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Redskins vs. Cowboys: 10 Keys to the Game for Washington

Aidan ReynoldsContributor IIINovember 22, 2012

Redskins vs. Cowboys: 10 Keys to the Game for Washington

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    The Washington Redskins are 0-6 against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but are coming off a morale-boosting win against Philadelphia. The Cowboys are on a two-game winning streak, but the last win was an unconvincing overtime triumph over Cleveland.

    This means that the stage is set for another enthralling NFC East battle between two of the division’s oldest rivals. Tony Romo has been prone to throw interceptions this season, and his 13/13 touchdown-to-interception ratio means that there are defensive plays to be made.

    Of course, with Brandon Meriweather out and London Fletcher listed as “questionable” for today’s game, the Redskins' defense is arguably at its lowest point.

    In a couple of weeks, there could be three teams sitting at 6-6 in the NFC East, but this game has to be won first.

    It looks too close to call. But as always, there are keys that will ensure that Washington will emerge victorious.

    Note: Unless stated otherwise, all stats are via TeamRankings.com.

10. Third Down Conversion

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    This has been a problem all season. Washington ranks 30th on third-down conversion, only getting a fresh set of downs 30.08 percent of the time. This improved to 45.45 on Sunday against the Eagles, but this was mainly due to Robert Griffin III demonstrating exceptional ability as a runner.

    Over the last three games, the team’s third-down conversion rate dropped to 28.95  percent after difficult showings for Griffin against Carolina and Pittsburgh. This tells us that Griffin is the key to becoming more efficient in this area.

    That doesn’t tell us the whole story, however. Too often, dropped passes, ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful play calls and quarterback pressure have left the team with 3rd-and-long situations.

    Inevitably, it’s left up to Griffin and Morris to get the chains moving, but it’s a team sport and the rest of the players must contribute to avoid predictability. No more 3rd-and-15s, please.

9. Keep It Simple

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    The Redskins lead the league in one category, which is fourth-down conversion attempts. They do not lead the league in fourth-down conversions, but their 73.3 percent success rate is the sixth best in the league.

    However, that doesn’t mean that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should insist on it as much as he has.

    Take the Carolina game, for example. Down 7-3, the Redskins faced a 4th-and-goal situation at the Carolina 2-yard line. Having already been successful on fourth down, Shanahan opted to go for it, which was understandable given the distance.

    However, instead of using Morris up the middle, he got a little too cute and ran a QB sweep from the shotgun, immediately putting Griffin at a disadvantage and in harm’s way.

    The Panthers snuffed out the run easily, ending the drive. Carolina promptly drove down the field and scored a touchdown, widening its lead in what became a 21-13 victory.

8. Stay in Touch

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    The fourth-down conversion attempt against the Panthers was makeable, but Shanahan went about it the wrong way. Aggressive play-calling is good, but sometimes you have to know when to step back.

    The Redskins aren't going to score touchdowns on every drive, just as routinely attempting a fourth-down conversion isn’t going to consistently bring results.

    Field goals are points on the board, after all, and in Kai Forbath the team finally looks to have found a kicker who can be relied on. His kickoffs are less impressive, but I’m sure both Shanahans would take points over touchbacks every time.

    The other problem lies with Kyle Shanahan. His play-calling is questionable when the Redskins are playing from behind. He often neglects the run and attempts to immediately strike with passing plays. Griffin beat the Eagles with his arm on Sunday, but he had help from the Eagles themselves.

    If behind, it’s absolutely vital that the Redskins use every opportunity to stay within striking distance of the Cowboys. If they’re trailing by four in the second quarter and are at the Cowboys' 40-yard line on fourth down, Shanahan has to kick the field goal and remain in the game.

7. Robert Griffin III/Alfred Morris

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    Griffin has been everything that the fans hoped for and more. But if there’s one game that would mean more to the fans than any other, it’s this one. A win at Cowboys Stadium on Thanksgiving would last all the way to Christmas.

    He can’t do everything himself, but the team relies on him, along with rookie running back Alfred Morris,  to an unhealthy extent.

    Griffin and Morris have accounted for 3,675 of Washington’s 3,797 total yards of offense (via ProFootballReference.com). Griffin also leads the team in rushing touchdowns with six to Morris’ five. Evan Royster is the only other player to score a touchdown on the ground, so everything in that area depends on Griffin and Morris.

    Morris has emerged as the every-down back Mike Shanahan needed, but the depth behind him is lacking. Darrel Young is the forgotten man on offense and has proved he can make a play. But the Redskins have been so hobbled by injuries, the running game suffers if Morris goes down.

    The offensive line needs to protect Griffin and open holes for Morris, something they have actually done well so far. The weakness remains Tyler Polumbus in pass protection at right tackle. But he must be the best option or Shanahan surely would have called up Tom Compton by now.

    The Cowboys' defense ranks 21st in sacks, but Dallas blog BloggingTheBoys.com ran an interesting article that showed how its actual performance was not as impressive as its ranking.

    In terms of sacks, the Cowboys are down from last year. However, their quarterback pressures are up from 67 at this stage last year to 90 going into this game. The same article also illustrated how the defense may not be functioning well overall, but the linebackers are consistently bringing pressure.

    It’s definitely something to watch.

6. Tony Romo

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    Listing the opposing quarterback as a key is a little odd, I’ll admit, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the Redskins' secondary the focus again. We know the secondary is poor. We’ve seen it repeatedly torched this season.

    Safety Brandon Meriweather injected some life into the defense Sunday against the Eagles, but now he’s gone. DeJon Gomes played well in his stead, however, and the defensive line was solid in pressuring the quarterback, particularly Ryan Kerrigan.

    Shanahan has moved Kerrigan around the last couple of weeks and he’s looked much more disruptive, so that should continue against a weak Cowboys offensive line that allowed seven sacks last week against the Browns.

    Tony Romo, however, is the enigma.

    If he has a good game, the Redskins’ secondary is in for a long day. Despite his inconsistency, Romo remains a very good quarterback and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s unlikely that Shanahan will make that mistake, but Romo must be put under pressure early.

    If given a chance to get into his rhythm, the game will be out of reach early. Forcing him into mistakes is the key, which will elicit boos from the expectant home crowd.

5. Logan Paulsen

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    In the absence of tight end Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen has earned the respect of fans and players. Davis was the Redskins’ leading receiver when he went down, so the one thing the team needed Paulsen to be was reliable.

    He’s been exactly that, establishing himself as a regular target for his QB. His touchdown against the Eagles showed his strength as he brought the ball in and out-muscled Kurt Coleman in the end zone.

    Paulsen replaced Davis last year when Davis was suspended. He did a solid enough job, but his improvement this year has been much more evident. His blocking remains a strength, but he’s excelled as a receiver, which is something the Redskins desperately needed.

    Although he left the field on Sunday with a hip injury, Paulsen is listed as “probable” to face the Cowboys and will likely see his fair share of receptions. He’s difficult to tackle and takes good angles, giving Griffin the best chance to get him the ball.

4. Control the Clock

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    Although the Redskins emerged from the Eagles game as comfortable winners, they actually lost the possession battle, despite the Eagles’ best efforts in turning the ball over.

    This has been another issue for the Redskins, again stemming from the defense’s inability to get off the field. The secondary’s problems in coverage have meant that the opposition always has a chance to get a first down and extend a drive.

    Since the defense is up against Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten this week, it’s absolutely vital that the Redskins’ offense gets over its third-down problems and takes control of the clock.

    Whether this is via the run game, screen passes or the option doesn’t matter. But if the Cowboys are allowed to wear down the defense, the game will start to slip away.

3. Penalties

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    Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Redskins this season has been the number of penalties incurred on both sides of the ball.

    Whether through small lapses in concentration or massive errors in judgement—I’m looking at you, Josh Morgan and DeAngelo Hall—the team has persisted in shooting itself in the foot.

    The Redskins are the league’s most penalized team, averaging 8.8 infractions per game. This is an increase of 3.8 over last year with a team that is supposedly better.

    Even coming off the bye week, the players combined for 13 penalties that cost the Redskins 80 yards. This isn’t good enough. Although it didn’t affect the result against the Eagles, it could destroy the game plan in Dallas.

    It’s worth noting that Washington is the only team that has been penalized more than the Cowboys. The Redskins need to reverse that to beat the Cowboys today.

2. Blitz Packages

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    The Cowboys only blitzed Browns QB Brandon Weeden four times last week, which was a surprise. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has previously looked to confuse rookie quarterbacks by varying his blitzes and offering different looks.

    Griffin has been impressive against the blitz. In that situation, he has a quarterback rating of 126.3 and has thrown seven touchdown passes.

    The Cowboys are likely to continue along the same path as last week, dialing back the blitz in favor of a three- or four-man rush that limits Griffin’s options downfield. Since he has the ability to hurt teams with his legs, this was a tactic that Carolina and Pittsburgh used to their advantage. They set the edge well and denied Griffin the space to make a play.

    The good news for Redskins fans is that Griffin showed a marked improvement against standard defensive schemes last week, making good reads and distributing the ball effectively. ESPN.com noted that he had a 91.7 percent completion rate last week, compared to his 67 percent completion rate against standard pressure over the first nine games.

    If Griffin can continue this rate of improvement, Ryan may be forced to rethink his strategy.

1. Motivation

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    Essentially, it all boils down to this.

    If the Redskins can’t get motivated to beat the Cowboys on Thanksgiving coming off a blowout victory, there’s no hope for this season at all.

    Shanahan can then truly start his evaluation for 2013.

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