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Cowboys vs. Redskins: Previewing Washington’s Defensive Personnel

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

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-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 defensive personnel.

Defensive Line

Despite being strong on the boundary of the defense, the interior of the Redskins defense can be taken advantage of. Chris Baker is the team’s best defensive lineman, and at 6-2, 320 he has impressive agility and explosiveness, racking up six sacks in a breakout season in 2015, with three so far in 2016. However, after Baker things start to get questionable with first-round bust Ziggy Hood and journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois starting alongside Baker. Rookie UDFA Anthony Lanier rounds out the depth chart. Baker is the only player you’d like starting for you in an ideal world, while the rest of the line is made up of replacement-level players who are better suited to playing rotational roles off the bench. You likely won’t see much of Lanier or Jean-Francois as the Redskins will generally play Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy or Preston Smith at defensive end in passing situations.

Outside Linebackers

The strength of the Redskins defense comes on the edges, at both outside linebacker (the Redskins are a 3-4 team) and cornerback. At outside linebacker the Redskins have former first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan out of Purdue. Similar to former Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, Kerrigan is a very good, but not elite 3-4 OLB. He will give you strong run defense and about 8-10 sacks a year, and while he is not one of the game’s best, you must account for him in your game plan. On the season Kerrigan has eight sacks. Across from Kerrigan is second year player Preston Smith, a 2015 second-round pick who had an impressive rookie year with eight sacks. Smith started the year slow with no sacks over his first five games, although over his last five he has 3.5, along with an interception. At 6-5, 270 Smith has the size, length and pass rush ability to be one of the best at his position in the league, although he needs to be more consistent.

Behind these two is former second-round pick Trent Murphy, arguably the biggest surprise on the Redskins roster this season. He hadn’t done much since coming into the league two years ago, notching only six sacks, although he has broken out with seven sacks so far in 2016. Murphy relies more on power than speed at 6-5, 290, although he does a better job of beating tackles to the edge than his size would indicate. He had two of his sacks against the Cowboys in the first meeting. This is one of the more underrated pass-rushing units in the league; these three have combined for 18.5 sacks so far, and as a team the Redskins rank sixth in the league with 27 sacks. This is certainly the strongest unit on the defense.

Inside Linebackers

Will Compton leads the team in tackles and generally never leaves the field as a three-down linebacker. He had a breakout season in 2015, although he isn’t much more than an average to above average player. He isn’t blessed with elite physical ability but he is a heady player who plays assignment-sound football. While he is the best the team has at inside linebacker, he can be taken advantage of in both the run and pass game. He’s not a liability, but he’s not necessarily an impact player either, and the amount of snaps he plays is basically a function of how weak this position is for the Redskins.

Mason Foster is generally considered the “starter” next to Compton, although he is a replacement-level player that you’d ideally want as a backup. In recent weeks he has split snaps with rookie second-round pick Su’a Cravens, a versatile linebacker/safety hybrid in the mold of Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals, and it’s possible that Foster is slowly being phased out of the defense. Cravens is not stout enough to start in base formations yet, but he has been an impact player as a nickel/dime linebacker who can blitz, and cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. He has the look of a future star in the league.

Defensive Backs

Cornerback is the other strength of the Redskins defense as free-agent signing Josh Norman has generally lived up to the huge contract that he signed in the offseason. Despite only one interception Norman has consistently covered the opponent’s top receiver, and while he has given up some plays, he has mostly done a good job of limiting the damage. With that said, Norman is an emotional player who has racked up way too many penalties so far this year for being overly physical. While he sometimes feeds off that emotion when things are going well, it can take away from his game when they aren’t. It will be interesting to watch him go up against an equally emotional and physical receiver in Dez Bryant, although there seems to be a good deal of mutual respect between the two so that may keep things under control. Norman has recently shown a propensity for forcing fumbles by punching at the ball instead of attempting to tackle ball carriers, so the Cowboys must be aware of that.

After struggling with Antonio Brown in the first game of the year Bashaud Breeland has bounced back and played well, while rookie third-round pick Kendall Fuller mans the slot in passing situations. Breeland is a physical player who likes to play press at the line of scrimmage, so it’ll be interesting to see if they allow him to do that with Bryant or if they have Norman follow him where ever he lines up.

At safety the Redskins start Donte Whitner, a player they signed off the street less than two months ago. Whitner was once considered one of the better safeties in the league but was nearly out of the league before the Redskins signed him after the season had started due to an injury to DeAngelo Hall and poor play from David Bruton Jr., the starting safeties at the beginning of the year. Whitner has played reasonably well, and he seems to be the safety that the Redskins trust the most at this point since he almost never comes off the field, but he is a player who the Cowboys should look to target.

Will Blackmon and Duke Ihenacho split time at the other safety spot. Blackmon is stronger in coverage while Ihenacho is a more physical, box safety type. This safety group is one of the weakest in the league as these three players combine for a grand total of zero interceptions, one forced fumble and four pass deflections.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Weak defensive “spine” with a mediocre defensive line, average inside linebackers, and poor safeties that could be very susceptible to the Cowboys running game, as well as passes to Cole Beasley and Jason Witten over the middle
  • Lack of defensive line depth could lead to players like Kerrigan, Smith and Murphy wearing down if forced to play heavy snaps defending the run
  • Over-aggressive cornerbacks and weak safeties could open up opportunities deep to Bryant

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Dynamic group of edge rushers that can pin their ears back if the Cowboys offense is forced into long down and distances
  • Strong group of cornerbacks
  • Splash plays from Josh Norman and Su’a Cravens