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What the Cowboys offense should expect from the Washington defense

Pain. The Cowboys should expect pain.

Washington Football Team v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last week, the Cowboys’ depleted offensive line was shredded by the aggressive 3-4 defense of the Cardinals, who utilized an exotic array of blitzes to isolate the worst linemen and force them into mistakes. This week, the Cowboys will be without Zack Martin for the whole game as they face a 4-3 defense that blitzes less than Dallas but still gets to the quarterback with ease.

Poor, poor Andy Dalton.

The Washington Football Team may have a silly name and a bad offense, but their defense is no joke. Head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio are a big part of that. Both are known for their incredible defensive minds, and they’ve combined to create a defense that actually takes advantage of the talent their roster had.

It all starts in the trenches for them. On the interior of the defensive line, Washington has two former Alabama stars in Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. Both are stout run defenders - Payne has recorded exactly 56 tackles in each of his first two years in the NFL, while Allen has surpassed 60 tackles each of the last two years as well - and both contribute to the pass rush; they combined for eight sacks last year and so far have two sacks together this year.

But the edge rushers are where it really gets scary. They already had a good tandem last year in rookie Montez Sweat, who piled up seven sacks, and the vastly underrated Ryan Kerrigan, who contributed 5.5 sacks at age 31. Then Washington added Chase Young with the second overall pick. So far, the rookie has 2.5 sacks but both Sweat and Kerrigan lead the team with three apiece. As a whole, Washington’s adjusted sack rate of 9.1% is third-highest in the NFL.

Again, poor Andy Dalton.

It’s not just that the Football Team is creating pressure at an insane rate, but it’s that they’re consistently winning with just four guys rushing the passer. Their 24.6% blitz rate is well below the average, and only ten other teams are blitzing less. That frees up their linebackers to focus more exclusively on watching the backfield and playing shallow coverage.

To that end, this defense is very easy to figure out. Rivera and Del Rio both operate very simple, but fundamentally sound, defenses. From a coverage standpoint, they utilize a lot of zone concepts, mostly Cover 2 and Cover 3 shells. That’s helped mask a fairly average secondary that features Ronald Darby, Kendall Fuller, and Jimmy Moreland at cornerback and Landon Collins, Troy Apke, and Kamren Curl at safety.

That’s not a great secondary on paper, and yet the Football Team ranks sixth in pass defense DVOA. Obviously their pass rush impacts a lot of that, but Darby has enjoyed a nice return to form, allowing a stingy 57.1% completion rate when targeted and not a single touchdown. Fuller is even better, with a 46.2% completion rate.

Moreland, who’s in his second year and largely plays in the slot, has struggled though. His 72% completion rate allowed is second highest among Washington defensive backs, behind fellow second-year player Curl’s 80% rate. Both of the Football Team’s top safeties, Collins and Apke, have also struggled in coverage, as well as giving up a lot of yards after the catch due to missed tackles.

But the biggest weakness, by far, for this defense is their linebackers. Jonathan Bostic and Kevin Pierre-Louis have played a whole lot of coverage snaps - a byproduct of the low blitz rate - and thus have both been thrown at more than Apke, Collins, Curl, and Fuller. Not surprisingly, they’ve been beat bad. Both are allowing completions on over 80% of their targets, and are both giving up over 10 yards per completion despite an average depth of target of 6.5 yards. Together they’ve surrendered almost as many yards after the catch (187) as they have air yards (205). In short, the answer to beating this defense through the air is to throw quick underneath routes to attack these linebackers.

That plays extremely well into what the Cowboys’ gameplan should be. Connor Williams is going to be their only original starter on the offensive line, and especially against this pass rush they’ll need to get the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands quick. Tight end Dalton Schultz should factor in big here, as should CeeDee Lamb with his ability out of the slot and threat as a runner in the open field.

Surprisingly, though, this is a game where the Cowboys should adopt a more run-heavy attack. Allen and Payne are good against the run, but the rest of the defense isn’t. Much like the Cowboys under Rod Marinelli, Washington’s penetration style of play in the trenches gets them beat on run plays a lot, which is why they’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry and have the third-highest amount of rushing touchdowns allowed this year. They’re also 17th in run defense DVOA, a stark contrast to their seventh overall DVOA rating.

Plus, you have to figure Ezekiel Elliott will eventually put together a game without major errors, and coming off such a terrible performance against the Cardinals should give extra motivation. The Football Team’s defense is really good, but they’re not without their weaknesses. And those weaknesses are a good match for what Dallas needs to be doing right now: feeding Zeke and getting the ball out of Dalton’s hands fast.