The rematch is upon us. Will the Cowboys regain their equilibrium? Will the Redskins get the sweep? Will the earth swallow up Wade Phillips if the Cowboys lose? Here is an abbreviated list of things to watch tonight.
When the Redskins Have the Ball
The Cowboys dominated the first fifteen minutes in the first game, sacking Jason Campbell twice and keeping the Redskins on their side of the field. The game turned in the second quarter when Washington discovered that Terence Newman could not run. Santana Moss beat him short. James Thrash beat him for a touchdown on a simple out from motion, and then Moss got behind him twice to set up ten more Redskins points.
The Cowboys stayed with Newman but had to back both safeties off the ball, which opened up the Washington running game. Add some awful tackling by the Dallas safeties and we saw a last 20 minutes dominated by Washington's running game.
-- Jay Ratliff and Tank Johnson: the Cowboys run defense depends on the nose tackles and backside ends to make plays, especially when it runs its base sets. Washington used a lot of three receiver sets to pull a linebacker or safey into space and then ran stretch plays and tosses to the strong side behind Chris Cooley.
When Jay Ratliff was able to get free and penetrate plays blew up. When he was engaged, or just missed tackles, Clinton Portis broke free for big gains.
He's going to need another big game. He's also going to need help from Johnson, who has been erratic. Johnson's best game of the season came against Tampa Bay. Not surprisingly, it was Dallas' best defensive game the last month. The Cowboys will also be helped if the ends can slip their blocks and crash from the backside. They were terrible at this in week four and Portis found huge cutback lanes when Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher were buried.
-- Terence Newman: He was a sieve first time around. If he's healthy the Cowboys can play a safety up to slow the running game down. Forcing Campbell to hold the ball an extra count will be important because
-- Anthony Spencer: the Cowboys rush pressured Campbell all game. They got to him early and just missed several sacks later in the game. He was able to beat the pressure because he's crafty and because he kept finding Moss wide open at the last moment. Spencer finally played a healthy game against New York and was very disruptive. He's had the bye to give his injured knee more time to heal. A bigger rush from him will help Demarcus Ware.
When Dallas Has the Ball
Kyle Kosier: In the Thursday chat, KC Joyner noted that when it comes to o-line performance, a line with five average guys will do better than one with two or three outstanding players and one stiff.
Kosier is a steady player. His replacement, Cory Proctor, has been a major disappointment. He was overwhelmed in the first Washington game. Dallas couldn't run draws and traps early because he was pushed into the backfield and he was a major liability in the second half because Redskins rushers kept pushing him into the pocket. This prevented Tony Romo from stepping up on several key throws to open receivers.
With Kosier back the Cowboys should be able to give Romo a more stable pocket. They should also gain some balance in their run attack. They've been very right handed this year, while they were a more left handed team last year.
Terrell Owens: Seems odd to to place him on a key players list but Owens had a horrible game in the last Redskins match. He dropped passes. He mistimed jumps. He cut off routes and committed more than his fair share of mistakes. Washington pressed him and the Redskins' DBs mugged him repeatedly. He didn't get the flags he was looking for and seemed to lose focus.
Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton: Washington's game plan was to press short and rotate safey help over the top to the corner playing Owens, while bracketing Jason Witten with a linebacker.
It took Jason Garrett a while to find the soft areas in the Redskins coverage. Nearly all of Dallas big plays came to Austin and Crayton running short and intermediate routes in the middle of the field.
Time and more losses have seemingly increased the Redskins' margin in that game. The final was 26-24 and the margin was due to slow adjustments by the Dallas staff and poor execution by the Cowboys offense. Romo missed several open receiver and the receivers in turn dropped several catchable balls.
That said, Romo still made some magical plays, scrambing free and finding targets.
Look for Dallas to play an inside-out passing game if Washington tries the same pressure packages they did in game one. Look for Roy Williams and Miles Austin to press deep outside to create more space in the middle of the field. Look for Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett to run more deep seams up the hashes.
Look for Dallas to come out in three wide and to play T.O. in the slot. He was deadly on Dallas' 3rd quarter TD drive running shallow crosses, which got him free from short and deep help.
When Owens is not running in the middle, look for Crayton and Austin to take their turns running the same patterns here.
Prediction: Dallas is 10-1 in prime time behind Romo. The pressure is on, the lights will be bright and Romo will be in his comfort zone. Dallas has closed its two biggest holes, at LCB, where a healthy Newman is replacing a staggering one and at left guard, where Proctors game kept deterioriaing with every passing week.
I look for a tight game early. The key for Dallas will be staying even with Washington or getting a lead. The Redskins didn't try pounding Portis until they had the ball with a lead early in the 4th. He won't be here tonight. Ladell Betts will be. He's good, but he lacks Portis' spark.
The Redskins have been a better road team than a home team. They've lost to the Rams at home and Pittsburgh drilled them there two weeks ago. They barely escaped the Browns 14-11 and had to sweat out tough wins over New Orleans and Arizona.
Nothing comes easy for them there. I don't think it will come easy this time either. Get your popcorn ready. Dallas wins the overwhelming majority of their prime time games but they're almost all shootouts. I look for a lot of points but a favorable outcome.
Dallas 28 Washington 24