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Back to Work: Cowboys @ Redskins Preview

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The Cowboys control their divisional destiny, after an impressive win over the Saints.  They travel to suburban Maryland tomorrow to play the Redskins, hoping to keep their playoff drive on track.

They'll play a Redskins team which fell to earth with a thud, losing 45-12 to New York, after a month of close losses to the Eagles, Cowboys and Saints, and one blowout win over the Raiders.  Their players apparently hailed GM Vinnie Cerrato's resignation last week, but made a poor impression on new honcho Bruce Allen, showing no intensity and sloppy execution against a desperate Giants team

When the Redskins Have the Ball

Was last week the anomaly or a harbinger of more meltdowns to come?  Washington had staggered through almost a full season's worth of poor offensive games under Jim Zorn; Washington went from November 3, 2008 to November 22 of this year, a span of 18 games, and topped 20 points just twice. 

Zorn lost his play-calling duties at mid-season and was replaced by a committee headed by former Packers assistant Sherman Lewis.  The change brought a blip of improvement.  Washington scored 27 in an upset over the Broncos; they scored 24, 30 and 34 in the three games preceeding the Giants loss. Quarterback Jason Campbell got a lot of ink for raising his play, but the real star was offensive line coach Joe Bugel.

Bugel tightened up a makeshift offensive line that had been emaciated by injuries.  He lost LT Chris Samuels and RG Randy Thomas off his starting roster, but had successfully incorporated free agent tackle Levi Jones in Samuels' spot and got multi-team castoff Mike Williams and youngster Stephon Hoyer to play respectable ball on the right side.  In a three game span that included the Cowboys, Eagles and Saints losses, the time when Washington's offense took flight, Bugel's guys surrendered just three sacks.  They had given up 30 in their first nine games.

Then, the patches began to fail.  Oakland sacked Jason Campbell three times and the Giants hammered him and Todd Collins last week, finishing with five sacks.  Campbell was knocked from the game in the 2nd quarter, though he returned to mop up in the 4th, when the game was out of hand.

Washington has severe athletic mismatches when their line faces the Cowboys front seven and we should see Wade Phillips use some of the same tactics Giants DC Bill Sheridan used so effectively last week.  The Giants attacked the Redskins in three ways which mirror blitzes Phillips likes to use.  First, they ran stunts at Washington's right side.  RT tackle Hoyer started the game with a bum knee and had to leave early.  He was replaced by William Robinson, who was promoted from the practice squad just before the game.  Robinson and RG Williams could not keep track of the looping Giants' linemen.  Williams in particular let Justin Tuck blow past him on several stunts.  He's a huge man, but has awful feet and so-so recognition.   Think Leonard Davis on a nyquil bender and you get the idea.

Dallas likes running games off the right edge with Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff.  Check the Redskins line early.  Hoyer missed much of this week's practices, though he did work out on Friday.  If he's there, watch the Cowboys attack him and Williams with games, to see if they can adjust.  If Robinson gets the nod, look for them to game that side even harder. 

Also look for inside linebacker pressure up the gut.  New York ran a lot of the double A-gap blitzes, where a linebacker and safety would line up to either side of C Casey Rabach and come.  Washington's backs did a poor job of handling these stunts and Campbell was dropped quickly on a lot of plays.  Dallas had some success at getting in Campbell's face in the first meeting, though Campbell was very good at hitting hot options, particularly RB Rock Cartwright, to overcome the blitzing.  Look for more inside heat, with an adjustment behind it this time around.

On the left side, Levi Jones' 30 day warranty appears to have expired.  He looked slow last week, as Giants ends rushed around him repeatedly.  Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer abused New Orleans' LT Jermon Bushrod last week and they'll put their track shoes on when they line up against Jones this week.

In short, don't expect Wade Phillips to blitz any less than he did in last month's 7-6 win.  Campbell frustrated Dallas by making one big pass or scramble on seemingly every Redskins' drive.  Washington was very good at spreading out Dallas and getting Cartwright or a receiver cutting across the shallow middle. 

New York negated this by playing a lot of zone behind their blitzes.  Wade Phillips' D has played a lot more man-to-man this year, but I look for him to call a lot more zone blitzing this week.  The Redskins still play small ball; a remarkable three quarters of their throws go less than 10 yards downfield.  I think Dallas will blitz heavily again, but keep guys spaced in the shallow zones this time.  If they can tackle the Redskins targets, we'll see a lot of Washington punts. 

When the Cowboys Have the Ball

Dallas tried moving the ball slowly last time, running heavily early in the game.  They gained a ton of yards but put no points on the board.  Marion Barber fumbled at the Washington 12 to end one promising drive and Nick Folk made his weekly miss to nullify another. 

The Cowboys scored by playing fast break, with Tony Romo completing seven passes on Dallas' late touchdown drive. 

I don't think we'll see such a heavy dose of running this time.  We'll still see a decent run mix, but Jason Garrett will run to set up the pass, as he did against the Saints last week.  The main man finally be Felix Jones.  He got ten carries against the Chargers two weeks ago and a career high 14 carries last week.  His touches are moving towards parity with Barber's and this may be the week Felix gets the majority of chances from scrimmage:

  • Game 13:  Barber 16 total touches, 16 from scrimmage, Jones 14 total touches, 11 from scrimmage;
  • Game 14:  Barber 18 total touches 18 from scrimmage, Jones 18 total touches, 15 from scrimmage;

(these totals include kickoff returns)

The Cowboys ran short yardage plays better last week, using a power-I wrinkle, but they're still primarily a draw and counter team, and these runs favor Jones, who appears to have regained the burst he lost while rehabbing his injured knee ligament.  Jones took off his protective brace a few games ago but last week, he again showed the ability to accelerate and to cut at full speed which he showed so effectively as a rookie.  He came close to breaking two kickoff returns and I would not be surprised to see Jones finally break free this week.

When Dallas runs, look for the package which worked so well in Dallas last month -- lots of draws, counters, overloads off the counter and toss plays.

When Dallas throws, Jason Garrett will target the right side of the Redskins secondary, where Fred Smoot has replaced Carlos Rogers.  Also look for more attacks up the center of the field.  Last week Dallas attacked the Saints' flanks, running patterns away from center fielder Darren Sharper.  This week, look for Dallas to go right after safety LaRon Landry.  Landry has defended passes poorly this season and Dallas may approach him the way they did Oakland's safeties, running a lot of combination routes between their tight ends and Miles Austin where the tight end would run a deep in and Austin would run a post behind him.  The Raiders safeties jumped the TEs and let Austin free for some long plays. 

Garrett will likely test Landry early to see if he keeps his discipline and keeps the play in front of him.  If Landry can't, and gets too eager to deliver kill shots, the Cowboys will get behind him. 

Special Teams

Joe DeCamillis' guys have struggled on kickoff returns all year.  Last week, the blocking improved and Felix Jones took two returns out around the Dallas 40.  If Jones and his mini-wedge blockers can get in better sync this week, bigger results may finally arrive. 

Patrick Crayton also jumped out of his return funk, taking an early Saints punt for 27 yards.  Dallas' coverage game remains strong so adding strong punt and kickoffs will go a long way towards a win.

And then, there's Shaun Suisham.  Can he really be any more nerve-wracking than Nick Folk was?  (Redskins fans are probably chuckling at that one...)