Beware of the trap game, Washington Redskins.
On the face of it, there's no need to fear the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13. Not when they are coming to FedExField, the place where the Redskins are 5-1 this season, and without starting quarterback Tony Romo.
But it's not just the league's most intense rivalry that makes this game trickier than it appears. There's also a Cowboys defense that presents matchup problems for the Burgundy and Gold. Those issues are most obvious in the passing game.
The Cowboys boast the seventh-best pass defense in the NFL. A stable of versatile, pass-rushing defensive ends who line up all over the front create a ton of pressure. So do coordinator Rod Marinelli's creative sub-package blitz schemes.
Both things will challenge Washington's offense line and quarterback Kirk Cousins' ability to make smart decisions under pressure.
It's surprising that the Cowboys only have 20 sacks to their credit this season. But don't let that number fool you: Dallas can still heat up the pass pocket.
Their best weapons are a stable of roving pass-rushers. The Cowboys boast four rush ends who align anywhere along the front and play every technique.
In particular, Marinelli's unit has had a lot of success shifting outside pass-rushers inside. Greg Hardy plays everywhere on this front but is especially effective splitting gaps from the interior; so is backup edge-rusher Jack Crawford. They've combined for 8.5 sacks on the season.
They're joined by DeMarcus Lawrence and rookie Randy Gregory to form a highly destructive four-defensive end package.
Here's a snap of what the front looks like, taken from Week 11's 24-14 road win over the Miami Dolphins:
It's common for the Cowboys to run multiple twists and stunts to confuse blocking and create favorable matchups for Hardy and Co. This particular look saw Lawrence crash inside to sack Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill for a 22-yard loss on the game's final play.
Line coach Bill Callahan has to have an answer when the Cowboys unleash their four-defensive end front. Using a tight end or running back to chip and instructing linemen to sit on stunt lanes would be a great start.
But the bigger challenge will be posed by a very disruptive sub-package scheme.
Blitzing from the 3-2-6 Dime
Marinelli has added a very intriguing wrinkle to his traditional 4-3 and heavy zone formula this season. It's a 3-2-6 dime look that causes havoc in both protection and coverage.
One of the front's best assets is the increased flexibility Marinelli has when calling blitzes. He can mix zone and man pressures to baffle and bruise quarterbacks after the snap.
Marinelli dialed up a beautiful example of the former to thwart the Dolphins on 3rd-and-13.
The pre-snap look showed three potential rushers on the line, safety Barry Church, along with linebackers Rolando McClain and Sean Lee:
Behind the six-man pressure look, the Cowboys showed a two-deep shell, a pair of deep safeties with underneath man coverage up front. But Dallas was changing the coverage.
J.J. Wilcox was rotating down into the box, while Jeff Heath was preparing to occupy the deep middle by himself as a single-high safety. The coverage was now Cover 1.
In front of it, the Cowboys were ready to send six rushers:
Marinelli ensured underneath coverage by having Lee and Hardy bail out and fill the intermediate passing lanes.
The key man on the blitz was cornerback Tyler Patmon, rushing off the slot. As he did, Hardy and Lee made their zone drops:
The outside corners had dropped off to give Dallas a three-deep shell, making this a brilliantly disguised fire-zone blitz.
With Miami blockers focused on Wilcox, Church and McClain, Patmon came clean off the edge to hit Tannehill as he threw. The contact forced an incomplete pass and a Dolphins punt:
What makes this front so tough to decipher is that you can't assume the Cowboys will always run zone pressure out of it. Marinelli is just as likely to call a man-coverage blitz.
He did it to take down New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Week 5.
Dallas showed Brady a single-high, Cover 1 look. There were five underneath defenders aligned to lock up receivers in man coverage:
The Cowboys also planned to blitz both McClain and Lee through the middle.
Dallas' cover men quickly matched up in man coverage on Brady's eligible targets. The key man on the play was versatile slot cornerback Byron Jones. The rookie had blanketed dominant tight end Rob Gronkowski:
Brady was forced to pause in the pocket, leaving him at the mercy of the Cowboys' five-man rush.
McClain and Lee took advantage of Dallas linemen drawing double-teams up front:
Lawrence and nose tackle Tyrone Crawford each caused tag-team blocking, so at least one blitzing linebacker, in this case McClain, had a free lane to Brady.
He promptly took down No. 12 for a nine-yard loss on 3rd-and-10. Hardy met McClain at the quarterback:
This sub-package defense will force Cousins to prove he can correctly diagnose coverage at the line. He must also show he can adjust protection to answer potential pressure.
Once he has, No. 8 must make smart decisions, taking what the coverage gives him and protecting the ball. Cousins needs to avoid the rash tendencies that have led to a 71.1 completion percentage and six interceptions against the blitz, as noted by ESPN.com.
Marinelli's dime defense is designed to create negative plays for an offense. Staying cool and finding the hot reads is the only way to avoid disaster.
The success of these blitz schemes depends on the two most devastating playmakers the Cowboys defense can unleash on an offense.
Byron Jones as a Matchup Equalizer
Jones has wasted no time becoming a critical asset in the Dallas cover schemes. Specifically, Marinelli designs coverage to isolate Jones against another team's matchup X-factor. He uses the first-year DB as an equalizer against roving tight ends and slot receivers.
It worked a treat in Week 5 when Jones kept Gronkowski quiet. The former Connecticut man was so effective that B/R's Chris Simms dubbed him the "best Gronk-stopper I have seen":
Jones' ability to lock up talented tight ends should concern Washington. "Joker-style" pass-catcher Jordan Reed is the best weapon Cousins has. Bryan Broaddus of the Cowboys' official site wisely identified shutting down 2013's third-rounder as a priority, with Jones as the best fit for the role:
My gut feeling is that we will see Morris Claiborne in the lineup come Monday night. With him back in the mix, this will allow Jones to once again resume his role at safety and match up with the opponent’s tight end – in this case Jordan Reed.
Where Kirk Cousins has made a living this season is throwing the ball to Reed, and the way you handle him dictates the way you play the other skill players on this Redskins offense. Reed has been targeted 17 times in the last two games and has come up with 14 receptions. In him, you have a big body that is a combination of speed and quickness with receiver-like hands.
Reed can beat all kinds of coverage thanks to his multilayered moves and cuts out of his breaks. Head coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay should put Reed in bunch sets to prevent Jones from locking onto him in press-man coverage.
Creating a better matchup would be another smart ploy. For instance, splitting running back Chris Thompson out wide can give Jones a dilemma. If a linebacker takes Thompson or Reed, it's a win-win for Washington.
But Jones isn't the only weapon the Redskins should fear.
Keeping Hardy quiet will require an excellent performance from Trent Williams. Fortunately, the Pro Bowl left tackle already recognizes the need to bring his "A-game" against the premier pass-rusher, according to the Burgundy and Gold's official site.
Yet, the bigger question is: Who blocks Hardy when he shifts inside? Callahan may be best served having Williams block down and aligning a tight end on the left to take the edge-rusher on that side. Either way, the 3-technique needs to be doubled.
Of course, Washington's best bet to avoid the Cowboys' dangerous sub-package schemes is to consistently earn favorable down-and-distance situations. This is best achieved by a heavy dose of running.
Gruden called 37 rushing attempts against the Giants. Working over the Dallas front on the ground will create third downs that aren't pass-first plays. In those situations, Marinelli won't be able to risk a quartet of rush ends up front or a three-man line and six defensive backs.
In Jones and Hardy, the Cowboys have the players to make their own contributions to the two fastest-growing trends in modern defensive football—namely, the prevalence of roving linemen who play multiple spots, as well as versatile matchup defensive backs like Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu.
It won't be a Romo-less offense that catches Washington cold this week, but the Cowboys' flexible, aggressive and deceptively creative defense might.
Gruden and Cousins need a smart plan and adjustments to avoid the trap.
All screen shots via CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.
All statistics and player information via NFL.com.