The old rivals renew acquaintances this Monday when Joe Gibbs brings Washington to Texas Stadium. Both teams are coming off opening day victories and look for a leg up in an important early divisional game.
When the Redskins Have the Ball
We are about to see two teams that tactically are offensive mirror images of each other. Washington runs the one-back, two TE offense almost exclusively on early downs, switching to multiple receiver sets on passing downs. The devotion to one back is no surprise -- Gibbs helped devise the scheme when he was the RB coach for Don Coryell at San Diego in the late '70s.
Chuck Muncie was the plowhorse then and today Clinton Portis is Gibbs' guy. The name of the game for Washington will be ball control. With the QB position in disarray (Washingon switched from Patrick Ramsey to aging vet Mark Brunell mid-game against Chicago and announced that this week that Brunell is the starter) the Redskins will hope for a repeat of last week's game plan.
The Redskins ran up a 34:15 to 25:45 edge in time of possession by rotating Portis and big backup Ladell Betts. Betts got 12 carries, an impressive number for a backup. But it was Portis who really made things go, racking up 121 yards on 21 carries, a whopping 5.8 yards per attempt. Portis' long run was 41 yards, which means he still averaged 4.0 yards for the remaining 20 plays.
Look for Washington to run left and attack the right side of the Dallas front. The Cowboys did an admirable job of containing LaDainian Tomlinson in last week's win over San Diego. However, they had trouble stopping counter plays run at DE Greg Ellis and rookie OLB Demarcus Ware. Ware was frequently hooked inside by Chargers tight ends and fullbacks and if he does not improve his technique, he'll find Washington attacking him as well. On the other side of the ball, Washington's strength is on its left side, where LT Chris Samuels and LG Derrick Dockery reside. The Redskins' left side is much larger than its right side, so watch for the Redskins to open as the Chargers did, with several attempts with Washington's signature counter-trey left, until Dallas proves it can stop it.
Look for Dallas to counter with lots of eight man fronts, with Roy Williams offering lots of run support.
When the Redskins pass, the plan is simple -- stop Santana Moss. The speedster is the lone deep threat, pulling in a 52 yard bomb last week. The diminuative Moss should find the going a bit tougher this week against the Cowboys' corners. Both Terence Newman and Anthony Henry are bigger than him and will probably engage in some aggressive man-to-man coverage. Both were victimized by the crafty Keenan McCardell last week, but the corners showed, one play aside, that they were not going to allow anything deep.
The Chargers challenged Henry more than Newman and paid for it. Henry defensed five passes and picked one. He let another slide through his fingers on the last drive. His game closed off the outside; all the completions, with the exception of an 8 yard out on the Chargers opening play were on patterns in the middle of the field. Henry caused some heart palpitations when he permitted a 32 yard post to Eric Parker on a 4th-and-14 play. Henry claimed he temporarily lost sight of the ball in the sun and his play the rest of the game bears this out. San Diego challenged him deep repeatedly but could never get an edge.
The Redskins may have more success targeting Newman. He was equally as effective as Henry in preventing the deep pass, but had some problems on intermediate routes. The Chargers ran a lot of combination routes at him and he excelled at taking away the deep options. However, he was burned a couple of times underneath and missed two tackles that turned 9 yard gains into 16 yard gains. I have confidence Newman can stay with Moss down the field, but if he whiffs on the speedy Moss on a short 7 to 9 yard route the result would be the same as a bomb.
The more likely option for the Redskins is to attack the middle of the field. Their second best passing weapon is TE Chris Cooley and he could have matchup advantages against the Cowboys' inside linebackers and free safety Keith Davis. Davis was shaky, allowing two TDs to McCardell. The Cowboys linebackers were also targets of the Chargers receivers; San Diego frequently went three wide and threw to the slot receivers who were matched up against Dat Nguyen and Bradie James.
Washington will get such matchups because Dallas is stubborn about its defensive packages. Against the Chargers it went 3-4 about 85 percent of the game and spent of the rest of it in a 4-2-5 nickel set. One advantage the Cowboys should derive from the Redskins' QB change is that Brunell now seems to be a blinkered QB who bails early on his primary options. Last year, Brunell had a reputation of a guy who felt the rush too soon and bailed on plays.
Last week, the Bears blitzed the Redskins heavily on passing plays. Starter Patrick Ramsey stood in against the pressure, getting 105 yards in 11 attempts, a gaudy 9.5 yard average per attempt. Ramsey was yanked because he was reckless with the ball, throwing an interception and fumbling twice. When Brunell came into the game, he averaged only 70 yards on 14 attempts, a miserable 5.0 yards per attempt. This means that Brunell was very quick to respond to pressure by dumping the ball off to his short option.
Expect the Cowboys to dial up their ratio of blitzes. Against San Diego, DC Mike Zimmer started slowly, rushing 4 men on 1st and second downs and bringing a fifth rusher on third downs. In the middle of the game, Zimmer increased the instances of five man rushes to an almost equal mix with four man plays. In the fourth quarter, he brought the house, bringing six men twice and the full seven man blitz on three occassions. He did this three times on the final Chargers drive.
What's more, the Cowboys almost never ran twists or stunts. The rushers would come in assigned lanes, and try to beat the protection by overloading a side. One of the few times a twist was used, LaRoi Glover sacked Drew Brees to end a Chargers' fourth quarter series. I anticipate a lot more games from the Cowboys' rush, as Brunell is not as crafty as Brees or as patient.
When the Cowboys blitz, they need to work out their recognition and reaction to draw plays. Four times last week the Chargers converted situations of third and more than six yards by handing the ball to Tomlinson. All of the plays were run left, at Ware. Joe Gibbs has to know Brunell is skittish against maximum pressure and would enjoy running the draw as successfully as San Diego did.
When the Cowboys Have the Ball
I mentioned last week that much of the Cowboys passing game is cribbed from versions of the so called "West Coast Offense." However, much of the Dallas running game, and much of what Dallas will try to do with the ball, is based on schemes cribbed from Gibbs. The Cowboys love to run Julius Jones out of one-back, two-tight-end sets. The Cowboys are much more willing than Washington to line up their H-backs in the backfield to serve as lead blockers for Jones.
Against the Chargers, Dallas went with a patient, ball-control game that run almost two thirds of the time on first down. Expect more of the same this week. However, look for a difference in emphasis. Last week Dallas attacked the perimeter of the San Diego 3-4 front and ran away from NT Jamal Williams. Dallas challenged him from time to time but did not find regular room inside until the fourth quarter, after second C Andre Gurode had a chance to work on Williams and his stamina began to wane.
Look for Dallas to attack the inside of the Washington front. The Redskins have an active defense, with DTs Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a and MLB Lemar Marshall. However, they lack size and depth. Former Cowboys DT Brandon Noble, a key to a DT rotation, will miss the game with injury. While the inside three are game, Griffin is the giant at 300 lbs. Marshall is only 227 lbs. You've all heard about Washington DC Gregg Williams' love of the blitz on running and passing plays. But you can only be so effective if you're being overmatched. The likely plan A for Dallas is to beat the blitz by beating it up on first and second downs with power running.
Blitzing also means lots of press coverage on the outside. The Redskins have a saavy veteran in Shawn Springs but they also have a green if talented rookie in Carlos Rogers. Look for Dallas to test Rogers early on, with double moves. He had a lot of trouble in the preseason with out and ups, stop and gos and other routes that played off his aggressiveness. Terry Glenn could be the beneficiary of Rogers' inexperience.
Also look for Dallas to spread the field on early downs with a three WR set and try to exploit mismatches in the middle of the field. Last week San Diego bracketed TE Jason Witten and he had only one reception for 12 yards. However, in doing so, they provided single coverge for second year WR Patrick Crayton, who had a coming out party against the Chargers' secondary. An aggressive defense like Washington's will offer similar matchup problems. FS Sean Taylor faces a dilemma. Will he help with Crayton, who now commands respect, and leave Witten man to man? Or will he give Crayton free reign again over the middle of the field, where his slants, seams and crossing routes are so effective?
Another key for Dallas will be the shrewdness of Drew Bledsoe. Last week, Bledsoe was sacked four times. That should be taken as a good thing by Dallas fans, as he was unwilling to make desperate throws in crucial areas of the field and at critical times of the game. Bledsoe was sacked on his own 1 yard line early in the game. He took a sack right before the half. He was caught on a corner blitz near midfield that resulted in a fumble and he took a sack on a play that earned a roughing the passer penalty inside his own 20. While the sacks were negative plays, trying to throw at those times or in those positions would have risked game turning turnovers.
Bledsoe will face similar situations this week. The Redskins will bring people from every imaginable angle: off the corner. From the safeties. From the line. By overloading one side. Then the other. Bledsoe will again have to be willing to take the sack to avoid the turnover. He will get chances against this defense and if he executes as he did against the Chargers he will make big plays. Parcells is not keeping him on a short game plan. "Driving the bus" does not mean playing it safe for Bledsoe. It means playing it smart.
The coverage teams hurt Dallas badly, giving the Chargers two short fields for their two second half scoring drives. Keeping Brunell out of comfort zone is a must. Dallas could break him early if they put him on long fields and can pressure him. If he gets good field position and is not responsible for being their offensive focal point, it could be a long night.
Prediction: This is a similar team to the Chargers, with a smart offense and a smaller defense. Their pass defense is better than San Diego's but their run defense is not as good. Patience on offense and smart special teams should produce a similar result in the second half. As long as the offense is not coughing up the ball, the defense should get some negative plays and perhaps from turnovers from Brunell. Dallas 23, Washingon 14