The Cowboys are getting ready to take on their historic rival, the Washington Redskins, this Sunday as they try to follow up their big win over the Jaguars from last week. With the Cowboys at 3-3 and Washington at 3-2, the winner of this game will be sitting atop the NFC East for at least a week (the Eagles could join the Cowboys if they win).
This year’s Redskins team is hard to read. They picked apart the Arizona Cardinals 24-6 in week one, which looks less impressive each week, and followed that up with a pathetic 21-9 loss to the Colts. Then they topped Aaron Rodgers 31-17 the next week before a lifeless 43-19 drubbing by the Saints on Monday Night Football. Last week, they narrowly beat the Panthers 23-17 after Cam Newton’s comeback attempt fell short in the closing seconds. It’s hard to guess exactly which team will show up on Sunday, but the same can be said of Dallas at this point.
One big source of inconsistency for Washington, though, has been the seeming clash between the skill set of quarterback Alex Smith and the offensive scheme of head coach Jay Gruden. Smith is a highly-efficient game manager who excels in a wide open West Coast offense like the one he ran in Kansas City, but Gruden likes to take shots down the field. It worked for Kirk Cousins, but it seems that Smith isn’t adjusting well.
For instance, the Redskins have a pretty good receiver for their scheme in Josh Doctson, who is particularly good at high pointing the ball on deep throws. Yet, in the four games Doctson has played in this year, Smith has targeted him 18 times - fourth on the team - and the receiver has only caught it eight times for 68 yards. Doctson’s 44.4% catch percentage is the lowest on the team.
Instead, Smith has developed some chemistry with Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson, two receivers with good hands and quickness after the catch. The issue for Smith this week is that Crowder has been ruled out for Sunday and Richardson is listed as doubtful. That means Maurice Harris and Brian Quick - who have nine catches for 78 yards between them - will likely see more playing time.
As for Smith and his targets, that pretty much leaves tight end Jordan Reed as the go-to guy against Dallas. Reed is second on the team in catches and leads the team in receiving yards. The only player with more catches than him is running back Chris Thompson - a solid receiving back who splits reps with Adrian Peterson and mostly functions as a checkdown option for Smith. However, Thompson is listed as questionable for the game with a rib and knee injury; even if he plays, he might not be as effective as normal.
All of this makes things easier for the Cowboys. If they can take Reed out of the passing game, it’ll force Smith to turn to his other receiving options that he has less chemistry with, and bad things tend to happen. If the rhythm with his receiving corps isn’t there, it can slow Smith down enough for the pass rush to get to him. So far, Smith has only been sacked 12 times, tied for 19th in the league. Don’t expect him to be brought down too often on Sunday.
Of course, the Redskins don’t throw it often anyway. Smith has 171 pass attempts on the year, which is coincidentally tied with Dak Prescott for 20th in the league. Peterson’s 77 carries are 13th most in the NFL, and he’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The 33-year-old running back has been putting up quality production.
And he’s done it behind an offensive line that is incomplete. Through five games, Pro Football Focus ranked Washington’s offensive line eighth in the NFL, mostly due to the outstanding play of left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff. Both of those guys found themselves on the injury report this week but were practicing in full capacity by Friday. Morgan Moses at right tackle has been solid if not great, but the middle of the line has been handicapped by spotty play from Chase Roullier and Tony Bergstrom. Attacking those two linemen with blitzes is a surefire way to disrupt the offense for Washington.
Overall, this is not an offense that has things figured out. Peterson has been solid for them in running the ball, but he’s no longer enough to sustain drives alone. Smith is just a bad fit for this offense, plain and simple, and the fact that he’ll be lacking some of his favorite targets for this game could make things easy for a Dallas defense that has been a top five unit all year long and is getting Sean Lee back.