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Cowboys vs. Redskins: Previewing Washington’s Offensive Personnel

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A look at the offensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys' Week 12 opponent.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Week 12 brings a rematch of the Cowboys 27-23 Week 2 victory as the Washington Redskins travel to AT&T Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day matchup. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their offensive personnel.

Quarterback

After a tumultuous first couple of seasons sitting behind Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins took the reins in 2015 and did not disappoint. After a slow start Cousins had a torrid finish to the season with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions over the final half of the season, compared to 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions over the first half. So far Cousins’ play in 2016 has stabilized somewhere between his mediocre start to 2015 and his fantastic finish. He has 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions and is third in the league with 3,091 yards passing. It must be noted that over the first eight games of 2016 Cousins had just 12 touchdowns to seven touchdowns, while over the last two he has five touchdowns and no interceptions, could he be repeating the pattern he followed in 2015 where he was mediocre over the first half of the year and caught fire over the last half? We’ll see.

Cousins is not a quarterback who will freelance and make amazing plays outside of the design of the play once it breaks down like an Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. He has some functional mobility within the pocket but generally he is an efficient player who goes where the reads take him, often favoring shorter, high percentage passes that allow the receiver to gain yards after the catch. Despite the big plays last week against the Packers when you watch Cousins you generally see something of a “dink and dunk” quarterback, as he often looks first for targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He will take opportunistic deep shots, especially when given 1-on-1 coverage, but his first inclination is to run a possession-based, somewhat conservative passing game with a good amount of pick plays and quick-hitting routes.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Cousins has an impressive array of targets in the passing game, which include burner DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, impressive 2nd year slot man Jamison Crowder and one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, Jordan Reed. The key to the Redskins passing game is Reed, who is Cousins preferred target, mainly because he is a reliable safety valve who can break tackles and gain yards after the catch, but also because he can be relied on to win contested balls in 1-on-1 situations. Reed was injury prone early in his career but he has impressed so far in 2016 after breaking out in 2015 with 535 yards and three touchdowns. It must be noted that the Cowboys usually do a good job with Reed, limiting him to less than 50 yards and no touchdowns in each game in 2015, and 70 yards and no touchdowns in the first game this season. Veteran Vernon Davis has had a resurgent 2016 after nearly falling out of the league. So far he has 382 yards and two touchdowns; impressive considering that he is playing behind a player like Reed. He filled in capably earlier in the year when Reed missed a few games, and the Cowboys must not lose track of Davis amidst all of the other weapons. Reed and Davis form one of the top tight end duos in the league.

After an impressive rookie season Crowder has emerged as the Redskins number one receiver so far in a breakout 2016, leading the team with 637 yards and six touchdowns. Despite being listed at only 5-8, 182 and only having good but not great speed Crowder has turned into probably the most dangerous weapon on the team after Reed. He wins with impressive route running, side-to-side agility, shiftiness, and a great feel for finding pockets of space, similar to Cole Beasley. He barely averaged 12 YPC going into their game against the Packers, although that number jumped to over 13 thanks to a couple of huge plays, some of which came when the Packers inexplicably covered him with linebackers on vertical routes as they brought all-out pressure. Despite that, he isn’t necessarily a deep threat or a guy who is going to single-handedly beat coverage, but he is particularly dangerous on pick plays, routes that carry him across the field that allow him to run away from coverage and gaining yards after the catch.

Veterans Jackson and Garcon are also both dangerous after the catch and can burn you deep, especially Jackson, although both are inconsistent and disappear at times. Overall, the Redskins don’t have a true number one, elite receiver type, but where they beat you is with depth and having multiple options in the passing game that you must account for. You could say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. While Reed is the only elite talent of this group, they are very difficult to stop due to the sheer depth of credible threats that will test your depth at defensive back. Crowder, Garcon, and Reed all have over 500 yards receiving and are just under 50 receptions on the year, while Jackson is just short of 500. It’s very possible that the Redskins finish the year with four players over 800 yards receiving, with two or three of them pushing 1,000.

Running Backs

Before the season began there was a lot of hype surrounding Matt Jones, although due to fumbling issues he was replaced in the lineup a few weeks ago by rookie UDFA Rob Kelley out of Tulane. Kelley is not a particularly impressive back, although he has been steady since taking over the job over the last few games, averaging 4.8 YPC since taking over the job, although it must be noted that he had a 66 yard run in garbage time against the Packers when the game was effectively over that severely skews that stat. Take out that one run and his average is below 4 YPC. Kelly has impressive size at 6-0, 228, he is tough between the tackles, can be difficult to bring down, and runs with good balance, although he lacks game-breaking speed. The Cowboys must also keep an eye on receiving back Chris Thompson. Thompson isn’t much of a threat as a runner as he only gets about five traditional carries per game and has only 242 yards on the season, although he is dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield with 31catches for 231 yards. The Cowboys can’t lose sight of Thompson, especially on third down as Cousins loves to check down to him, although that may be difficult to do with the rest of the weapons in the passing game.

Offensive Line

Trent Williams will miss Thursday’s game after being suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He is a huge loss for the Redskins as he is one of the top left tackles in the league and one of the top offensive players on the team. Williams will be replaced by Ty Nsekhe, a 31 year old journeyman who has only started a handful of games over his career, although he has filled in very capably over the last two games. Nsekhe has impressive size at 6-8, 335, and is solid in the run game, but this should be a player the Cowboys pass rush looks to take advantage of. After Williams the best lineman on the team is 2015 5th overall pick Brandon Scherff at right guard. Scherff had an impressive rookie season and has played well so far this year, but he hasn’t yet made the leap into the elite tier of offensive lineman as his draft status suggests should be the case.

Both right tackle Morgan Moses and center Spencer Long are respectable starters while left guard Shawn Lauvao is a replacement-level player. Overall, this is a very good pass-blocking unit, although they are aided by fact that Cousins usually looks to get the ball out of his hands quick and doesn’t often hold it in hopes of connecting on a deep ball. Despite being coached by former Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan they are a generally average run-blocking unit.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Average running game could allow the Cowboys to force the Redskins into being one-dimensional and overly reliant on the passing game
  • No elite talent at running back or receiver, although Jordan Reed basically acts as a jumbo receiver
  • Cousins is very streaky and if he gets off to a slow start he will remain inconsistent throughout the game

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Quick release and short-range accuracy of Cousins could keep the chains moving and the Cowboys offense off the field
  • Arguably the deepest group of receivers/tight ends in the league, this could be a real issue with Morris Claiborne and Barry Church out injured
  • Crowder and Reed turning short receptions into big plays with run after the catch ability
  • Potentially explosive weapons in Jackson and Garcon, although they disappear for long stretches