The Dallas Cowboys have moved to become 6.5-point favorites over the Washington Redskins in Week 6. That is initially surprising when you consider these are relatively similar teams to those that faced off in Week 17 of the 2012 season—a game that the Redskins won to take down the NFC East.
So why are the Cowboys favored by so much?
To see why, let’s take a look at the teams’ ranks in four categories: adjusted net yards per attempt (ANYPA), yards per carry (YPC), ANYPA against and YPC against. Since these are league-wide ranks, lower on the chart is better.
ANYPA is the single most predictive stat in all of football.
If we had to predict the outcome of each game and we could only use one stat, the choice should be ANYPA. It’s a passing efficiency metric that incorporates sacks, touchdowns and interceptions.
The Cowboys rank better than the Redskins in both ANYPA and ANYPA against (marked as "ANYPA (D)" on the chart). The ‘Boys have the sixth-most efficient passing game and the 25th-most efficient pass defense. Meanwhile, the ‘Skins rank 15th and 31st, respectively.
So if you’re looking for a single, tangible reason the Cowboys are favored by nearly a touchdown, this is it.
As is customary in most games, the squad that passes most effectively and defends the pass the best will win. Let’s examine five important matchups that will help determine if the ‘Boys will be able to win through the air in order to come out victorious on Sunday night.
LB Sean Lee/S Barry Church vs. TE Jordan Reed
Reed is a rookie tight end out of Florida who has been efficient in his three games played. Reed has caught 13 of his 15 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. With Fred Davis out, Reed will be the primary weapon for quarterback Robert Griffin III over the middle of the field.
The Cowboys have used a combination of linebackers and safeties to cover tight ends this year, led most notably by Sean Lee and Barry Church.
Church has been decent, allowing 124 yards on the 17 passes thrown his way (7.29 YPA), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Lee has struggled badly, however. Despite a big pick-six against San Diego, Lee has given up a completion on 20 of the 23 passes thrown his way, yielding 233 yards and four touchdowns in the process. That’s a passer rating of 130.3 for opposing quarterbacks.
The Redskins could very well game-plan to get Lee isolated in coverage. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needs to do his best to make sure that Church has way more exposure than Lee in covering Reed.
DE George Selvie vs. RT Tyler Polumbus
In my game plan for Dallas, I explained why the Cowboys should try to take advantage of Polumbus:
We know Selvie needs to get back on track, and he has a chance to do that this week against right tackle Tyler Polumbus. Selvie has lined up on the left side of the Cowboys defense 77.2 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, so he’ll be over top of Polumbus on most snaps.
Polumbus has played decent football this year, but he’s still allowed eight pressures in four games. That’s a good but not great number, as is his 4.1 percent pressure rate.
The problem is that Polumbus was far worse in 2012, allowing pressure at over twice the rate (8.7 percent of his pass snaps). He’s certainly playing better football right now, but it’s unlikely that Polumbus, coming off of a season of horrible pass protection, will be able to keep it up.
The Cowboys might want to consider blitzing RGIII a lot this week since the quarterback has just a 46.2 percent completion rate and 5.8 YPA against five or more rushers in 2013. If they do, they should send extra rushers from the left side of their defense on most plays.
QB Tony Romo vs. OLB Brian Orakpo and OLB Ryan Kerrigan
No matter how you slice it, a quarterback is responsible for a huge part of his offense’s sack rate. There’s a reason that Peyton Manning’s offenses continually lead the NFL with the lowest sack rate; he gets rid of the football faster than anyone (per PFF, subscription required).
And through four games, Romo was doing the same thing, throwing the football in a hurry to help out his line. His efficiency suffered because, as accurate as Romo can be at times when getting the ball out quickly, he’s also extremely effective when he buys time in the pocket to make plays downfield. He’s not the same type of quarterback as Manning.
Now, the incredible offensive efficiency outweighed the sacks by a wide margin, so Romo did a good job of balancing the risk of holding onto the ball with the upside of making plays.
This Sunday, the Cowboys will need to stop one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos in Orakpo and Kerrigan. The Cowboys’ offensive tackles are playing pretty well, but eventually, the Redskins’ outside linebackers will reach Romo.
To limit their potential impact, Romo can help his offensive line by getting rid of the football quickly. The ‘Boys need to mix in different looks so that they can take some shots downfield, too, but the quick passing game can be used as a substitute for the running game without placing Romo in excessive danger of being pressured, hit, or sacked.
WR Terrance Williams vs. CB David Amerson
One of the reasons that Romo might need to get rid of the football quickly is that the Cowboys could benefit from using a lot of “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end and three receivers—meaning they wouldn’t be able to use an extra tight end to double either Orakpo or Kerrigan.
But using “11” personnel will force Redskins cornerback David Amerson onto the field, and he’s been really poor thus far.
Amerson has allowed 2.30 yards per route so far this year, the second-worst mark in the entire NFL. I originally thought Amerson plays in the slot, but he actually plays outside with starter Josh Wilson moving inside in nickel packages.
Wilson is the Redskins’ top cornerback, by far, and he’ll be matched up on wide receiver Miles Austin when the Cowboys use “11” packages. The Redskins probably won’t want Amerson on wide receiver Dez Bryant all that much, meaning cornerback DeAngelo Hall will play Bryant and Amerson will line up over Williams.
Thus, even with Austin likely back this week (as Brandon George of DallasNews.com reports), Williams could be a big part of Dallas’s game plan working against a lackluster cornerback.
Interior Line vs. NT Barry Cofield
Finally, the Cowboys will need to work to contain nose tackle Barry Cofield on the inside.
Cofield is a 6’4”, 318-pound interior defensive lineman with great quickness. He’s basically a pass-rush specialist for Washington, having played 61.1 percent of his snaps against the pass and totaling a 6.9 percent pressure rate on those plays (per PFF, subscription required).
No matter how quickly Romo gets the ball out of his hands, he can’t have pressure up the middle. The quarterback is athletic enough to side-step rushers on the outside, but he really struggles with defenders right in his face.
If the interior linemen can neutralize Cofield and Romo can work to help his offensive tackles with the edge-rushers, the Cowboys’ passing game should roll.