The last time the Dallas Cowboys traveled to Washington, they were free-rolling in week 17 with nothing on the line. To the surprise of many, Jason Garrett went with his starters for a great majority of the game and the Cowboys routed the last place Redskins, 44-17. In that game, DeMarco Murray would run for 100 yards for the 12th time that season, on his way to a new Cowboys single-season rushing record of 1,845 yards. Joseph Randle would scamper off for a 65-yard touchdown. Tony Romo was 22 for 34 for 299 yards, finishing with a QB rating of 113.2 that was best in the NFL. The Redskins quarterback, Robert Griffin III, would not be as lucky as he would turn the ball over three times, one of them being a strip by Terrell McClain that Anthony Spencer picked up and walked into the end zone.
On Monday, there will be no Romo, Murray, or Randle. RG3 won't be quarterbacking the Redskins. Washington is now atop the NFC East with the Cowboys sitting at the bottom. What a difference a year makes.
And while the Cowboys and Redskins have traded places from first to worst, only two games separate them. In fact, a victory by Dallas can keep their divisional title hopes alive.
Here are three keys to victory for the Cowboys to beat the Redskins Monday night.
1. It's all about the run
If you can make Washington one dimensional to where Kirk Cousins has to throw a lot, the Redskins become vulnerable. Stopping the Redskins running attack will be key for the Cowboys defense. The Redskins are ranked 22nd in the league in rushing with only 96 yards a game. In the last three games that they've lost, their offense has rushed for totals of 14, 37, and 34 yards. Stop the run, stop the Redskins.
The Redskins utilize three running backs. Alfred Morris is their lead back and he has started to play better in recent games. They also have rookie Matt Jones who has made several big plays for the offense this season. And third year back Chris Thompson is a solid passing down back. The Redskins will use these backs to help take the pressure off of Cousins.
The Cowboys defense has been doing a good job containing the running backs in the last three games. With Sean Lee and Rolando McClain starting to work well together, the Cowboys ability to stop the run has gotten better. The defense will need to be locked in on the Redskins ball carriers.
Stopping them on running plays won't be enough. The Cowboys defense will need to be mindful of these guys on screen passes. Open field tackling will be huge in keeping the Redskins running backs from making big plays.
2. Got to pick off Cousins
If the Cowboys can stymie the Skins running game, then it will fall on the shoulders of Kirk Cousins to keep their offense going. The Redskins have some solid receivers is Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, and Jamison Crowder, however Cousins go-to man is tight end Jordan Reed. While Jason Garrett hasn't revealed any plans as to how he'll defend Reed, it seems like there is a good chance that Byron Jones will draw that assignment at times. Jones has done an outstanding job defending tight ends this season. If the Redskins offense is going to come up with big passing plays, they might need to rely on someone other than Reed. DeSean Jackson could be that someone as he's been known to make a big play or two against the Cowboys.
The Cowboys defense should be getting Morris Claiborne back this week and he will provide some help in the secondary. Cousins is no stranger to making errant passes, but in order for that to mean anything, the Cowboys defense will need to be able to pick them off. A missed opportunity could be a crushing blow in a game that is likely to be decided by just one score.
3. Protect Cassel
This is redemption time for Matt Cassel. After not being able to lead the Cowboys to victory in every one of his starts at QB, he will a chance to buck the trench. The Cowboys will try to lend Cassel a hand with a strong running game. The Redskins are 29th in the league in run defense so the Cowboys will need to push the run as much as they can. With Cassel not posing much of a downfield threat, the Redskins could load the box in order to stop the run. Cassel will need to make plays with his arm. He's been able to watch Romo these last couple weeks and one thing that he could learn from is Tony's patience in the pocket. Cassel will need to let the routes develop and have trust in his line so that he can find open receivers. For him to be successful, the Cowboys offensive line will need to supply adequate protection. The Redskins have a good front line. Jason Hatcher and Terrance Knighton will come from the inside and Trent Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan will come from the outside.
The Cowboys will need to give Cassel time to take the shots he needs to take.