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Eagles defense provides blueprint into stopping top offenses

The Philadelphia Eagles have won only six games this season, far fewer than most NFL pundits expected. Their defense, on the other hand, has come up big in the "blueprint" department with two wins.

That's "blueprint," as in an effective plan to deal with the NFL's top two offenses.

The Eagles crafted a scheme that held New England's Tom Brady to one touchdown pass and nearly allowed them to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history against the league's No. 1-ranked offfense a month ago.

Last Sunday, against the NFL's No. 2-ranked offense, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson came up with a strategy that limited Dallas to two field goals in Philadelphia's 10-6 upset of the Cowboys.

The Eagles intercepted Tony Romo three times and prevented him from throwing a touchdown pass for the first time in his career. Terrell Owens, Romo's favorite target, finished with two receptions for 37 yards. The Eagles also became the first team this season to hold the Cowboys to under 300 yards of total offense.

Future Dallas opponents, including potential postseason opponents, no doubt are paying particularly close attention to how Philadelphia's defense was able to stifle the Cowboys' vaunted attack. The first with a chance to see if the "blueprint" can work for them is the Carolina Panthers, who face the Cowboys on Saturday night on NFL Network.

The key to the Eagles' success against Dallas was the same as the key to their success against New England: They put heavy pressure on the quarterback.

"If you get pressure on the quarterback, I don't care who it is, it's tough to play the position," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.

Against the Patriots, the Eagles used relentless blitz pressure while playing man-to-man coverage. Against the Cowboys, the Eagles blitzed heavily in the first half, then backed off for the final two quarters.

The quarterback wasn't able to consistently find his rhythm in either game.

That made for a particularly frustrating day for Romo, who threw three touchdown passes in a 38-17 victory over Philadelphia in the first meeting between the teams on Nov. 4. As strong as the Cowboys' offensive line has been all season, it was not able to handle the Eagles' pass-rush -- whether it came from blitzers or defensive linemen -- in the rematch. Of the Cowboys' final eight pass plays, four resulted in sacks and one ended in an interception.

"We blitzed quite a bit in the first half, but we didn't blitz that much in the second half," Johnson said. "We sent everybody back in coverage, and I don't know if we confused (Romo), but he held the ball a little longer and we were able to get to him a little bit. He's a good quarterback, but it's tough for any quarterback when you have pressure."

Another key to Philadelphia's defensive game plan against Dallas was cornerback Lito Sheppard, who was virtually attached to the hip of Owens for the entire game. Normally, Johnson has Sheppard handle all coverage on the left side of the field while his other cornerback, Sheldon Brown, takes care of the right side. After watching Owens catch 10 passes in the first game, Johnson determined that a change was in order.

Sheppard concentrated on getting a solid bump on Owens each time he came off the line of scrimmage. Knowing that Owens is a much greater threat on the perimeter than he is over the middle, Sheppard also focused on keeping him inside.

"(Sheppard's) a good corner that can run," Johnson said. "And there are not many guys who can really match up with T.O. in single coverage."

Still, there is reason to believe that the remaining teams on the Cowboys' schedule, Carolina and Washington, as well as clubs they will face in January, will employ similar tactics.

Carolina, however, has recorded only 19 sacks this season, last in the league, and has only 19 interceptions, 23rd in the league. Whether or not the Panthers' have the ability to defend the Cowboys the way the Eagles did remains to be seen. But there's no question the Eagles proved it's possible.

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