In becoming the first team since Week 1 to beat the suddenly mighty Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins achieved most of the basic requirements one needs in order to pull off an upset. They controlled the ball nearly 60 percent of the game, they won the turnover battle and they had the more productive quarterback.
Those types of accomplishments constitute a blueprint for how to beat anybody in this league, but they don't fully explain how the Redskins slayed the Cowboys. Dallas beat the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks in Weeks 5 and 6 despite losing the turnover battle on both occasions, and quarterback Tony Romo wasn't particularly sharp in September victories over the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams.
Considering that the 'Boys entered Week 8 ranked second in the league in terms of average time of possession per game, that factor loomed large. But again, it's not as simple as telling a team that to beat Dallas they must control the ball. That's everybody's goal against anybody in this league.
The seven teams that have controlled the ball for more than 32 minutes per game this season—Indianapolis, Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City and San Diego—are all over .500 and are a combined 35-19. The six that have controlled it for fewer than 28 minutes per game—Oakland, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Cleveland and Jacksonville—are a combined 13-31.
What it comes down to is how the Redskins accomplished that. How did they they make it so that they ran 82 offensive plays while Dallas ran only 64?
Quarterback Colt McCoy's steady performance helped, but the key was, of course, the pressure on D. Washington found a way to consistently put heat on Romo, especially on third down. And as a result, the 'Skins limited the league's top-rated third-down offense to only five third-down conversions all night.
|Cowboys: Third downs by week, 2014|
|Pro Football Reference|
Dallas came into this game having converted 57.4 percent of its third downs, but it was just 5-of-12 against Washington. In a game that went to overtime, that drop from 57.4 percent to 41.7 percent might have been the difference between a win and a loss.
Amazingly, four of those seven unsuccessful third-down attempts came because Romo was sacked...
On one of the other three, he also faced immense pressure.
And on another one, Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland did a great job breaking up a quick end-zone throw from backup quarterback Brandon Weeden—who spent two series under center in relief of the temporarily injured Romo—to wide receiver Dez Bryant. But even on that play, Weeden was hit and had a man in his face despite throwing the ball 1.2 seconds after the snap.
It's not as though third-down pressure is the absolute difference. Sure, it's ideal to get heat on quarterbacks on that down, but it's also no coincidence that four of the Redskins' five sacks came on third down. For perspective on that, there have been more sacks on third down league-wide this season despite the fact there have been more than twice as many first-down plays as third-down plays.
|Sack rates by down, 2014|
|Pro Football Reference|
Romo and Weeden weren't pressured particularly often—on a per-dropback basis, 12 quarterbacks were pressured more frequently than Romo was in Week 8, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—though they always seemed to be under duress when it mattered most.
And the other difference was that when the pressure came, it came fast.
On Romo's five sacks, he was taken down an average of 2.73 seconds after the snap, according to Pro Football Focus. When you consider that the average quarterback this season has required 2.66 seconds to throw and has been allotted 3.37 seconds before getting sacked, that's just not bearable.
Simply blitzing can't be the only key there. Romo is a veteran quarterback with strong improvisational skills. On the season, he's got a 114.2 passer rating when facing five or more pass-rushers, according to PFF. So the fact that Washington blitzed him on 18 of his 34 dropbacks while actually creating only a moderate amount of pressure on a per-dropback basis doesn't indicate the Redskins were all that successful.
But when you consider how freely their rushers were getting home on those particularly well-timed and effective blitzes, it changes everything.
This is a quality-versus-quantity thing. Every time Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sent extra rushers, he did so in a complex fashion. All five of Washington's sacks came on blitzes, which involved at least one defensive back, and because they mixed up their disguises while successfully forcing Romo and his pass protectors to guess who would rush and who would drop into coverage, Dallas never knew what was coming throughout the night.
|Washington's five sacks: Five different looks|
|Sack||What they did|
|3rd-and-5, 1st||Meriweather blitzes, Riley shows but drops off|
|3rd-and-8, 1st||Clark, Riley and Robinson blitz|
|3rd-and-3, 2nd||Meriweather blitzes, Riley shows but drops off, Kerrigan stunts|
|3rd-and-11, 3rd||Riley and Clark blitz, Meriweather drops off|
|2nd-and-1, 4th||Meriweather and Robinson blitz|
|Observations from NFL Game Pass video|
What Haslett seemed to realize was that while Dallas has arguably the most talented offensive line in football, it's also one of the least experienced lines in the game.
Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin are all blue-chip first-round picks who can dominate one-on-one battles, but all three of those guys are 23 years old. Frederick's a sophomore, and Martin is a rookie. Left guard Ronald Leary is 25 but has only one season under his belt as a starter, while right tackle Jermey Parnell—who has been filling in for the injured Doug Free—had just three career starts on his resume entering Monday night's game.
Haslett picked on them mentally, and it worked like a charm.
“We definitely saw on film they have problems with movement,” Redskins linebacker Perry Riley said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. “It’s a good line. They’re powerful, but they’re young. We knew we would throw a lot of stunts and movements and blitzes and see how well they pick it up."
Not well at all, Perry. Not well at all.
On the first sack, Romo thought Riley (red circle) would be blitzing, which is why he pulled tight end Jason Witten across as part of a last-second audible. But then Riley dropped into coverage, while safety Brandon Meriweather (blue circle) came rushing from an edge that had even less protection without Witten's presence.
On the second sack, you had a completely new look with an overload on the right side. Romo saw that and pointed out both Riley (red) and safety Ryan Clark (blue) to running back DeMarco Murray. What the Cowboys didn't prepare for was a separate blitz from linebacker Keenan Robinson (purple).
Martin had to slide over to pick up Robinson, Murray was forced to grab Riley, and Clark was left unblocked. The numbers were too unfavorable, and Clark's pressure resulted in a Riley sack.
On the third sack, they were smart enough to pick up the safety (Meriweather, in blue) coming from the edge. But just prior to the snap, defensive end Frank Kearse (purple) jumped over to that same side to create another overload while Riley (red) showed blitz.
Riley again dropped into coverage, but his presence forced the left guard Leary (yellow) to remain in position for an extra split second. That meant that Martin, Parnell and Murray had to deal with three bodies on the right side. That alone isn't deadly, but it was a confusing situation, and when left defensive end Ryan Kerrigan stunted inside while being supported by both Kearse and Meriweather, it was game over.
On the fourth sack, they again anticipated a blitz from Meriweather (blue), but Robinson (red) and Clark (purple) were also posing a threat. At this point, the protection had been boosted with both Murray and tight end James Hanna picking up blocking assignments.
But they guessed wrong and Meriweather never came, leaving Martin and Parnell to block only Kearse. Robinson and Clark did come, and Murray went outside to pick up Clark, but there were no bodies left over for Robinson.
And on the fifth sack, things looked so basic. Meriweather wasn't even in the picture at the snap, and nobody was showing blitz. It was a safe look, and the Cowboys might have been sleeping because it was only second down, and they were deep in their own end late in the game. The natural assumption was that Washington would protect against the big play.
Because linebacker Trent Murphy (purple) dropped back, Leary (yellow) was free and could have relocated to pick up either Robinson (red) or Meriweather (blue) on their respective blitzes.
But Robinson and Kerrigan split the right guard and the right tackle with their rushes, and Meriweather delayed just long enough for Murray to commit to helping Martin inside. Savvy veteran defensive end Jason Hatcher (orange) toyed with Leary long enough to keep him from moving over to help, and Meriweather sprinted through to make the play.
As you can see, no sack was remotely alike. A lot of work went into this defensive game plan, and at no point did the Cowboys indicate they had figured Washington out. It wasn't something they were missing, but instead they were just outsmarted over and over again.
These linemen will become better at anticipating these plays as they continue to gain experience, and credit has to go to the Redskins for dialing up some very nice blitzes.
"There's systems in place to make these things happen and get them picked up," Frederick said, according to ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer. "We just need to get better at that. I always talked about it all along, even when we were winning games, you have to continue to improve at all points. If you ever take a step back, things like that happen."
Still, there's not a lot of time to fix these types of problems midway through the season, and you can be sure opposing defensive coordinators will try to push them even harder going forward. That might mean the Cowboys will continue to be plagued by this problem between now and the end of the season, or it might mean offensive masterminds Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan have to make major adjustments to route lengths and play-calling strategies.
Considering how well things were going prior to this hurdle, neither scenario would be ideal.
So Garrett and Co. had better hope these guys can adjust quickly, because the playoff race is here, and it just so happens that Dallas' next opponent, Arizona, is as aggressive as anyone in the game on defense.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.