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Five things to watch: Can the Cowboys grind out an important road win in Washington?

Can the Cowboys finally win a road game this Sunday against the Redskins?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys will travel to FedEx Field on Sunday to face the Washington Redskins in hopes of delivering a special package to Dallas fans - two victories in a row. Over the first six games, the Cowboys have alternated between wins and losses and haven’t compiled a two-game streak of anything. If this season is going to take off and mean something, this team needs to put together a little winning streak.

And what better team to get a streak going than the Redskins, a team Dallas has beaten four straight times. Not only have the Cowboys swept Washington in each of the last two seasons, their offense has put on a clinic by averaging over 32 points a game during that span. It sure would be nice to see them repeat that type of offensive production, especially on the heels on their 40-point performance against Jacksonville. Stacking a few good games on top of each other would do wonders in restoring some faith that this Cowboys team could be on to something in 2018.

Can they pull it off? Will they make enough plays to get the win? Here are five things to watch on Sunday?

1. Dink and Dunk you

Alex Smith has a reputation for being a game manager. He’s not the type of quarterback that is going to hurt you deep. He has a career 7.0 yards per attempt type of quarterback. So, it should be no surprise that he’s averaging 7.0 yards again this season. He likes to throw the ball underneath and let his receivers do the work.

Whether the Redskins keep the chains moving or not could come down to the Cowboys ability to make open field tackles. Despite DeAndre Hopkins hitting them with the spin cycle a couple weeks ago, the Cowboys have been solid at tackling this year. The defense swarms to the ball and does a good job wrapping up. The emergence of both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch certainly helps in this department. And their defensive backs can tackle as well.

Dak Prescott has turned into a dink and dunker himself. That’s fine when the team is efficient on third downs and moving the chains, but that has not been the case this season. The Cowboys are third-worst in the league at third-down conversions, successful on just 31% of their attempts.

Expect a lot of short-to-intermediate stuff from both these teams. Dallas and Washington are two of the worst teams in terms of taking deep shots (stats courtesy of NFL Matchup on ESPN) and don’t expect much to change on Sunday.

2. Another tough test for Zeke

Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three of the last four games. The lone exception was his 54-yard performance in a Week 5 loss against the Houston Texans. The game against the Texans was the first time the Cowboys had faced a top 10 run defense this season, but they will face another one on Sunday when they’ll go against the Redskins sixth-ranked run defense that has only given up 90 yards per game.

Last week, the Carolina Panthers had the leagues top rushing offense, churning out 154 yards per contest. The Redskins held them to just 81 yards rushing. With a strong interior defensive line that includes their last two first-round picks, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, they’ve been able to plug up the running lanes.

The Cowboys have a strong running attack and are ranked second in the league in rushing with 147 yards per game, but they have shown themselves to be vulnerable. The Texans shadowed Zeke all game, forcing Prescott to make plays against them. Look for Washington to take a similar approach. The Cowboys will have to find ways to be effective on offense without living and dying by the legs of their star running back.

3. It’s going to be a grind

The Cowboys won’t be the only team trying to establish the run on Sunday. Dallas ranks in the top 10 in rushing attempts, running the ball 28.7 times per game. The Redskins are even better with 29 rushing attempts per game. Adrian Peterson is sixth in the NFC with 77 rushing attempts and the Redskins will lean on him to get the ground game going.

Whether it’s a grind-it-out running game or a lot of short passes, Smith is really good at keeping the Redskins offense on the field. Washington is ranked third in the league in time of possession. They don’t need to beat teams with explosiveness, but just with efficiency.

The Cowboy take a similar approach, which could shorten the game if both teams are grinding away the clock. This makes it imperative for Dallas to make the most of their possessions. Any turnover or squandered red zone opportunity could prove costly.

4. A big play or two is all it takes

Not only are these two of the weakest teams in terms of taking shots down the field, they also happen to be two of the best defenses when it comes to limiting the big play.

In fact, on a per game basis, the Cowboys are best in the league.

Both these defenses are going to challenge the opposing offense to string together large volume-play drives. That’s where explosive plays can be huge in this game. They may be hard to come by, but any time a team can slip one in can be a big advantage.

For the Redskins, their receivers are banged up as Jamison Crowder is dealing with an ankle injury while Paul Richardson has both knee and shoulder issues. Crowder is expected to miss a few weeks. The Redskins can still find big plays by utilizing their tight ends over the seam. Both Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis are capable of being nice weapons for Alex Smith.

The Cowboys will be without Tavon Austin, who has the team’s most explosive play of the season so far. Cole Beasley had a big game last week, but look for the Redskins to try to take him away. This could be a game where Prescott looks down the field for his rookie receiver Michael Gallup.

5. Home field advantage?

The Cowboys have won every game so far at AT&T Stadium, but they’ve lost every game on the road. The team is hoping this trend will end this week. In 2014, the Cowboys went a perfect 8-0 on the road so this sudden inability to win away from home is perplexing. Ezekiel Elliott points to poor communication as being the culprit for the team’s road problems.

Hopefully, the Cowboys can get those things worked out so they can come out of this week with a win. While they won’t have the roar of the crowd behind them, the Redskins have been having trouble filling seats. Cowboys fans travel, so they might have a little more support than they normally would in a hostile Washington environment.

These are the things I’ll be keeping an eye on. What about you?

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