Thoughts from the film room at Valley Ranch.
• In the buildup to this game against the Eagles, coordinator Rob Ryan spoke of how important it was going to be for his defense to handle LeSean McCoy and the problems that the running back could present. When the Cowboys faced McCoy in the past, they didn't match up as well with their inside linebacker play, speed-wise. There were too many games of Bradie James and Keith Brooking not being able to handle having to run with McCoy.
I put a lot of my focus on the job that not only Bruce Carter had to do, but Ernie Sims as well. In breaking down the defensive side of the ball, Carter was once again all over the field. His ability to read and react puts him in a lot of situations where he can make plays. From the press box, there were several times when the play looked like it was going to be out of the gate and into space, then a blur in white appears, stopping the runner right on the spot.
Not only does Carter get quickly to the ball, but he is so physical in the way he brings the carrier down. Rarely do you see a runner break through a tackle when Carter is in position.
The Eagles do an outstanding job of running the sprint draw with McCoy, especially with quarterback Michael Vick in the game. The scheme is really good as it allows McCoy to get on the edge where he is the most dangerous. In the runs Dallas did give up to McCoy, there appeared to be some fit problems with the linebackers, along with defensive linemen not anchoring down at the point. When this Cowboys front seven plays good run defense, they are all square to the line, getting off blocks. In a matchup where Carter and his teammates needed to be their best against McCoy, holding him to just slightly over 100 yards total has to be considered a great afternoon.
• I am surprised that this hasn't happened sooner, but to his credit, Morris Claiborne has played well this season. On Sunday, though, he played like a rookie.
I didn't see the matchup of Riley Cooper as being the one that was going to give him problems. Cooper's height will give corners trouble, but on the goal line, Claiborne has to play that ball with better technique. One of his real strengths in college at LSU was his ability to go get the ball in the air, and in this situation, he was poor.
There is no doubt that you have to give Cooper credit for going to get the ball at its highest point with one hand, but Claiborne was right there to go up with his off hand and try to rip the ball out of Cooper's hands.
Claiborne's technique problems only got worse as the game wore on. In the second quarter, the Eagles have the ball on third-and-7 at their own 32. Ryan sends in his nickel subpackage to handle the situation. As Vick is calling for the snap, Claiborne jumps into the neutral zone, giving the Eagles a free play, and as Vick scrambles forward, he is stopped short of the first down. Instead of being off the field, the Eagles get another crack at third down.
In the third quarter, with the Eagles facing a second-and-10 from their own 38, Claiborne is lined up on the right side wide in press coverage on Cooper. When the ball is snapped, Cooper starts inside then works outside. Claiborne opens his hips to the sideline allowing Cooper to head up the field. Six yards into the play, Claiborne is now in the trail position, and at eight yards he still has a hold of Cooper, who starts to stumble as the ball is thrown down the field to the outside, not even close to the receiver. Still, it's an easy call for the official.
The Eagles are then in a third-and-2 from their own 48, and Jeremy Maclin is in a nasty, tight split to the left side. Off the line, Claiborne is able to get his hands on Maclin, but he throws Claiborne off balance and heads deep. Claiborne is now in scramble mode, and has to grab Maclin 10 yards up the field, then continues to hold him another 5 yards as the ball sails out of bounds. Once again, an easy call for the official.
But where Claiborne could have cost his team the most was early in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 17. Ryan once again goes with his nickel package and lining up wide right is Claiborne over Cooper. At the snap, Cooper comes off the ball and Claiborne is able to get his hands on him. He has perfect technique inside the 5-yard zone, but Claiborne once again opens up, this time to the field and is forced to grab Cooper at the 8-yard mark, then lets him go.
On the other side of the field, linebacker Anthony Spencer carries McCoy out of the backfield as quarterback Nick Foles tries to flip him the ball with nose tackle Jay Ratliff about to hit him in the chest. The ball is short and Spencer intercepts it, but the turnover is wiped out because of the defensive holding by Claiborne from the opposite side of the field. It was a rough day for the rookie, but hopefully one that he can learn from.
• The front office for the Cowboys is going to have to make a decision on Spencer and whether he is re-signed in the off season or not. There are times this season that I could argue he has been this defense's best player. And that is including Lee, Carter and Ware.
Ryan and his defensive staff have always had a different view of Spencer and what his skill set was on a weekly basis. There were those that were confused by the franchise tag that the Cowboys put on him this past spring, but there is no disputing the fact that without him in the lineup, this unit doesn't function as well without him.
If Carter was all over the field on Sunday, then Spencer was right there with him. Carter had 10 tackles while Spencer had four, but that was with a sack and a forced fumble that sealed the game for the Cowboys. Spencer is such a versatile player in his ability to not only play the run, which he has done better and with more consistency this season, but also in his awareness as a pass rusher and in coverage as well.
I mentioned the screen that McCoy tried to run. Spencer attacked down inside, but feeling McCoy trying to get outside, then quickly retraced his steps to get between McCoy and Foles to make the play. Just a smart, heads up effort on his part.
His best play, though, came with the Cowboys holding onto an eight-point lead with 53 seconds left in the game. Nick Foles takes the snap from the shotgun and drops straight back in the pocket. Spencer on the left side runs a twist game with Ratliff, which was the perfect call because the Eagles have not blocked it all year.
Unblocked, Spencer has a clean shot at Foles, who now tries to climb the pocket. On the other side, DeMarcus Ware has beat tackle Demetress Bell and also moves to attack Foles who doesn't see Spencer from the backside or Ware from the front. Both defenders hit him at the same time, causing the fumble that Jason Hatcher recovers in the end zone for the touchdown, and giving the Cowboys a 38-23 lead and the ball game.