The hiring of 73-year-old Monte Kiffin as Dallas’ defensive coordinator, which made little sense at the time, has lived up to the skepticism.
The Cowboys, who had the NFL’s 14th-ranked defense last year under coordinator Rob Ryan, have the league’s worst total defense. Injuries have hurt them, especially in the front seven, but they haven’t been a good defense at any point this season.
Kiffin, the architect of the “Tampa 2” scheme, can’t even run his trademark zone scheme. The Cowboys are so weak against the run that Kiffin is forced to bring a safety in the box. When he does play zone, his cornerbacks struggle. Then again, Jerry Jones spent a pretty penny on Brandon Carr and high draft pick on Morris Claiborne, both man-press corners, so what were they expecting?
The biggest problem with Dallas’ defense is the absence of middle linebacker Sean Lee, who is out with a neck sprain. Lee, the former Penn State star, is their best player on defense. He does everything, from stopping the run to coverage across the middle. Outside of DeMarcus Ware, who’s having his worst season as a pro, the Cowboys don’t have anyone in the front seven who will keep Chip Kelly awake at night.
In their first meeting, a 17-3 Dallas win at the Linc, Lee’s presence and the single-safety deep looks shown by Kiffin prompted Kelly to air it out early. The Eagles called for passes on four of their first five plays and ended the first quarter with just four carries for LeSean McCoy.
By halftime, Foles had thrown 23 passes for 80 yards and McCoy had ran just eight times. It happened to be Foles’ worst game as a pro. He threw six more passes after the break, completing none of them, and left with a concussion.
Kelly won’t make the same mistake twice. Even if the Cowboys sell out against the run, McCoy will get plenty of carries against a defense that’s allowed at least 149 rushing yards in six of its last eight games and at least 202 yards three times this season.
Kelly’s playcalling has been nothing less than superb in the past three weeks. The Eagles have 1,467 yards in that span, most in the NFL and 110 more than second-best Denver. Kelly’s mix of zone- and man-blocking schemes, and the occasional snap from behind center, have made his running schemes less predictable. He’s also lining up DeSean Jackson everywhere, using motion and backfield alignments to create mismatches.
Likewise, an offensive line that struggled at times in the first few weeks of the season has hit its stride, with all five linemen playing at top form. Left tackle Jason Peters should be an All-Pro. Center Jason Kelce has picked up his game, and guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans have been excellent when getting into to the second level and in pass protection. Right tackle Lane Johnson is still learning the professional game, but his bad moments aren’t as frequent as they were earlier in the season.
Dallas’ front line isn’t as imposing as it used to be, especially with Ware battling injuries and perhaps entering the downside of his career. Peters will get matched up against Ware mostly, but Kiffin moves Ware around the line. The Cowboys are a 4-3 team under Kiffin after years of fielding a 3-4 front, but Ware will still rush from a stand-up position and occasionally drops into coverage.
Ware still gives good effort, but he has only six sacks. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher has been the team’s most consistent lineman. He has nine sacks, a new career high and more than he had in 2011 and 2012 combined. Other line starters, defensive tackle Nick Hayden and defensive end George Selvie, are strong, lunch-pail types but wouldn’t be starters if the Cowboys weren’t besieged by injuries.
Given how Foles has played since the first Dallas game, it’s hard to believe the Cowboys can force him into another nightmarish outing. Their best chance to win is with an A-plus effort on the front line.
If the Cowboys can limit McCoy’s big runs and figure out how to knock around and confuse Foles, a native of Austin, Texas, it’s feasible that they can stick around and perhaps pull it out in the fourth quarter. With Tony Romo out and Kyle Orton leading the Dallas offense (see story), the Cowboys will be hard-pressed to win a shootout.
Whatever they did in the first game against the Eagles, they need to do it better this time around.
For more on how the Eagles' defense matches up with the Cowboys' offense, click here.