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Defensive Parity Suggests Cowboys-Eagles Will Be A Close One

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Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

As the Dallas Cowboys gear up for the Philadelphia Eagles, the speculative buzz is all about Chip Kelly’s offense: whether Michael Vick or Nick Foles will start under center, if Dallas can slow the quick-hit tempo and play-calling, and how a bunch of secondhand defensive linemen can stop the league’s most productive running back.

Those questions are all well and good, but they only represent half the battle. Of equal interest and importance to Cowboy and Eagle fans — and what few writers are talking about — is that statistically, these two defenses are strikingly similar. Throw in the fact that DeMarco Murray is out with a knee injury, and it becomes sensible to consider what the Cowboys offense must do to win and, subsequently, to prove its division isn’t a total joke.

First, the numbers. Here are the most telling defensive overlaps and rankings.

- Yards Per Game: Dallas – 413 (30th), Philly – 420 (32nd)

- Rushing YPG: Dallas – 105 (15th), Philly – 105.4 (16th)

- Third Down %: Dallas – 42.3 (24th), Philly – 42.5 (25th)

- Turnover Ratio: Dallas – plus 4 (t-6th), Philly – plus 2 (t-7th)

They may have different base formations, different positional strengths and different philosophies of attack, but the Cowboys and Eagles are clearly living and dying by the same defensive proceedings. They’re two comparable sides of the same schematic coin. By that logic, the Cowboys’ offense has as much chance to dictate the game’s flow and outcome as the Eagles’ does.

When you realize neither team has a defensive advantage, the Cowboys’ formula for victory becomes infinitely simpler. Get the ground game going and control the possession battle; keep your defense fresh and hope it gets off the field. Tune out the ever-friendly Philly fanatics and you’re home-free.

Such a basic game plan, yet so inadequate without a reliable running back. And that’s why Murray’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Recent history isn’t encouraging. Since Murray’s 253-yard breakout game against St. Louis in Week 7 of 2011, he’s missed 10 games with various injuries. The Cowboys have gone 4-6 without him, averaging less than 80 rushing yards per game as a team. They haven’t recorded a 100-yard effort in their last eight Murray-less outings.

Rookie Joseph Randle gets the call as Murray’s primary replacement. Third-year man Phillip Tanner, who shone during the preseason, should also get enough reps to make an impact.

Both these backs bring a downhill, north-south style to the running game that should translate into power carries and goal-line success. They can buck the Eagles’ defensive line and get results.

The real question involves their early-down production. Can they see holes and hit the holes early enough to open up the passing game for Tony Romo? Can they execute cuts out of the backfield that will actually make defenders miss? Can they, in summation, contribute by moving the chains, not by simply converting short-yardage situations?

Randle and Tanner have their work cut out for them. They don’t have to be spectacular on Sunday, just steady. If they can do that, the defensive parity that’s thus far gone overlooked will ensure this game’s a tight one, and that the winner actually deserves the NFC East lead.