If the Redskins come out victorious, they could very well be leading the division with a 2-3 record of their own.
For Dallas to win, they’ll need to stop the potent Washington rushing attack. Unlike in 2012, though, that doesn’t necessarily start with quarterback Robert Griffin III. RGIII is still a unique weapon, of course, but he’s not playing the same type of game he did as a rookie.
Offensively, the ‘Boys should to air it out. They’re built to win through the air, and they won’t see many matchups as easy as the one they'll get against Washington’s porous pass defense.
The Cowboys are three-point favorites in this matchup. Here’s how they can come out on top.
DO blitz Robert Griffin III
Last year, RGIII recorded the highest passer rating against the blitz. Ever.
But coming off of reconstructive knee surgery, things are different for Griffin in 2013. The Redskins are hesitant to let him run, and he’s been less efficient when doing it.
Griffin's lack of mobility has affected his ability to beat the blitz. Through four games, Griffin has completed only 35 of his 72 passes against the blitz, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That 48.6 percent completion rate won’t cut it. Neither will RGIII’s meager 5.8 yards per attempt (YPA) against the blitz. Compare those numbers to his 66.0 percent completion rate and 10.8 YPA in 2012.
The Cowboys can’t get too carried away with blitzing because Griffin can still burn them through the air or on the ground, but the early numbers suggest Griffin isn’t moving the same as he did as a rookie.
DO attack right tackle Tyler Polumbus
When the Cowboys do blitz, they might want to consider doing it from the left side of their defense so they can get defensive end George Selvie singled up on Redskins right tackle Tyler Polumbus. Selvie has the potential to be a dominant player, and the Cowboys need him now that DeMarcus Ware is hobbled by injuries.
I broke down the Selvie-Polumbus matchup earlier this week because it’s a crucial one for Dallas. If Selvie can’t get pressure on RGIII, it could be a long day for the Cowboys secondary.
Polumbus has allowed pressure on 4.1 percent of the snaps he's played, which is a decent rate, but it was as high as 8.7 percent last year. He’s a below-average player, whom the Cowboys would be wise to exploit.
DO play the run early
The Redskins haven’t run the ball as much as they’d like, simply because they’ve been down too many points late in games, but you better believe they will want to establish the run early against Dallas.
Take a look at Washington's first-down run rate after each quarter.
It’s nearly 65 percent in the first quarter, declining from there as the Redskins have gotten down in games. The Cowboys need to be prepared for Washington’s potent running attack and stop it early so they can avoid facing it late.
DON’T play the Redskins to run on 2nd-and-10
This might seem like an odd suggestion, but 2nd-and-10 is a really unique down in that it usually follows an incomplete pass. And across the league, there’s actually predictability in play-calling on 2nd-and-10, with the majority of teams running the ball way more than the numbers suggest they should.
The reason? Coaches try to be unpredictable in their calls. In doing so, they often mix it up, running after passes and vice versa. Ironically, many coaches become painfully predictable in certain down-and-distance situations specifically because they’re trying to be unpredictable!
NFL teams should generally pass on 2nd-and-long anyway; it often works because defensive coordinators expect a run on 2nd-and-10 after an incomplete first-down pass.
Well, the Redskins haven’t run the ball all that much on 2nd-and-10, doing so on just 11 of 25 such plays (44.0 percent). And RGIII has absolutely killed it in these types of situations, completing 12 of 14 passes for 169 yards (12.1 YPA) and a touchdown—good for a 140.8 passer rating.
It’s a small sample, but the broader picture remains; NFL offenses can be productive by going against the grain against defenses conditioned to look for something in a particular situation. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needs to be prepared for the Redskins’ passing game on 2nd-and-long, particularly play-action looks.
DO attack cornerback David Amerson
The Cowboys have a unique situation this week with wide receiver Miles Austin appearing to be healthy.
That’s a positive, of course, but it will be interesting to see how much playing time Austin receives coming off of his hamstring injury. That’s because rookie Terrance Williams played so well last week against Denver, catching four passes for 151 yards and a touchdown.
Dallas might be smart to get three or more receivers on the field, too. The Redskins’ starting cornerbacks—Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall—have both played decent football, each allowing under 1.30 yards per route run against his respective coverage.
But nickel cornerback David Amerson has struggled. He’s allowed 2.30 yards for every snap that he’s been in coverage—the second-worst mark in the entire NFL.
In most situations, Amerson will be lined up over Austin in the slot. That’s a matchup that the Cowboys can and should exploit, so Austin might just be a bigger part of the game plan than you think.
DO use two-tight sets to throw deep
In general, the ‘Boys will likely benefit from “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and other receiver-heavy sets because their receivers pose a problem for the Redskins secondary. But Washington also has one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos in outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
Romo can be his own best friend by getting the ball out quickly, effectively negating the impact of Kerrigan and Orakpo.
But what about when he wants to throw deep? When Dallas wants to attack downfield, they should do it out of the “12” and other tight end-heavy packages. That way, they can effectively double the outside linebackers and let the receivers work alone, giving them time to get downfield.
Nothing can change the course of the game quite like a deep strike off of play-action on 2nd-and-short from a tightly bunched formation.
DON’T run to “set up” the pass
The Redskins are currently ranked 31st in the NFL in Adjusted Net YPA allowed—perhaps the single most predictive stat in all of football. The Redskins ranking is so amazing because Adjusted Net YPA includes sacks, and the Redskins have sacked the quarterback on 9.6 percent of plays—higher than all but three teams.
Simply put, the Redskins are just really poor at defending the pass. The Cowboys don’t need to maintain balance early in the game; they need to use the pass to gain an early lead and then “become” balanced late by running the ball and milking the clock.
DON’T forget the play-action game
Everyone on the planet seems to know that the Cowboys need to throw more play-action passes.
Everyone, that is, except for the Cowboys.
Despite having by far the lowest play-action passing rate in the NFL last year, the Cowboys have barely increased the clip this year (up from 10.0 percent to 12.3 percent). You might argue that you need to be able to run the ball to set up play-action, but there are two problems with that theory.
First, it’s just not true. There’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action passing success. Defenders play situations, not past rushing efficiency. If you show run-action on 3rd-and-short, the linebackers will step up whether you’re averaging 4.5 YPC or 3.5 YPC.
Second, Romo has been incredible at play-action throughout his career. He had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action in 2012, despite being saddled with one of the league’s worst running games, and he’s at it again in 2013.
Only Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers rank higher than Romo. The quarterback’s incredible efficiency alone should be enough of a reason to dramatically increase the play-action rate.