit weak, especially once the division rival Giants collapsed down the stretch. Road games with talented but struggling Atlanta, the fading Chicago Bears and a home game with the collapsing Denver Broncos also helped their cause. Starting the year with stumblers like Carolina and Tampa Bay also helped them pile on and find their rhythm early. Punctuating their Week 17 goose egg vs Dallas is the fact that Dallas was easily the best team the Eagles faced since their Week 10 loss to AFC powerhouse San Diego. Sagarin ratings show that Philly's 0-4 vs teams ranked in the system's top 10. The Eagles have ripped up lesser teams: Can it rebound and rip up a decent Cowboys team on the road?

Eagles defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: B (Momentum Weighted*: C+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B-
vs left end sweeps: A
Right DE: C
Interior run defense: B
Left DE: C
vs right end sweeps: C

Pass Defense: B
Defensive line vs rush: B
Pass rush: B

A consistent 4-3 defense puts pressure on the QB not just with a solid pass rush led by trent Cole (12.5 sacks) and Juqua Parker (8.5) but by locking down other teams' top receivers. Philly has the 3rd best DVOA vs opponents' #1 WR, an indication that CB Asante Samuel is still one of the NFL's best cover corners. However, the #2 wideout gets a little more cushion: Philly's 26th vs the opposition's #2 receiver. Philly does cover the tight end well, which bodes poorly for Cowboys TE Jason Witten.

Expect Tony Romo to pick on CB Sheldon Brown, with Miles Austin playing decoy for most of the game, as well as utilizing his runningbacks out of the backfield: Philly is 16th in DVOA vs the RBs. Roy Williams needs to step up and have a big game, or Cowboys coach Wade Phillips needs to get Patrick Crayton in opposite Austin and get him the ball. Romomania's mobility will also be a big factor, and he needs to be willing to take off and risk the big hits to get the front seven on their heels if the Eagles defense manages to lock down both receivers.

Special Teams:

Kicker: C+ (Kickoffs: B+)
Kick returns: D
Punting: C+
Punt returns: A+

DeSean Jackson is arguably the NFL's most dangerous punt returner and punter Mat McBriar would serve himself well to avoid kicking to him. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Quintin Demps and Macho Harris handle kick return duties and are far less dangerous, in fact not even particularly effective. Sav Rocca, like many Aussie punters, has an uncanny ability to corner his punts but does tend to get off at least one badly timed duck per game. David Akers, of course, is a decent field goal kicker and booms some of the consistently biggest kickoffs in the NFL. The Eagles' key in this game may be to use the special teams to win the field position battle with big kickoffs, well placed punts, and maybe also get a big return out of Jackson.


Cowboys Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.05 (B)
Drive Success Rate: .716 (B)
Turnovers per: .052 (A-)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A-
Left End: A-
LT: B+
Interior: C
Right End: B
Pass Protection: C

QB: Tony Romo: A (Rushing: A+)
RB: Marion Barber III: B- (Receiving: D+)
RB: Felix Jones: B (Receiving: D)
RB: Tashard Choice: A (Receiving: A)

WR: Miles Austin: A
WR: Patrick Crayton: B
WR: Roy Williams: D+
WR: Sam Hurd: B-
TE: Jason Witten: A-
TE: Martellus Bennett: F

Tony Romo has cut down on his turnovers and has always been a dual threat with his arm and his legs. Marion Barber III, Felix Jones and the talented/underused Tashard Choice provide a multilevel rushing threat behind an effective (and allegedly dirty) offensive line, the strength of the running game coming outside off the ends just as the Eagles' running game does.

Miles Austin is one of the NFL's best receivers and Patrick Crayton is a fine supporting receiver. The less we see of Roy Williams, the better, while the Cowboys would be well served to get Sam Hurd involved more. Jason Witten is one of the league's best receiving tight ends, while his backup Martellus Bennett is best served as a blocker.

Cowboys defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: B-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B-
vs left end sweeps: B+
Right DE: C+
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C-
vs right end sweeps: C-

Pass Defense: C-
Defensive line vs rush: C
Pass rush: B

A strong run defense contains the left side and does a functional job elsewhere. Of course, Philly prefers to throw and will likely exploit the weaker left side of the Philly defense in the fewer instances they do choose to run.

Despite a decent pass rush, the Cowboys struggle against the pass, which doesn't bode well vs a Philly team that loves to throw downfield. Per DVOA, Dallas is decent vs a team's top two wideouts (1oth and 11th in NFL), but once you add in slot receivers they struggle (23rd), and get eaten up by tight ends (27th) and runningbacks (24th). Unfortunately for Dallas, Philly loves using their backfield and tight end in the passing game. The Cowboys' key will be to get to McNabb sooner rather than later on passing downs and bring him down, and to keep tacklers in front of the quick-out receivers that McNabb will likely valve-pass to if/when the pass rush gets to him.

Special Teams:

Kicker: D- (Kickoffs: A-)
Kick returns: D+
Punting: C
Punt returns: A-

The kicking game only gets a D- rather than an F because newly acquired Shaun Suisham was an upgrade over departed Nick Folk... though not by much (keep in mind Suisham was let go by the terrible Redskins). Dallas better hope drives don't stall in Philly territory, because Suisham is going to make them regret it if so. Kickoff specialist David Buehler takes up a roster spot thanks to his booming kickoffs.

Patrick Crayton, like DeSean Jackson, is a big threat on punt returns and Sav Rocca will definitely kick away from him. Felix Jones, Miles Austin Kevin Ogletree, like Philly's return men, are rather pedestrian. Punter Mat McBriar has a bigger leg than Rocca and an uncanny ability to pin opponents inside the 20: 93% of his kicks inside the 20 stay out of the end zone.


So who has the edge?

Last week's goose egg notwithstanding, the Eagles have shown a fine ability to shut down a team's top receiver as well as contain the tight end and slot receivers. Dallas will need to emphasize their running game and make sure Patrick Crayton is a big part of their passing game, because he's more likely to get open than his All Pro counterparts Miles Austin and Jason Witten.

On offense, the Eagles will need to hope they can get to Donovan McNabb and stay in front of the Eagles' multiple receiving weapons, because McNabb is so good at making aggressive blitzers pay by quickly hitting receivers downfield for big yards.

But either way, the Cowboys' offense is one of the NFL's best now that Tony Romo has reigned in his turnover problem, and even if the Eagles can contain Miles Austin, his running game can exploit weaknesses in the front seven and he can still find his weapons from time to time in the passing game, not to mention make plays himself when scrambling. Said scrambling also neutralizes some of the edge from Philly's strong pass rush.

The Cowboys are also at home, and while gigantic Cowboys Stadium's been rather muted from crowds of 80K+, the Eagles still have to play in a hostile environment. And since they place little emphasis on the run, the Cowboys can more securely focus on the passing game, which can offset some of their struggles against the pass.

It's the Cowboys' game to lose. Philly did not help themselves by tanking Week 17, and now the burden of proof is on them to overcome more obstacles than the Cowboys will need to overcome.

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