What a difference one year makes. While the NFC East was widely regarded as a complete joke last year, there is a possibility that the same division will produce three playoff teams in 2021. Thus, the end of the season has become interesting for the Dallas Cowboys.
It all starts with a matchup in Washington against the Football Team. However, Dallas and Washington have been on entirely different trajectories in recent weeks. The Cowboys have lost three of their last five while the Football Team is riding a four-game win streak since their bye.
Coming in as a four-point favorite, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, should we expect Dallas to live up to Vegas’ expectations?
The Cowboys offense
“Dak Prescott was coming off an injury against the Broncos. The offense didn’t have its weapons for the Chiefs and Raiders games. The Saints have a great defense; any offense would struggle.” All the excuses that have been made for the lack of offensive production end on Sunday. If the Cowboys cannot efficiently move down the field and score points against Washington, it is time to panic.
Even over the Football Team’s four-game winning streak, their defense hasn’t been great. Before the bye, they were the 30th ranked defense by EPA per play allowed, and since the bye, they have only been the 24th best defense.
In other words, this is a weak defense that the Cowboys should take advantage of.
However, before the bye, Dallas had the fourth-best offense in the NFL but has fallen to the thirteenth worst since then. There has been a complete dropoff since the Patriots game, and it is getting worrisome.
The absence of a rushing attack has headlined the offense’s struggles. And despite the Football Team’s defensive issues, they are still a top-five unit against the run.
Therefore, the Cowboys have one of two options; let Dak carry the offense, which has not worked as of late, or figure out the run game. Fixing the rushing woes would likely mean either giving Tony Pollard the bulk of the touches or readjusting the offensive line again.
Step 1: Make La'el Collins the every-week starter at RT.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 6, 2021
Step 2: Move Terence Steele back to swing tackle.
Step 3: Reinsert Connor Williams as the starting LG
Step 4: Move Connor McGovern back to FB/TE role.
Step 5: Prosper. #Cowboys
With ten days to solve this issue, hopefully, Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy will restore the rushing game to what it once was.
But if they can’t, at least Dallas faces a favorable matchup in the passing game.
Surrendering 7.3 yards per passing attempt, a 68% completion percentage for a 105.0 passer rating against, and only getting to the quarterback on 5% of attempts, Washington’s pass defense is about as poor as it gets. In fact, of the 228 players in the NFL that have played more than 100 snaps in coverage, Washington doesn’t have a single player rank inside the top 50 by PFF grading.
This is all to say that Dak Prescott should be able to carry this offense without a rushing game to complement the passing attack. However, since this strategy has not worked in recent weeks, relying on it against a red-hot Washington team would be risky.
Thus, the Cowboys need to use the mini-bye to figure out the run game. Whether it be substituting in Connor Williams or giving Tony Pollard more touches, it doesn’t matter as long as Dallas takes the burden off Dak. But if that doesn’t work, hopefully Prescott gets his momentum back against a bad Washington pass defense, because there will be no excuse for another down week on offense.
The Cowboys defense
From this point on, the Cowboys’ defense should be known as the backbone of this team. In a complete role reversal, the defense is oddly the aspect of this team keeping Dallas alive in games.
The Cowboys face another defensive test this week. That isn’t sarcasm either, because, since their bye week, Washington is the seventh-best offense in the NFL by EPA per play.
Behind their 30 rushing attempts per game, the Football Team has perfected the art of the long drive. Their average drive length of three minutes and 43 seconds since week eight is the best in the league by a sizable margin. Their ability to wear down a defense is why they are currently sitting as the fifth-best rushing team in the fourth quarter.
But as impressive as the Washington run game has been, Taylor Heinicke has equally arisen as a legitimate starting quarterback. Since week seven, by EPA per play according to rbsdm.com, the two best quarterbacks in the NFL have been Tua Tagovailoa and Taylor Heinicke.
Heinicke has succeeded by keeping it close to the line of scrimmage, completing nearly 74% of his passes, avoiding turnovers, and throwing behind an offensive line that gives him over three seconds to throw on average.
But he does have a weakness. Heinicke is the best quarterback in the NFL by PFF grading when he throws less than ten yards, but he is the 20th ranked QB when throwing further than twenty yards and the 19th ranked QB throwing between 10-20 yards.
For all the credit that Heinicke deserves, his deep ball is still not there yet. Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis need to press the receivers and play tight coverage close to the line of scrimmage. They should risk the receivers running deep because Heinicke doesn’t like to make that throw.
With Neville Gallimore and Randy Gregory presumably back this week, the Cowboys need to focus on stopping the run on early downs. Sending Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, DeMarcus Lawrence, Gallimore, and Gregory on first and second down should be enough to stop the run. They can’t let Washington slowly eat away at the clock and tire the defense.
Cowboys’ defense could look like this at times Sunday at Washington— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 6, 2021
DE: DeMarcus Lawrence
DT: Neville Gallimore
DT: Osa Odighizuwa
DE: Randy Gregory
LB: Micah Parsons
LB: Leighton Vander Esch
CB: Trevon Diggs
CB: Anthony Brown
CB: Jourdan Lewis
S: Jayron Kearse
S: Damontae Kazee
Once they force the Football Team into passing situations, the corners need to play tight coverage and make Heinicke beat them deep. This is a good offense, but the Dallas defense has shut down better offenses this season. They should be able to do more of the same in this one.
Coaching and special teams
In a week where the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was out to COVID-19 protocols, and the defensive coordinator took on the responsibility, somehow the offensive coordinator is getting the most publicity of all Dallas coaches this week.
Kellen Moore has struggled. The creativity that once amazed us has disappeared, and in its place is the same “run up the gut into a stacked box time and time again” offense. If Kellen doesn’t figure out how to fix the offense quickly, forget playoffs, the Cowboys might not even win the NFC East.
Dan Quinn has been a magician, completely turning around this defense. But are we not allowed to have both? The minute the defense starts playing like an elite group, all offensive efficiency disappears. This is a get-right game for Kellen Moore, and if not, things will start getting ugly.
For Mike McCarthy, the aggression similarly needs to return. Dallas’ fourth-down conversion attempt against the Saints was the first time they had gone for it on fourth down since week ten. With Lamb and Cooper now fully healthy, there is no reason not to be aggressive again.
There is little to say for special teams; for the most part, John Fassel’s squad has consistently played great football. Brian Anger averages the third-longest net yards per punt attempt, Tony Pollard averages the third most yards per kick return, and the combination of CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson has been doing their part in the punt return game.
Obviously, this is overshadowed by the Cowboys being tied for 21st in field goal conversion percentage. But at least they are tied with the Washington Football Team at 80.8%.
Maybe this game comes down to which kicker can miss fewer kicks. However, at this point, when the Cowboys line up for a kick, we just have to cross our fingers and hope that it is not one of Greg Zuerlein’s down games. At least it adds a bit of excitement to every attempt.
This game might be enough to clinch the playoffs for the Cowboys. Going up three games on the division with only four games left, where your biggest threat is the team you just beat on the road, essentially means you just won the NFC East.
Losing this game and bringing yourself within one game of a team that would then have won five straight becomes much scarier. So, let’s get a winning streak going.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 46.1%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 27, Washington Football Team 28