The rivalry that is again revs up Sunday when Dallas visits Fed Ex Field to play the Redskins. Playoff slots are on the line as both teams seek to keep pace with a large and compact NFC field.
When the Redksins Have the Ball
They're a tough bunch to figure out. When you scan Washington's results this season, the only consistent factor is their offensive inconsistency. They were shut out in Giants Stadium and held to less than 100 total yards. Yet two games later they put 35 points on the board against a tough Tampa Bay D.
Mostly, they've stuggled of late, topping the 20 point mark only twice in the last six games. Gibbs' game plans are conservative. He likes running Clinton Portis hard at opponents to set up play action passing. Washington has mobile guards in Derrick Dockery and Randy Thomas, so expect them to run sweeps and their famed counter OT at both Cowboys OLBs, especially rookie Demarcus Ware, who appears to be wearing out late in his rookie campaign.
Mike Zimmer had a lot of success blitzing Washington QB Mark Brunell in September, getting him five times. Roy Williams spent most of the day in the Redskins backfield on safety blitzes. Washington had its bye the week following the Cowboys win and spent a lot of time working on protection. Gibbs now gives Brunell much more seven man pockets and on semi rollouts to escape blitz pressure. Brunell is not the mad scrambler of years past, but he still has good speed and can run for first downs if you don't account for him.
I expect Zimmer to be more sparing with his pressure. He won't give it up completely, since the Dallas front four has had some difficulty getting a four man push lately, but I think Zimmer will pick his spots, since I expect Washington to be much better prepared for his blitz packages. One matchup that favors Dallas when it plays 4-2-5 will be rookie DT/DE Chris Canty on LG Dockery. Dockery is Washington's best run blocker but has trouble with skilled inside rushers. Canty has stepped ahead of fellow rookie Ware and Marcus Spears and has taken a lot of reps from Greg Ellis lately.
When Washington passes it has two primary options. The shorter weapon is H-back Chris Cooley, who Gibbs throws to on first down deep outs and on bootlegs. The deeper weapon, as all Cowboys fans know, is Santana Moss. The former Jet has blossomed in Gibbs offense, making his first formal announcement against the Cowboys, catching two long TD passes in the last five minutes of September's game.
Gibbs succeeded in matching Moss against nickel WR Aaron Glenn. Dallas' coverage was stictly by side then, with Glenn on the left, Anthony Henry on the right and Terence Newman in the slot. Gibbs used a three receiver set with slot receivers left and Moss as the flanker right. This put Moss alone against Glenn with Roy Williams over the top. On Sunday, don't be surprised if the Cowboys do a lot more matchup with Newman following Moss everywhere. Newman has been Dallas' most steady corner all year. He's also the fastest and healthiest CB.
When Dallas has the Ball
Will the Cowboys again be aggressive, or won't they be aggressive? I guess that depends on what you mean by aggressive. To some being aggressive means throwing the ball deep down field, to stretch a secondary's coverage. By this definition, Dallas has been aggressive all year. They have not shied away from the deep attempts to Terry Glenn in any game this year.
Another definition refers to the amount of numerical pressure you apply to a defense. In this regard, the Cowboys have been conservative at times and aggressive at others. Last week, when Bill Parcells mentioned he was opening up the defense, he meant the team would call a lot more plays that sent five receivers out on routes. In the weeks since Flozell Adams was lost with a knee injury, the Cowboys had cut back dramatically on four and five receiver plays, keeping a tight end and a back in to help backup Torrin Tucker and rookie RT Rob Petitti.
Parcells may have been playing a cat and mouse game with Redskins DC Gregg Williams when he mentioned the team will back off its pressure. Parcells as snookered in week two by Williams, who spent most of the week talking up his pressure schemes. Parcells and OC Sean Payton expected a lot of blitzing and installed a game plan with lots of max protect schemes and some deeper throws. They were stymied when Washington feigned blitz, stacking the line before the snap, and backed off, clogging the Cowboys passing lanes.
Parcells and Payton will have to guess what type of schemes they will face the second time around. If they assume Williams will back off, we'll see a game plan similar to the Kansas City one, with more first down passes to the tight end and fullback and lots of delayed routes to the tight ends and backs. If Williams goes back to his aggressive tendencies running five man routes is a recipe for a lot of sacks.
Williams has a dilemma of his own. His starting corners and his nickel corner have all missed practice this week rehabbing injuries. Rookie Carlos Rogers has a bicep injury, which should not limit his play. However, CBs Walt Harris and Shawn Springs are nursing leg injuries. What will Williams do to protect them? Will he back off and play softer schemes? It's possible, but it's not his style. Or will he bring even more heat, trying to get to Drew Bledsoe before Bledsoe can pick on his guys?
My guess is that we'll see a bend but don't break scheme between the 20s, with Williams picking his times for heavy blitzing.
Dallas will, of course, continue its quest for a power running attack. The line has run hot and cold, mostly cold, but nonetheless keeps plugging away. Maintaining a heavy ratio of running attempts will be key to giving Bledsoe time.
Get ready for another close one. It's been the Cowboys receipe all year. What's more, it's been Washington's recipe as well. They're flawed, but they're a good team, and they'll keep your hand moving to the Tums dish all afternoon.
I think in the end the game will turn on Dallas' ability to stay close. The Cowboys have had a terrible time closing out games, but so has Washington, especially at home. I predict this their trend to take precedence.
Dallas 21, Washington 20