Had the Cowboys taken down the Packers in Week 15, they wouldn't need to win this game against the Redskins to potentially have a shot at the NFC East crown in Week 17. Instead, Dallas could be eliminated from the playoffs with a loss to Washington and an Eagles win.
The Redskins are now led by a surprisingly efficient Kirk Cousins at quarterback. Cousins has been incredibly effective during his limited NFL action, capped last week by a 381-yard performance against the Falcons.
As is the case with any young quarterback, though, Cousins will need to adapt to defenses that will quickly respond to his strengths and weaknesses. I'm not sure that Dallas will be the defense to give Cousins problems, but the young quarterback is unlikely to have such smooth sailing in the future.
Along with containing Cousins, here are six things the Cowboys need to do to come out victorious on Sunday.
Force quarterback Kirk Cousins to throw over the middle.
Cousins likes to throw over the middle. Using numbers from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted Cousins' NFL throws.
Compared to Romo and most quarterbacks, Cousins has thrown the ball over the middle more often than normal. It's a small sample, but perhaps large enough to conclude that he just likes to throw the ball there, especially since the Redskins don't have a dominant tight end or receiver.
Nonetheless, Cousins hasn't been efficient when going over the middle. Take a look at his passer rating...
...and completion rate.
Cousins also has a touchdown-to-interception ratio that's over three times as high when he throws toward the sideline as opposed to over the middle, which is strange to see.
Because of these numbers, it makes sense for Dallas to play some zones that force Cousins into looking over the middle. Even if the stats are an aberration, Cousins doesn't have anyone who can consistently control that area of the field anyway.
Blitz often in Washington territory.
News alert: the Cowboys have a horrible defense. They're ranked fourth to last in passing efficiency and second worst in rushing efficiency. If they sit back in zones the entire game, they're going to get picked apart.
That means they need to take chances, particularly so they can generate some form of pressure. The Cowboys' inability to pressure the quarterback has been their downfall all year. And if you're going to give up huge chunks of yardage anyway, you might as well send extra rushers to try to make something happen.
Play conservatively when the Redskins get near the red zone.
Once the Redskins approach the red zone, though, I'd actually stop blitzing so as to not allow an easy score. The reason? Their offensive weapons are horribly inefficient in short areas. Take a look at their career red zone rates as compared to Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant.
That's pretty amazing. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon (6'0", 212 pounds) and Santana Moss (5'10", 189 pounds) aren't particularly big. Josh Morgan has the size (6'1", 220 pounds) to be red zone-relevant, but he's proven to be just the opposite over his career. Wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, who has a body type that should, in theory, be useful in the red zone, is out for the year.
Thus, the Cowboys need to make sure they don't give up cheap scores once Washington is in their territory. By "forcing" the 'Skins inside the 20-yard line, the Cowboys should be able to get them to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
Air it out.
Traditional stats suggest the Redskins have a mediocre pass defense and horrific run defense. They've allowed the 12th most passing yards in the NFL and the second most rushing touchdowns.
However, Washington's pass defense has been worse than advertised because they're frequently losing games. Teams have thrown on the 'Skins only 455 times this year, which is the fourth fewest in the league. Furthermore, rushing touchdowns are very volatile, so the majority of the Redskins' lackluster showing in that area is probably just due to variance.
In terms of net YPA, one of the most predictive stats in football, the Redskins' defense ranks second to last in the NFL. They've given up 7.2 net YPA, which is even worse than Dallas (7.1).
The Redskins also rank in the middle of the pack in run defense success rate, according to Advanced NFL Stats. They hardly have a dominating run defense, but it's not so bad that the Cowboys need to force running the football. They'll probably do that anyway to "make up" for last week.
Run it to the right.
Pro Football Focus has Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo graded as the top run-defending player at his position in the entire NFL. Meanwhile, fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan checks in as fourth worst in the league.
The Cowboys love to run behind left tackle Tyron Smith, but the problem is that Orakpo typically lines up on the right side of the Washington defense. To avoid him and create the biggest net advantage for themselves, Dallas should consider running to the right side more frequently. Right tackle Doug Free isn't as dominant as Smith, but the 'Boys should be able to take advantage of Kerrigan.
Target cornerback David Amerson.
Cornerback David Amerson has been one of the worst in the NFL, according to PFF. He's allowed the greatest yards per route of any Redskins cornerback this year, by a wide margin.
Despite being their nickel cornerback, Amerson actually plays out wide in nickel situations, with Josh Wilson moving into the slot. Thus, the Cowboys should keep Dez Bryant out wide in three receiver sets if they have any hope of getting him matched up on Amerson—and if Romo sees that Amerson is lined up over Bryant, look out.