It was not the news that Eagles fans were hoping to hear just one day before the primetime matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. For the third straight game, cornerback Asante Samuel will not be on the sidelines for Philadelphia. Right tackle Winston Justice will also miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury.
It’s pretty obvious how important Samuel is to the secondary. Despite missing three games (and about to be four) this season, he still leads the NFL with seven interceptions. Of those seven interceptions, three came in the fourth quarter (two of which on final drives by opposing teams). He isn’t the best tackler and he tends to give up some big passes, but he is a playmaker. If you don’t believe it, just take a look at the three games that Samuel didn’t play in this season.
On October 10th, Samuel missed the 49ers game with a concussion. Alex Smith passed for 309 yards and three touchdowns. Two receivers, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis both had over 100 receiving yards. Two weeks ago, Jay Cutler had one of the best passing performances of his career. He threw four touchdown passes and 247 yards en route to a Bears win. Finally, last Thursday Matt Schaub passed all over the Eagles, throwing for 337 yards (149 of which to Andre Johnson). In those three games, the opposing team averaged 24.6 points, 297 passing yards, and three touchdown passes. On top of that, the top wide receiver for each of those teams averaged 111 receiving yards per game.
It’s pretty obvious the Eagles pass defense has been struggling without Samuel on the field. He brings a veteran presence to a group of cornerbacks that are very inexperienced. With Ellis Hobbs done for the year, the ‘Birds have had to rely on the young trio of Joselio Hanson, Dmitri Patterson and Trevard Lindley to cover the best receivers on opposing teams.
Heading into a game with the pass-happy Dallas Cowboys, this spells trouble for the Eagles secondary. Even though Dez Bryant will miss the rest of the season, the Cowboys still have one of the strongest receiving cores in the league. Miles Austin and Jason Witter are Eagle killers and Roy Williams has stepped up the last couple of weeks. Led by Jon Kita, Dallas has won three out of the last four games. In those three wins, Kitna has thrown a combined seven touchdowns and is averaging a 118 quarterback rating.
Offensively, the loss of Winston Justice could be a problem against a tough Dallas defensive line. King Dunlap, who has been nothing short of a disaster at many times this season, is going to fill in at tackle. He is going to need to defend the speed linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who has 9.5 sacks and eight tackles for losses this season. We have seen what Michael Vick can do with time in the pocket, so it’s going to be very important that Dunlap holds his own against a Cowboys team that has nothing to lose. They are going to do everything possible to ruin the Eagles season much like they did last year.
This is the beginning of the hardest part of the Eagles schedule. Back to back road games against NFC East teams is going to be the difference in whether or not the Eagles make the postseason. If they can get to 11 wins, then they are most likely a sure bet to take the division. However, if they lay an egg down the stretch, then the explosive Eagles could find themselves left out of the race with the top-heavy NFC.