After allowing an unthinkable 48 points to a Vikings team that lacked Adrian Peterson and started Matt Cassel, the Eagles' defense issued its strongest response this season.
In holding Chicago’s No. 2-ranked scoring offense to 11 points, the Eagles reaffirmed faith that their nine-game streak of holding opponents under 22 points wasn’t done by smoke and mirrors.
Now come the Cowboys and another backup quarterback. With the NFC East title on the line, Dallas turns to Kyle Orton to lead the offense against the Eagles with Tony Romo sidelined until next season after undergoing back surgery Friday morning (see story).
Orton is a more-than-capable backup for any NFL team. He has 69 career starts and a 35-34 record. Jerry Jones is paying him $3 million to back up Romo, a handsome salary for a reserve. This is Orton’s second season with the Cowboys, so he has a firm grasp of the playbook.
Orton is good enough to get the ball to Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, mainly because Witten and Bryant are excellent at getting open and Orton can hit open receivers. Romo’s presence will mostly be missed in the third-down and big-play department.
The rapport Romo has developed over the years with Witten, his best friend, and more recently with slot receiver Cole Beasley can’t be duplicated by Orton with just one week of practice reps. Romo knows their routes and tendencies inside-out and had a great feel for how much time he had before he needed to get rid of the ball, especially against pressure. Romo also had tremendous pocket presence and an innate ability to dodge the pass rush with simple sidesteps.
Orton, at times in his career, has been a sack waiting to happen. In his first four years as a starter, he was sacked 120 times in 58 games, almost three times per game. In his best year, he rushed for 98 yards. Nick Foles this season has run for 226 yards.
Orton, a former Purdue standout, is tough and gritty. He has a good arm and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. He’s beaten the Eagles once in two attempts. But he’s more suited for a prominent backup role than being a starter in today’s pass-first game. His career completion percentage (58.4) is well below today’s starting quarterback standard, as is his career passer rating (79.7).
Some telling stats: Orton has passed for 300 yards or more 11 times in his career. His teams are 4-7 in those games. He had a passer rating below 100 in seven of them. In his 12 games when he’s attempted 40 or more passes, his teams are 3-9.
If you’re relying on Orton to win a game through the air, the odds aren’t in your favor.
And don’t forget that Dallas’ offensive line isn’t exactly the “Great Wall” unit from the 90s. Left tackle Tyron Smith is long and as athletic as they come, but rookie center Travis Frederick is the second-best guy up front and he’s more of a scrappy, lunch-pail type than an athletic specimen. Right tackle Doug Free gets exposed in pass protection. Brian Waters had been a nice upgrade for Dallas at guard, but he’s on injured reserve. Left guard Ron Leary is just a guy.
The Cowboys need to run to win this game. Expect offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to throw heavy doses of DeMarco Murray at the Eagles in hopes of fielding a clock-control offense that keeps the ball out of the hands of Chip Kelly’s offense.
Murray, a strong runner with above-average speed, is finally showing his potential when healthy. Injuries have held him back throughout his career, but he’s missed just two games this season, including the Oct. 20 meeting against the Eagles at the Linc.
Murray is the NFL’s 10th-leading rusher and has the highest yards-per-carry average (5.4) among NFL running backs with at least 110 carries. His strongest points are an upfield burst and his corner-turning ability. Callahan likes to use stretch runs to get Murray getting to the edges, where he’s especially dangerous. The Cowboys are 11-0 when Murray carries the ball at least 20 times and 12-2 when Murray has at least 18 carries.
In the past three weeks, only LeSean McCoy (386) has more rushing yards than Murray (376), and that’s saying something given McCoy’s 217-yard game against Detroit and his 133-yarder against the Bears.
Murray has also become a significant piece of the passing game. His 48 receptions are seventh-most among starting NFL running backs. Last Sunday, his 10-yard touchdown catch on 4th-and-6 in the waning moments of the fourth quarter enabled Dallas' comeback win over the Redskins that set up this clash against the Eagles for the division title.
They made it here because of Murray. They’ll need a big game from him again to stand any chance of winning this game.
For more on how the Eagles' offense matches up against the Cowboys' defense, click here.