It’s been eight weeks since the Dallas Cowboys have faced a divisional opponent, but they’ll finally play a divisional matchup Sunday when they travel to Washington and take on the Football Team. This is a game both teams desperately need, so the atmosphere is going to be electric.
Before the two divisional foes matchup on Sunday, here are three things the Cowboys must do if they want to walk out of Washington with a victory.
1) Put consistent pressure on Taylor Heinicke
So far this season Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke has had a fairly nice year. Since stepping in as the starter when Ryan Fitzpatrick went down in Week 1, the former undrafted free agent has played some decent football.
In 12 games, Heinicke has thrown 18 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 92.1. While these certainly aren’t numbers that are going to get him into the Pro Bowl, they are pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even drafted.
One area that Heinicke has really struggled in this season is taking care of the football, especially when under pressure. Heinicke has the fifth-most interceptions (11) and interceptable passes (28), via Player Profiler, in the league and has been a completely different quarterback when pressured.
Taylor Heinicke throws an interception from deep in his own end-zone.— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoTWW) October 10, 2021
Tough day at the office for #4 today. pic.twitter.com/zTdvLxSbyz
Heinicke has just a 58.4% completion percentage this season when under pressure and has tossed just five touchdown passes to four interceptions. His Pro Football Focus offensive grade is a 70.4 when kept clean, as opposed to a 57.9 grade when under pressure. The signal-caller also has thrown at least one interception in seven of ten games that he has been sacked at least one time.
If the Cowboys want to have a successful game plan on defense, it has to start with getting consistent pressure on Heinicke. Luckily, it seems like the Dallas defense will be adding Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore back into the fold, so their pass rush group will be much improved. With Micah Parsons, Lawrence, and Gregory all available to rush the passer, the Cowboys should be able to put constant pressure on Heinicke and force him into some mistakes.
2) Protect the football at all costs
If Washington is going to win this game they almost certainly are going to need to force the Cowboys into turning over the football. When Dallas plays a clean game on the offensive side of the ball, they are extremely hard to beat. In games that they have not turned over the football, the Cowboys are 5-2 and their offense has averaged 418 yards per game.
If the Cowboys are going to take care of the ball, their signal-caller Dak Prescott is going to have to lead the way. Dating back to 2018, Prescott is 17-7 in games that he does not throw an interception. The Pro Bowler also has dominated his own division in games he does not throw a pick, posting a 15-4 career record in those matchups.
Washington’s defensive strategy is likely going to be attempting to contain Prescott as much as possible and force him, and the Cowboys offense, to shoot themselves in the foot. If they do this, as we saw in the Chiefs and Broncos game, the Cowboys can be beaten. But, if they play a clean offensive game and protect the ball, it’s hard to see a way Washington walks out with a win.
When playing an inferior opponent, the easiest way to let them into the game is to turn the ball over. On the road in a big-time divisional matchup, the Cowboys can’t afford to do that and let Washington stick around if they want to win this game.
3) Turn things around on third down
Third downs have not been the Cowboys’ friend over the last three weeks. In their last three games, Dallas is just 10-for-41 on third down, an absolutely horrific percentage. That 24.39% conversion percentage is second-worst in football over that three-game span, and is worse than the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, and New York Jets conversion rate. Even in last week’s victory over New Orleans, the Cowboys were awful on third down. Their 15.38% third-down success rate in the game was the worst in the league in Week 13.
Kellen Moore spoke this week about his unit’s struggles on third down and talked about how early-down success could help turn things around.
“I’d certainly say you study it and you dig into it, because obviously, it’s not what you want. You don’t want to be 2-for-13 on third downs,” the coordinator said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “There’s going to be certain things that you want to make adjustments on third down. I think it’s also important to recognize the impact first and second down has on third downs. Too many long third-down situations in that game. So we’ve got to be better on first and second down; the good teams that are really good on third down are sitting on third-and-3, third-and-4, and not the third-and-6, third-and-7s that are sometimes more challenging than third-and-10-plusses.”
Moore makes a good point, and the way for the Cowboys to get back on track on third down is to have more success on first and second down. Whether it’s by throwing the ball more or running outside the tackles, the Cowboys need to find a way to generate more third and shorts, rather than third and long. If the Cowboys can start getting into some third and manageable situations, their offense will be much more effective at staying on the field and converting long scoring drives.