The Dallas Cowboys will finish out this three-game home-stand against the Washington Redskins on Thursday night. Both teams sit at 5-6 and any inkling of playoff hope rides on emerging victorious in this game. The Cowboys beat the Redskins in Week 8, but that was way back when Dallas knew how to do stuff in the second half. Times have changed a bit so who knows what’s going to happen this time? I mean, do you know, because I don’t.
Here are the five things to look for in this NFC East Thursday night matchup:
1. Dak to reality
Let’s all just close our eyes and pretend that the Cowboys young franchise quarterback hasn’t thrown five picks over the last two games. Instead, let’s imagine the four-pick Dak Prescott we all remember from 2016 that helped him put together the best rookie QB performances in NFL history. It’s important that young Prescott is able to gather himself and have a nice rebound performance. He needs this. Not only for the Cowboys to have a chance to win the game, but to also restore confidence and exorcise any self-doubt that tries to creep in.
Should Prescott start making errant throws again, the Redskins corners will make him pay. Not only do they have Josh Norman in his usual Dez Bryant battle, but they also have Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller. The Redskins second-year corner, Fuller, is having a great season. He has four interceptions on the year, which leads the NFC. And his last one might have put someone out of a job.
@NotoriousZSB: Looks like Virginia Tech's own Kendall Fuller grabs the interception that puts the nail in the coffin of Eli Manning's start streak. Pretty cool.— David Lawson (@dtlawson) November 28, 2017
Over the last three weeks, teams have figured out how to rattle Prescott and the Redskins corners will pounce if he continues to force throws and makes bad decisions. The Cowboys will do their best to limit the amount of pressure he sees, but inevitably Dak is going to face some of these rough working conditions. A strong running game will help and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get a big play or two, but ultimately it’s still going to come down to the poise of the Cowboys young quarterback.
2. The 2016 draft strikes back
It’s been a rough season for all those promising young stars the Cowboys drafted last year. With Ezekiel Elliott missing games and Prescott missing receivers, the shiny goodness has started to tarnish from this epic draft class. But this game could serve as a reminder of just how great this draft haul was. Jaylon Smith is coming off his best game of his career and his lateral agility is starting to look quite impressive.
We’ve been told to be patience with Smith and if he starts flashing some of that greatness, that will definitely be something to be excited about going forward.
This could be a breakout game for Maliek Collins as well. While he has been quiet most of the year dealing with a foot injury, he’s slowly getting healthier could start to get back to form. The Redskins will have to roll with backup guard Arie Kouandijo who will be filling in for Shawn Lauvao. Collins should be able to overpower Kouandijo and get some pressure inside.
Not that anyone should be holding their breath for this to happen, but a demotion for Anthony Brown might also light a fire under him to were he can provide some quality reps.
3. Secondary adjustments
It just seems like a nightmare waiting to happen to watch Kirk Cousins air it out against a Cowboys secondary that is all out of sorts. This week, the coaching staff has decided to change things up. While it is unclear how it will shape out exactly, the most notable difference will be rookie Chidobe Awuzie stepping in as the starter over second-year veteran Anthony Brown. Between Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods, the Cowboys defense could potentially see a large chunk of snaps being taken by rookie defensive backs. That’s a little frightening.
Cousins will have some good targets to go to. Second-year receiver Josh Doctson is starting to get more action as of late. He has more catches over the last four games than he’s had during all the other games of his career. They also have speedster Jamison Crowder who is coming off a seven-catch, 141-yard performance last week against the New York Giants. Crowder also hauled in nine catches for 123 yards the last time he faced the Cowboys in Week 8.
It’s going to be a tough battle for the Cowboys young secondary and there will be some casualties in the form of touchdowns allowed. But the question begs - can they step up and make some plays, and will it be enough to help them pull out the win?
4. Home run celebration?
The Redskins have a middle of the road run defense, but a really good pass rush. With players like Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, and Junior Galette - they will be disruptive should the Cowboys fall behind the chains. It is very crucial to keep Prescott in manageable down-and-distance situations and the way to do that is with a successfully running game. That is exactly what they did the last time these teams met as they gave Washington a heavy dose of Zeke. But alas, the team won’t have his services to rely on this time.
During Ezekiel Elliott’s last five games with the team, the offense was averaging over 180 yards rusher per game. Since his departure, they’ve averaged under 100 yards per game. The difference in the ground game is very noticeable without Zeke, but the offense must get back to doing what they do best.
The one-two combo of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith is capable of keeping the rushing attack going. Morris’ first touchdown as a Cowboys player came against the Redskins last year and it would be nice to see his patented home run celebration surface again against the his former team.
5. The 2017 draft finally strikes?
If you were to write a list of all the things that has gone wrong with the 2017 season, at some point there would be mention of the under-performing players the Cowboys selected in April. Most fans are convicted in their belief that it wasn’t a good showing for the front office. But I digress, some things take time. And while I’m not going to attempt to convince anyone that what little results we’ve seen to this point are acceptable, that doesn’t mean things still won’t come to fruition.
We are approaching the three-quarters point in the season and don’t be surprised if some of these new rookies don’t start showing up more. This should mark the most action Awuzie will see thus far and it would be great if he came up big with a splash play. Will Taco Charlton start seeing more reps?
But if I’m going to make a guess on which rookie shines the most, it’s going to be Ryan Switzer. He has been getting closer and closer to breaking loose and taking a kick return for a score. Could this be the game it happens?
Those are the things I will be watching for. How about you? Which rookie do you think will have the best game tonight?