The bye week was kind to the Washington Redskins, with only one member of the NFC East managing a victory. So Mike Shanahan's team know that defeating hated rival the Dallas Cowboys will again make them a legitimate contender in the division.
Big Blue could be facing up to an 0-6 record by Friday morning, all but ending their season, while an Eagles loss would give the Redskins the chance to move into a three-way tie for first place by the end of Sunday.
Their hopes of beating the Cowboys have been boosted by some positive injury news and a pair of returning defenders.
The big issue is the fitness of workhorse running back Alfred Morris. But the news seems positive, according to ESPN 980's Chris Russell, who is confident Morris will play in Dallas.
That's a major boost, considering how Morris victimized the Cowboys in two wins last season. He rushed for 313 yards and four scores.
The other positive injury news concerns the special teams. The unit has been woeful so far, but will be boosted by the return of steady kicker Kai Forbath.
The Washington Post's Mike Jones reports that Forbath "expects" to play against the Cowboys.
There is also some encouraging news concerning tight ends Logan Paulsen and rookie Jordan Reed. CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir reports that Reed took part in practice and is likely to feature on Sunday.
El-Bashir also points out that Paulsen is optimistic he can recover from the knee sprain suffered against the Raiders in Oakland in time to play.
Both Paulsen and Reed were vital parts of the offense in games three and four. Much of what the Redskins are doing with their run-blocking now depends on a healthy rotation at tight end. Reed is also proving very useful as a move receiver.
The best team news on defense is provided by the end of suspensions for defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins and rush linebacker Rob Jackson. Both were key members of the front seven in 2012 and the run defense in particular has suffered without them.
News of their returns was reported by The Washington Post's Mark Maske. He also noted that the Redskins cut ties with replacement kicker John Potter and backup defensive end Phillip Merling.
What Must Improve
As good as the running game was last season, it's easy to expect Washington's ground attack to be a little more dominant than it has been this term.
ESPN's John Keim has some notes on Morris' performances so far this season:
He sets up his blocks so well, especially when his blockers give him a chance to do so. For the season he’s averaging 5.29 yards per carry and 2.30 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Both are better than last season (4.88 YPC; 1.97 YAC).
While those numbers are impressive, Morris is also clearly suffering thanks to extra attention from defenses, as CSN Washington's Rich Tandler, citing Keim, notes:
In their two meetings last season, Washington destroyed the Cowboys with play-action passes. They were set up by the success Morris enjoyed.
The Cowboys may feel confident of corralling Morris, given their fourth-ranked rushing defense. The Cowboys are allowing 82.8 yards per game on the ground, with opposing runners averaging only 3.8 yards per attempt.
However, those numbers are a little misleading. For one thing, opposing teams are more anxious to attack the suspect Dallas pass defense rather than relying on the run.
The Cowboys rank 31st against the pass. Granted, they have faced some quality quarterbacks in the form of Eli and Peyton Manning as well as Philip Rivers.
But that cannot mask the obvious weaknesses in the Dallas secondary, weaknesses the Redskins can expose.
Of course, the Cowboys will be equally relishing the prospect of attacking Washington's defensive backfield. The Redskins rank 28th against the pass and will be facing a quarterback who recently topped 500 yards in a game.
ESPN's Keim quotes cornerback DeAngelo Hall addressing the threat posed by Tony Romo and his receivers:
Keim also pointed out these alarming statistics:
Romo threw for 506 yards and one untimely interception in the loss. He finished with a passer rating of 140.0.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett would be wise to take a similar approach to the one used in Oakland. Against the Raiders, the Redskins relied on a consistent four-man pass rush in front of a deep zone coverage scheme.
If the defensive front can shrink the pocket around Romo, they can force him to rush throws into heavy coverage. History shows Romo can be guilty of mistakes at key times in big games.
It will take a disciplined game plan to force him into those kinds of costly errors.
Speaking of more discipline, that is just what Washington's special teams needs. Coordinator Keith Burns has called for improvement in every area, according to Jordan Zappulla of Redskins.com:
I’ve got to put the guys in a better situation as far as that goes. It’s more about being able to communicate. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, I always tell the guys that you cannot relax on any play on special teams because it will come back to haunt you.
Zappulla notes that one of the main struggles for Burns' unit has been in the return game:
An area where the Redskins have struggled the whole season is on returns, where the Redskins are ranked 27th in kick returns (20.3 yards per return) and 25th (5.6 yards per return).
'It’s always a work in progress,' Burns said. You deal with a lot of young guys, you’re changing guys in and out at the same time. We are not where we want to be but we are improving.
Producing some big plays, or at least avoiding giving any away, would be a huge bonus from the special teams.
However, what will determine the outcome in Week 6 will be the performance of Washington's running game and pass rush. If Morris can enjoy success on the ground, the play-action game will again torment the Cowboys.
Hopefully, those efforts will coincide with Jackson and Jenkins adding more to an already fierce pressure rotation.
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