It feels like forever ago that these two teams played each other, but it’s only been a month since Jon Bostic delivered one of the most egregiously illegal hits on Andy Dalton in a game that the Washington Football Team won by a final score of 25-3. That seemed to be a microcosm of the 2020 Cowboys: no fight, no passion, and a team that had already checked out on their new coaching staff.
How quickly things can change in a month. In their next game after that loss in the nation’s capitol, the Cowboys defense took a big step forward against the Eagles and played very competitively until a controversial fumble return touchdown late in the game. They followed that up by coming within 23 yards of handing the Steelers their first loss of the season, and then kicked off Dalton’s return from injury this past Sunday with a narrow defeat of the Vikings.
Suddenly the Cowboys are right in the middle of a wide-open NFC East race, and they face the Football Team for a rematch that carries the opportunity for payback. It will be interesting to see how this team - particularly the offensive line, now with Zack Martin back in the fold - reacts to Bostic once they see each other on the field, especially with Dalton back out there. But beyond that, the Cowboys can take hold of first place in the division with a win over the team that took out their quarterback just a month ago.
It won’t be easy, however. Washington has proved to be a tough out in their first year under Ron Rivera. Their last three losses have all been by one score, and their last two wins, against Dallas and then the Bengals this past Sunday, have seen the opposing team’s starting quarterback leave with an injury. That sums up this team well: they’re very tough and physically imposing, and they won’t go down without a fight.
More than that, their offense is starting to get on track. Alex Smith, making a miraculous recovery from his devastating leg injury suffered in the 2018 season, has started the last two games and put up 556 passing yards on a 68.75% completion rate. In addition to Smith, rookie running back Antonio Gibson has come into his own, putting up 139 rushing yards on 29 carries the last two games, scoring three touchdowns. This has led to an ever-so-slight increase in production for the offense, which has actually improved to 28th in offensive DVOA.
Of course, Dallas has experienced something similar. Their offense experienced a moderate jump in offensive efficiency with Garrett Gilbert leading the way against Pittsburgh, and Dalton’s return on Sunday moved the needle a little bit more; their offense now sits at 26th in DVOA. But it’s their defense that has made the biggest jump. Once sitting near the bottom in DVOA, the Cowboys now rank 22nd after performances against Philly, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota that can best be characterized as “good enough to get the job done, but not great.”
Over the last three games, the defense has surrendered 335 total yards per game, 25 points per game, and recorded six takeaways. Their run defense, in particular, has gotten better as Neville Gallimore and Antwaun Woods have gained more prominent roles on the interior of the defensive line, with Justin Hamilton and Eli Ankou carving out nice rotational roles as well. Donovan Wilson, now a starting safety, has become the best player in the secondary while the pass rush, led by the trio of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Aldon Smith, has come alive. It’s nothing dominant, to be sure, but it’s the kind of defensive performance that will win you some games if the offense can put up points.
That will likely be the deciding factor in Thursday’s game as well. The Football Team shouldn’t be expected to put up a lot of points on this improving defense, but it’s unclear if the Cowboys offense will be able to do much of anything either. While their previous contest against this team is most remembered for Dalton’s concussion, the Red Rifle had completed just nine of his 19 passes for 75 yards and been sacked three times and picked once.
That’s because this Washington defense, unlike Dallas’, is dominant. They’re top ten in defensive DVOA, points allowed, yards allowed, and sacks. Simply put, this defense can and will disrupt any offense, and that was a big reason why the Cowboys lost to this team even before Dalton left the field. But Dalton also just played a relatively clean game against another defense that entered the game in the top ten in DVOA; in fact, Dalton threw three touchdowns, including the game-winner with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
If he and the rest of the offense can have a repeat performance, they’ll be able to put up some points against this defense and, likely, lead their team to victory. If not, this could turn into a rubber match between these two defenses, a contest Dallas is not likely to win. But hey, no pressure Andy.