We are just about 48 hours from from finally witnessing some real Dallas Cowboys football as the 2010 season kicks off at FedExField against the Washington Redskins. Unlike the previous two years, the Cowboys don't have the luxury of starting the season against a cake opponent and will have to playing in top form if they hope to walk away with a victory to start the season off right.
The Washington Redskins have a new quarterback, a new coaching staff and very new and different direction and although the Cowboys are intimately familiar with Donovan McNabb, this iteration of the Redskins is a complete unknown at this point. There's only so much that can be gained from scouting and studying film of the preseason, so the success of the Cowboys in this game will depend on how quickly the coaches can adjust to what the Skins are throwing out on the field.
Before I get into the keys of the game for the Cowboys here are a few noteworthy items:
- There is rain in the forecast for Sunday in Washington, although the showers and storms are expected to be clearing the area by the time kickoff rolls around. If there is any precipitation during the game, it will likely be at the beginning and very brief.
- The Cowboys will be wearing their white jerseys against the Redskins on Sunday, instead of wearing the blue jerseys like they normally do in Washington. In fact, because of the schedule, the Cowboys will apparently not be wearing their blue jerseys at all this season. Not once.
Dallas: OT Marc Colombo (knee), OG Kyle Kosie (knee) and OT Sam Young (knee) are out.
Washington: S Kareem Moore (knee) did not participate in practice this week and is expected to be out. LB Perry Riley (foot) is questionable.
Play with emotion, stay in control
Whenever the Cowboys head to Washington it's the Super Bowl of the season for the Redskins and their fans. Let's face it, these fans haven't had much to cheer for at FedExField the past few years and relish the chance to take out the hated Dallas Cowboys. No matter what the record is of each team, these games are generally close, they're very physical and if the game is in D.C. then the crowd is in a frenzy.
With a new coach and a new quarterback there's renewed enthusiasm within the fan base and there would be no better way to kick off a new era in football in Washington than to beat the Cowboys in front of the home crowd. If you think the fans have been worked up in the past then expect a truly electric atmosphere on Sunday night.
The crowd will be fueling the emotions of the players, who are already working themselves up to play with more pride under Mike Shanahan than they ever did under Jim Zorn. This coaching staff, aside from being great strategists on the field, are collectively known for being able to get the most of their players. This is the start of the season, a fresh start for the players, the coaches and the fans and with the optimism will come adrenalin that will fuel some very, very worked up Redskins players.
The Cowboys will have to play with emotion themselves and will have to find a way to regain that magic this team had last season. This isn't the cocky and overhyped team of 2008; this is a humbled but confident and talented football team that understands what it takes to win the tough games. Going on the road in this environment will not be easy and with a pair of new linemen facing what is sure to be a fired up defense, I'm expecting to see a couple of negative plays for the offense early in the game.
The trick is to stay calm, weather the early storm and eventually find a way to break through. If the Cowboys truly hope to take the emotion away from the Redskins and the crowd, then treat this game similar to the Saints game from last season. Strike at the heart of the Redskins, make some big plays early, silence the crowd and take charge of the game.
Taking advantage of the OLB's
The Redskins have switched to a 3-4 defense for this season and the jury is still out on just how it will effect the overall effectiveness of a group that was very good last season. Generally a switch to the 3-4 does not bring instant success as it takes time to build a defense into one that is capable of playing within the scheme. The Redskins have talent on defense, which will help in the transition, but there will be weak areas of this defense to take advantage of.
Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter are two very capable edge rushers that will be giving the Cowboys fits for seasons to come. Orakpo will very likely be one of the top three pass rushers in the NFC this season and I can't even express how much it pains me to see one of the my favorite Longhorns ever being such a great player for the Redskins. Both will be making the switch to 3-4 OLB this season and both will be asked to drop back in coverage for the first time in their careers. It's still unknown exactly how well either will fare with these extra assignments.
The Cowboys should find out.
Doug Free and Alex Barron will certainly have their work cut out for them holding off the two rushers, but the Cowboys should make it a point to take advantage of either OLB when they are forced to drop off into coverage. Orakpo is a great pass rusher, but I doubt he'd be as effective trying to cover Felix Jones out of the backfield. Marian Barber is also a great receiving back who should get looks against this defense, but it's the tight ends I'm looking forward to seeing.
Here is where the beauty of the tight end in Jason Garrett's system can come into play. Witten, Bennett and Gronkowski all have the ability to line up at multiple positions in multiple formations and all have the ability to catch passes after lining up in the back field. If the Cowboys can get Witten or Bennett out in the flat against either OLB, then Romo and the passing attack will be able to take advantage of a weakness in the 3-4 in order to ultimately open things up downfield.
Which brings us to...
Attacking the secondary
The past two seasons the Dallas Cowboys have had a very, very hard time getting the ball downfield against the Redskins. Under Jim Zorn, the Skins played with a "bend but don't break" mentality and were determined to keep the Cowboys passing game in front of them. This allowed the Cowboys room to work underneath yet never truly open up vertically.
Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall have also had success containing the Cowboys receivers the past few seasons and will head into this game extremely confident they can do so again. This time, however, the Cowboys have a new element with which to test this talented defense: Dez Bryant.
Bryant is the X-Factor in this game as not a soul outside of Valley Ranch knows what to expect from the rookie nor how the Cowboys will use him. Rogers and Hall have had success containing the Cowboys, but not when the Cowboys have had this many weapons on the field at once. With Witten as the always-present threat and Miles Austin looking to continue his great play from last season, the Redskins should have trouble containing five very capable receiving threats for the Cowboys, all of which might be one the field at one time.
It's also important to note that with the switch to the 3-4 under Jim Haslett, the Redskins will be much more aggressive than we're used to seeing. Before, the Skins played in a Cover 2 scheme with the safeties deep against the pass; under Haslett, it's likely we see the Redskins play much tighter against the pass as they look to create more turnovers. LaRon Landry is a great hitting machine but he's not a ballhawk; look for the Cowboys to do their best to take advantage of this matchup.
The key to this strategy is to be able to give Tony Romo time to actually get the ball downfield. The Cowboys can slow the pass rush of the Redskins with screens and short passes before opening things up downfield, but if the Cowboys truly do intend on being successful through the air then they'll need to...
Pound the ball
The Cowboys have three good to great running backs. The Cowboys have an average offensive line (at best) that is depleted by injury. This likely means the Cowboys will not have the much of a running game against the Redskins, who typically play the Cowboys tough on the ground anyways.
Doesn't matter. Pound the ball, pound the ball, pound the ball. Using pulls, tosses and sweeps to get the defense moving early in the game likely won't work; the Cowboys take advantage of the aggressiveness and speed the Redskins will have early in the game. Get the ball into the hands of the running back and get him going north and south as soon as possible. Trying to extend a play to the sideline on a slowly developing sweep with pulling guards is a recipe for disaster.
The trick is for Jason Garrett to stick with this strategy, to find something that works in the running game and build around it. The Cowboys have to find a way to slow the pass rush of the Redskins against a suspect offensive line and a running game -- even a semi-effective one -- is key to allowing the passing game to open up.
The Cowboys have always had a hard time against 3-4 defenses as they are able to disguise their pass rushes and coverages much more effectively than a traditional defense. This gives Romo and his offense all they can handle, historically, and you have to think that early in the game Garrett should try and keep it simple. Force the Redskins to respect the run and then open up downfield with the passing attack.
Of course, Garrett likes to be aggressive early. It's helped him in the past (see: New Orleans, 2009) and it could be his strategy on Sunday to catch the Redskins being too aggressive early and to try and attempt to take the crowd out of the game.
No matter what Garrett decides to do to open the game up, I can guarantee you this team will not win on Sunday without an effective running game. I'm not hoping for any earth shattering numbers, just enough to keep the defense honest.
Containing the quarterback
Mike Shanahan -- and his son, Kyle Shanahan -- uses a zone blocking scheme for the linemen that gives the running back a single cut back lane in order to hit the hole and attack the defense. He loves mobile quarterbacks and he loves to get them out of the pocket in order to open up targets down the field. He'll test a secondary early and often and if he finds a weak spot, he'll exploit it until you force him to move on to something different.
The Redskins have parts on the offense to make that system work but not all; the mobile quarterback is there, the tight ends to exploit the underneath routes and the middle of the field are there. But the talented running backs and the deep threats out wide aren't exactly what they used to be and we've yet to see how effective they'll be in this new system.
The key for the Cowboys is to keep Donovan McNabb contained as much as possible. Shanahan loves to use tosses and outside runs in order to open up play action passes that has the quarterback roll out away from the pressure and into the open field. For the Cowboys, they'll have to stay as disciplined as possible on the outside and Ware and Spencer will have to be absolutely on top of their game.
If the Cowboys can find a way to disrupt this part of the offense, then getting to McNabb should become much, much easier. He says his ankle is fine but there's no doubt his overall mobility will be limited. He may be able to pull off a waggle or bootleg throughout the game but cutting back and forth to get away from Ware won't be easy on a bum foot.
The Cowboys have had success over McNabb the past few seasons and know how to get him off his game. The key is to turn this around and knock the entire Redskins offense off guard and being able to contain this very vital part of their gameplan. We've seen how deadly McNabb can be outside the pocket and we've seen how horrible he can be if the Cowboys can get pressure on him in the pocket.
These are some important keys to the game, but none more so than this...
This is going to be a close game. It's going to be a hard fought game by both sides and the Redskins will have more emotion, pride and ability than we've seen in a long time. Yet the Cowboys are ultimately the better team and should win this game; just don't be surprised or upset if the Cowboys don't blow the Skins out of the water.
The Cowboys are going to have to fight the urge not to panic if things aren't going well early on. Garrett will have to stick with the running game from start to finish and can't fall back on Romo at the first sign of trouble. Patience on Sunday night is paramount to the success of the Cowboys, whether it's on defense, offense or special teams.
Too many times we've seen Garrett panic early in the game and not stick with something that's working; for the first game of the season, against a division opponent and with the weapons on this team, patience will be key.