"I'm free, to do what I want, any old time..."
You see it in baseball all the time. A team stresses, falls out of the pennant race mid-season, and then relaxes and plays much better once the pressure is off.
Right now, the Redskins are playing the baseball role, singing like Mick Jagger and making their opponents feel a bit restrained. Owner Daniel Snyder takes ample heat for treating his team like the world's most expensive fantasy team, but he took one for his team recently, expressing regret to frustrated fans for a promising season gone sour. The backhanded mea-culpa has set his players and coaches free. HC Jim Zorn, DC Greg Blache and the rest of the assistants know they're auditioning for their next jobs, and they have brought a more relaxed, free-wheeling approach since the team's bye. They played their standard tight game against Atlanta two weeks ago and stunned the Broncos last week, stomping the Denver D for a season high 27 points and a ten point win.
The looseness and unpredictability gives Dallas cause to feel their Green Bay frustration won't be easily overcome.
When Washington Has the Ball
The season looked lost early because this piece of the Redskins' game broke down because of injury and inexperience. The offense line was a strength in '08, offering strong running to the left, behind LT Chris Samuels and LG Pete Kendall. Kendall, however, left in free agency and was replaced by former Redskin Derrick Dockery, signed back after a tour in Buffalo. Dockery played poorly early on, as did fellow Longhorn and Bill Mike Williams, lured out of retirement and given a shot on Washington's left side.
The line eroded further when RG Randy Thomas was lost to injury. Samuels joined him after suffering a neck injury which produced numbness in his legs. Scans found Samuels had stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, and Samuels career may be done. If the line injuries were not enough, Clinton Portis broke down and has not played in recent games.
OL coach Joe Bugel stabilized the tackle situation and jump started an already respectable Redskins rushing attack by settling former Bengal Levi Jones at left tackle. Washington used a three man rotation of Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright and rookie Quinton Ganther to gash Denver for 181 rushing yards last week. Washington has 310 rushing yards since their bye two games ago.
Much of Washington's yards come to the edges, on off-tackle runs, tosses and stretch plays. Washington wants to establish run, because they do not pass protect as well as they run block (8 sacks allowed in those same two games) and their passing attack continues to be erratic.
Watch Washington's tackles Jones and Stephon Heyer against the Dallas ends Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. Olshansky and Spears have been stout against the run and if they can hold their ground, they'll put the game on Jason Campbell's shoulders. The maligned QB has improved his down the field looks this year, after gaining a reputation as an overly cautious, check-down-first tosser. The poor pass protection and lack of size has limited those opportunities; Washington's tight ends have almost as many receptions as the Redskins' receivers.
Santana Moss remains the deep threat, but his numbers are much lower than in year's past. He has 31 catches for just over 500 yards. Miles Austin, by comparison, has the same number of catches and over 100 yards more in yardage with four fewer starts.
Washington wants to play ball control, running and throwing to secon- year TE Fred Davis, who has begun to produce in recent games as Chris Cooley is rehabbing an injury. Davis had four catches for 50 yards last week, leading all Redskins' receivers.
The task will be simple in concept -- win first down and put Washington into long downs, where Campbell cannot move the chains with short tosses to his tight ends and backs. As always, Dallas will have to watch for gadget plays, from a team which has used more and more of them this year. WR Antwaan Randle-El played QB at Indiana and could be motioned into a passing position at any time. This team has nothing to lose and will reach deep in its playbook. (More on this later.)
When Dallas Has the Ball
Blache's defense plays a simple scheme, and does it well. Only one team has pushed the yardage totals past 351 yards Washington this year. Surprisingly, it was Detroit, in their lone win at Ford Field. Only two of the last six Redskins opponents have topped 300 total yards.
Washington ranks at the top of passing yards allowed, though its pass rush ranks mid-pack. Washington has a lot of speed in its back seven and creates small windows for opponents, though they are not invulnerable. Brandon Marshall was destroying them last week. His 75 yard first quarter bomb put starting RCB Carlos Rogers on the bench. Rogers will probably play this week, though the Redskins have been coy all week about his status.
Miles Austin will have a chance for big plays if Washington plays its stardard coverages. They will likely matchup up Rogers on Austin and let him go. Watch what Jason Garrett does in matchups; Rogers seems vulnerable to deep speed and fellow CB DeAngelo Hall has some issues with power.
In last year's 14-10 win in Washington, Dallas attacked Hall with Terrell Owens; T.O. ran a lot of inside slants, where he could use size to box out the smaller Hall. Owens was open repeatedly, but Tony Romo's splint made the slant a guessing game; Romo could not get a good grip on quick timing throws and frequently double-clutched his throws. Romo was also consistently behind, leading to two picks; one into Hall's arms, and a second which was batted into LB Rocky McIntosh's hands.
Roy Williams, despite his drops, has found his repertoire the last two games. He's a one-cut-and-go guy; he excels at slants, posts and deep ins, the inside half of the Michael Irvin repertoire. Look for Dallas to match Williams against him and run the same routes that worked for Owens last year.
Watch where Austin lines up and what matchups Garrett creates for him. Dallas may flop him to the right side against Hall and try double moves. Hall is a ball-hawk, who attacks the first routes. He has four of Washington's five picks this year. He plays the same way Sheldon Brown does in Philly, and Dallas set him up two weeks ago for a big strike. What's more likely is we'll see some three receiver looks where Austin is motioned into the middle of the field. Washington plays a combination of two deep zone and man coverages. They had good coverage safeties in Chris Horton and LaRon Landry, but Horton is out, replaced by Reed Doughty, making seams to the receiver and TEs a more inviting target. Martellus Bennett won last year's rematch beating Horton this way and he's a far better coverage option.
Owens had a huge day in '07 when Garrett motioned him into the middle and sent him deep against the cover two sets. T.O. got matched with the middle linebacker in those situations and easily got open deep. In last year's rematch, he made a huge catch on Dallas' first scoring drive when he motioned into the slot and ran away from Landry.
They key for Dallas' offense, as it is for Washington's will be winning first down. The Redskins don't blitz much, relying on their four man front to generate pressure. End Andre Carter (8) and rookie Brian Orakpo (7) have combined for 15 of Washington's 24 sacks. Big-ticket newbie Albert Haynesworth has three and nobody has added more than one. Washington uses Orakpo the same way New York has used Mathias Kiwanuka in recent seasons; he's the strong-side OLB and moves to end in passing situations.
He's been a godsend for their previously anemic pass rush (just 24 sacks in all of '08) but he's a liability against the run. Denver had a lot of success running to the edges of Washington's front last week, particularly to their right. This presents a bit of a problem for Garrett. I expect a run:pass mix to skew much higher to the run this week, in order to run at Orakpo while he's off the line of scrimmage. At the same time, Dallas has entered the Doug Free era. How much confidence does Dallas have in his run blocking? Probably a little more than they do in his pass blocking at this point.
The let-'er-rip philosophy was here on opening day, when the Redskins surprised the Giants with a fake field goal for a touchdown. Last week punter Hunter Smith tossed a score to blocking back Mike Sellars. ST coach Danny Smith gamble turned the game permanently in Washington's favor. The Redskins are 3-6. They have nothing to lose. Joe DeCamillis' guys will have to anticipate onside kicks and fakes on every return situation. If the Cowboys exhale on 4th down, the Redskins will try to catch them off guard too.
This looks like a home game version of the Packers matchup. An opponent with a good defense and a struggling offense. I think the defense can play its part. They kept the Packers in check last week and have not played a fair game since Kansas City and have not played poorly since the Giants loss in week two. Nobody has run over them since Tampa did in week one.
The game will come down to the offense's performance. Garrett's run balance has been ripped all week, but to me it's the flavor-of-the week, which will be quickly forgotten along with his goal line play calling, Romo's play, Terence Newman's struggles and Roy Williams' lack of sync if the execution returns. Dallas had at least four big pass plays go for nothing because or drops, fumbles and errant throws. Garrett will likely dial up more runs, but given Washington's character and Haynesworth's iffy status, this was likely to be the case anyway.
Romo has slowly dialed in Williams the last two weeks while losing his focus with Austin. If the Cowboys connect on their passes, they will move the ball and they will score.
They key as I see it, will be Dallas' red zone production. Dallas moved the ball very effectively in their Washington win last year but twice turned the ball over to end long drives. Dallas needs to hold on to the football when it gets into Washington's half and it need Nick Folk to convert his kicks. We may see a lot of field goal attempts this week and Folk looks like a guy with the yips at the moment.
In any case, hunker down and get ready for a 60 minute contest. The Redskins are very good at yoking opponents to their level of play. Nothing will likely come easily tomorrow.