When the Dallas Cowboys travel to Landover, MD this Sunday to play the Washington Football Team, the game will have a lot more intrigue than what we thought a few weeks ago. Over the last month or so, the Cowboys have dropped some winnable games and have only had one game where they looked like the team that ripped off six straight wins earlier in the 2021 season. Meanwhile, the Football Team has gone on a four-game win streak to tighten the standings in the NFC East.
Dallas still leads Washington by two games, but the two teams meet twice in the next three weeks. As we have noted, these two games will have an outsized impact on who eventually ends up as the NFC East champions.
So how have the Football Team significantly closed the gap in the standings? Besides the Cowboys stumbling, Washington has done it by primarily being the team they were supposed to be at the start of 2021 - a defensive powerhouse.
Through their first eight games of the season, Washington was giving up on average over 28 points per game on defense. During their recent four-game winning streak they are giving up just 17.5 points per game. And it’s not like they are just playing bum offenses either. They held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to 19 points and held the Las Vegas Raiders, who just dropped 36 on Dallas, to 15 points.
Coming into the season, defense was supposed to be Washington’s calling card. They had showed as much the previous season. But through the first half of the season they didn’t resemble a defensive juggernaut at all. Suddenly, things are falling into place, and that is without defensive end Chase Young.
Here is a little insight into what they have been doing.
One of the keys, [head coach Ron] Rivera said, was how well the defense mixed and disguised coverages. In the first three games of this winning streak, Washington played mostly zone coverage, but Sunday it seemed to use more man-to-man underneath two- or three-high zones to force Las Vegas to string together long drives.
In the end, Washington has been trying to limit chunk plays and forcing teams to make long drives with more plays, and more chances for mistakes. If the Cowboys are doing anything lately, it’s making mistakes. Penalties, dropped passes, poor throws, blown blocking assignments, it’s all been on the table for the Cowboys offense.
The Football Team did struggle making consistent tackles against the Raiders. But it was their red zone defense that stiffened and held an explosive Raiders offense to just 15 points. They did a good job of controlling the run and generating pressure from their front four on Derek Carr.
Washington is winning close games, but their points differential number points out just how precarious their position is right now. Of the top nine teams in the NFC right now in terms of playoff position, the Football Team is the only one that has a negative points differential (-51), meaning they given up more points than they have scored on the year. Dallas is +86, the Cardinals lead the conference with a +119 differential.
Washington has been winning by an average of five points during their four-game win streak, so it’s not like they are blowing people out. One score games are notoriously fickle in the NFL and are hard to sustain as wins. Washington still has plenty of deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense has been keeping them in games just enough so that the offense can eke out wins.
The Cowboys offense has been wildly inconsistent over their last five games. They will need to get right for this game.