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Cowboys vs. Football Team: “[Alex Smith] still favors checkdowns over going downfield unless his receivers have a lot of separation”

We check in with the experts for some intel on the Football Team.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a Turkey Day classic between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team. This will be the second time around for these two teams in 2020, and for Cowboys fans, hopefully a better result will come than the first time. To get an idea of where the Football Team is now, we turned to Hogs Haven.

Blogging The Boys: Talk about the change to Alex Smith at QB and how that has affected the offense.

Hogs Haven: It’s better than it was under Dwayne Haskins, but still hasn’t looked prolific. Haskins couldn’t seem to run the full playbook, was terribly inaccurate, made poor decisions in-game, and they had to simplify the playbook to accommodate his limitations. Alex Smith can execute the full playbook, which has allowed for a more versatile offense with more scheming and deception. Smith does a better job of reading defenses, using cadence, calling protections, and is more accurate on short and intermediate passes than Haskins. Smith also does a lot more to prepare for the games than Haskins did, and I’ve heard WRs say working with Alex Smith in practice is “like getting the answers to the test ahead of time” because he does such a good job preparing them for what to expect in the game.

It isn’t all great though. Although Smith seems more comfortable in OC Scott Turner’s offense than he did in Jay Gruden’s offense 2 years ago, he still favors checkdowns over going downfield unless his receivers have a lot of separation. The offense under Smith has been a very dink-and-dunk affair that relies on lots of plays per drive to move downfield, which allows us to dominate time of possession, but makes it easy for a single mistake (penalty, turnover) to kill a drive. Perhaps his biggest limitation has been that Smith has clearly lost a lot of mobility. He used to be a very mobile QB who could easily break the pocket to make plays with his legs, a trait becoming more and more important in the NFL. Now he has the mobility of a player like Tom Brady or Phillip Rivers. This is understandable as he has dropfoot in his right leg and has to wear a special brace to even allow him to lift that foot, but it clearly changes what he can do at QB.

I should also note the offense looked pretty good under QB Kyle Allen, who was initially named starter after Haskins was benched. Allen is a young player who knew the system from his time in Carolina and had excellent mobility and took more shots downfield, which added more dimensions to the offense, though he wasn’t as good at calling protections and reading defenses. Allen suffered a season-ending injury a couple of weeks ago, but I mention him because he could be someone you see again next season.

BTB: Antonio Gibson has burst onto the scene lately and is a legit weapon. Tell us about his game and how Washington utilizes him.

HH: Antonio Gibson is an amazing athlete who flew under a lot of people’s radars, but he was being touted among draft-watchers as one of the most explosive players in this year’s draft. He was initially trained as a WR in high school and college and only fully converted to RB in his last year of college, which is partly why he went unnoticed for a 6’0”, 228 pound man who can run the 40 yard dash in 4.39 seconds. He’s an interesting combination of big and powerful, but also fast and elusive. However, because of his lack of experience at the position, he needs work in pass protection and has been used as more of a pure rusher than a 3rd down back, though I think he’s getting better in that regard. He also needs to sharpen his vision a bit, though he’s been getting better in that regard as the season goes on.

Right now our RB group consists of Antonio Gibson, JD McKissic, and Peyton Barber. Gibson has been our primary pure rusher due to his explosiveness, power, and elusiveness (26% broken tackle rate, 3rd best in the NFL). McKissic has been our primary pass-catching and 3rd down back due to his greater experience in pass protection (though McKissic has also been explosive and shown good receiving ability). Barber has been purely a short yardage and rotational back. I explain these roles because I think Gibson’s primary limitation has been gameflow so far. We have been getting behind on points early in games, which has forced the offense to go pass-heavy and feature McKissic more. Whenever we can keep it close or take a lead, the coaches try to lean on Gibson in the rushing game, as in our week 7 matchup, where we took an early lead and he ran for 128 yards on 20 carries (6.4 YPC). I think as the coaches come to trust Gibson more in pass protection, he will become more of a feature back.

BTB: So where is the fanbase right now? Are they all-in on a playoff hunt? What’s the confidence level about winning the division?

HH: The fanbase is divided and the situation seems to change every week depending on how we played recently. Unlike last year, when we had a lame duck Head Coach and no shot of winning the division, we mostly want to see this team pull it together and win because we want to have confidence that the coaching staff know what they’re doing, the young players are developing, and the team should be better next year. The team shows flashes and there are clearly talented players on the roster, but they also have glaring holes on the roster and have had too many mistakes that kill drives and cost them games. I think most fans would still rather the team win games than not, but I don’t think we have any confidence that we should win games based on our performance so far. There are still some people who only care about draft position, but not as many as last year. Confidence level is still pretty low of winning the division, maybe a 20% chance simply due to how bad the division is.

BTB: What are the main issues the team is facing heading into this game? Where are the weaknesses that Dallas could exploit?

HH: The main issue on offense is making more big plays, which primarily means getting Alex Smith to take more shots downfield. Barring that, it’s important we avoid mistakes that kill long drives, which is harder to do on 15-play drives than on 7-play drives. The more plays we have to get downfield, the more likely it is that someone turns the ball over or commits a penalty that takes us out of manageable first down range, hence my emphasis before on big plays.

Our main exploitable weakness on defense has been our LB group, all of whom are late round picks or journeyman vets. This group is responsible for both our poor run defense (because they do a poor job covering their run-gap assignments) and our poor pass defense (they are bad in coverage). Teams have been using quick passes into the coverage of our LBs to negate our pass rush and that’s what I’d recommend in this game.

BTB: How do you see the game playing out and what will be the final score?

HH: Based on the way the teams played in week 7, Washington should win handily. Based on the way the teams have played the last 2 weeks, I’d expect Dallas to win. I think it’s a bit of a tossup, but I think Dallas has looked like the better team recently, so I’d predict them to win a close game, maybe 27-24. The Dallas defense finally seems to be gelling, whereas our LB group has continued to be an Achilles heel that prevents the defense from being better than the sum of its parts. I think we still have room to grow in our offense if we can stay run-pass balanced and start stretching the field vertically.

One thing is for sure though, Washington plays better in the 2nd half than the 1st under Ron Rivera. Even if we look bad early on, I’d expect us to come back and make it a game in the 2nd half. I just don’t have any confidence in our ability to seal the deal.

Thanks for the knowledge, Hogs Haven.