In anticipation of the rivalry game against the Washington Redskins, I asked Skin Patrol from SB Nation's Redskins blog, Hogs Haven, to answer a few questions. He obliged and the results are below.
Blogging The Boys: Under Joe Gibbs, we knew what to expect from the Redskins offense. How have things changed under Jim Zorn?
Hogs Haven: I think it's still early enough to say that the jury is still deliberating. The run game has not changed substantially, as Zorn (wisely, I think) decided to leave that aspect of our offense the same. The passing game is different in terms of scheme and vocabulary. Some guys appear to have taken to it just fine (Santana Moss) others haven't (Malcolm Kelly, although it's not as if he has to forget the Joe Gibbs scheme, either). This offense lives and dies on Jason Campbell, really. Scheme aside, it doesn't make a difference how good the play is if Campbell is throwing on or near the line of scrimmage on 3rd and distance. We had six 3rd downs fail against the Giants on Jason Campbell short passes that either fell incomplete or were caught by people too many yards in front of the 1st down marker. A nine yard pass on 3rd and 11 is useless. A 4 yard pass on 3rd and 6 is useless. In terms of differences overall, caveating this with the recognition that it is still early, Jim Zorn appears to be much more willing to roll the dice than Coach Gibbs was. Just in the past three games, we've seen a somewhat criticized 2 point conversion, a risky field goal in the last game, and a game-killing play action pass late in the Arizona game. I have to think Coach Gibbs would've just ran it 3 times (probably not for a first down) and punted; Zorn went for the throat, and the gamble paid off.
BTB: How had Jason Taylor been playing? Is it going to hurt the Redskins defense with him out of the game?
HH: He's been ok. His one sack isn't necessarily indicative of the pressure he's gotten, as he also has 4 passes defensed. Taylor has a big wingspan, so he's pretty good at swatting the ball. Teams have been running at him fairly consistently and with effect; I tend to think we might have someone else on the roster better against the run. The reason we're going to hurt without Taylor isn't necessarily because we won't have him (again, he's playing at good -- not great -- level) but because we don't really know who is behind him. Daniels is injured, that's why we traded for Taylor, and behind him it's Demetric Evans, Chris Wilson, Rob Jackson, and Erasmus James. Evans will likely get the start. Chris Wilson really came alive at the end of last season and, although I'd hoped he'd carry that success into 2008, not a peep has been heard from him. We drafted Rob Jackson at the end of last year's draft and Erasmus James was a high potential guy who has fizzled out at the NFL level. So you have all these people competing for that spot behind Taylor with no one yet really distinguishing themselves. Evans is a reliable backup, has been for years, but I worry about him starting against an offense as good as the Cowboys. There will be substantial rotation at that position.
Biggest loser on this is Andre Carter on the other side, as your pass protection can now focus to scheme against him. I doubt Evans will demand any double teams.
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BTB: Jason Campbell looks to be progressing nicely as an NFL QB. Tell us a little about his play, strengths and weaknesses.
HH: Strength so far has been protecting the football, which he didn't do so hot last year. He's moving much better in the pocket and his accuracy is way up too, from 60% to over 65%. That's raised his -- our -- yards per pass attempt and his rating, obviously, which is the highest in any three game stretch I think it's ever been right now. No interceptions and no fumbles is a miracle, given that he had 24 fumbles and picks in 13 games last year. Jim Zorn has been great for Jason Campbell, although that should acknowledge we haven't been truly tested besides the Giants defense.
Weakness has to be pass selection. He's telegraphing his passes too much still and, as mentioned above, has a frustrating willingness to dump off on third down too soon. How much of that is on his receivers I don't know, but there's no utility in checking down to your running back on 3rd and long if he's covered. I think he's still learning when and where his receivers are going to be open on any particular play and isn't reading the field nearly as well as he needs to. Against Arizona, for instance, there were two plays where we had wide open receivers and it took Campbell ages to identify where they were. In on instance he finally did get the ball to Devin Thomas (just absolutely uncovered) though the play, a 70 yard touchdown, was called back by penalty.
BTB: What are your best and worst memories from the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry?
HH: No doubt worst memory was sitting at Texas Stadium in 2006. The only memorable play from the Redskins was an ultimately meaningless kickoff return touchdown by Rock Cartwright. Besides that our longest play was 24 yards; in other words, just a miserable day. That wasn't the best way to chase the 2005 miracle game, obviously. Close second would be 2007, a kid no older than 9 years old told me, Redskins generally, that we sucked in the parking lot after the game. His responsible grandmother encouraged him, what a bitch.
I'm young but even granting that I'll put undue emphasis on the recent. 2006 miracle game with the Sean Taylor blocked kick return was pretty awesome, since I spent the game with all Cowboys fans who were absolutely dejected by it. But nothing beat 2005's Monday Night Miracle. My girlfriend had already gone to sleep -- she's a Cowboys fan -- thinking the game was hers. Although entirely fatalistic about the outcome, I decided to stay up just to watch my beloved 'Skins hopefully score at least one touchdown. Given the way the offense had played through 3 and a half quarters of football, even that seemed unbelievable. By the end I was screaming like a crazy person, running around the house. It was shocking to me.
It's so rare for an NFL game to have such an unpredictable outcome, period. Teams that play like dogmeat through 3 and a half quarters don't typically turn it on in the final minutes of the game on two consecutive drives (4th and 15? Are you kidding me?). Rarer still is when you get that amazing burst of offense so close together... and it matters. Dallas could've had 17 points and it wouldn't have mattered what we did on those two drives. And the cherry on top is that it happens in the game you want it most, against a hated rival on national television. How often do all those things come together? Once a lifetime?
BTB: For the Redskins to pull off the upset, what has to happen on Sunday?
HH: Must be pressure on Tony Romo. I don't need to tell you that the Cowboys have looked remarkably good so far, especially on offense. If Tony Romo has an opportunity to lead the offense as they've played through this young season, we won't win. Cowboys must score less than 27 points (Green Bay Game) for us to win, I think. And the key to that starts with taking your quarterback out of his usual gameplan by getting pressure. Have we done that super effectively over the past few years? Not especially. And I doubt DC Blache will blitz as much as Gregg Williams did in the past, so that pass rush needs to be generated by an injured front four. Sounds pretty hopeless?
Terrell Owens absotively posilutely cannot go off for 180 yards receiving and four touchdowns if we expect to win this game. Witten and Ownes were our Achilles heel last year, and I'd much rather we dare some of the other players on your team to beat us (though that's dangerous, given you have another apparent play-maker in Felix Jones). Word is we will probably employ a bend-don't-break strategy, which I think is largely a Faustian bargain against an offense that is sure to break us eventually, but that's the circumstance we find ourselves in. If there were an easy, low-risk, obvious solution to T.O., Romo, and Witten, those three guys and your offense wouldn't be so successful. But they are.
Front four pass rush is clutch but the big matchups will be Shawn Springs (to the extent that he gets the opportunity) on Terrell Owens and Rocky McIntosh or whomever on Witten. I think the success those two guys have, just like last year at Texas Stadium, will largely impact the way this game shakes out.
In sum: Vegas has us as 11 point underdogs. If I knew how to make 11 point underdogs into sure-fire winners, I'd be coaching.
HH: I always feel goofy answering this question since everyone knows generally what I'm going to say. Even facing a huge spread, of course it is Redskins win Redskins win! Usually when the line is closer or the 'Skins are favored, I can at least pretend to be objective since the outcome is all but determined by the betting public at large. But I'm not objective; I am a devoted Redskins partisan who only views his team through burgundy colored glasses. They will win, obviously. For Dallas Cowboys fans, I doubt I have anything interesting to add regarding predictions. Oh yea, Redskins win!