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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys vs. Commanders (Week 4)

A familiar face in a new place as a Cowboys’ foe.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

After winning their first divisional matchup of the year to improve to 2-1 on the season, the Cowboys return home on a short week to host, for the first time, the Washington Commanders. This game also marks the return of Carson Wentz to AT&T Stadium, though he’s now playing for a different NFC East team.

The last time Wentz played a game in this stadium was October of 2019, and his Eagles lost 37-10. In that game, Wentz completed just 61% of his passes, was sacked three times, and turned the ball over three times. That’s become the type of game that we expect from Wentz lately, as he’s been unable to recapture the magic he had in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury. That regression has led to two different NFL teams giving up on him in as many years.

With the way things have started out for Washington, it might just become three teams before too long. Washington is 1-2 right now and they’re coming off consecutive losses by multiple scores. The Commanders offense is ranked 29th in offensive DVOA, and Wentz has been a big reason for that.

Only three other teams have thrown the ball more times than Washington through three games, and Wentz has eclipsed 40 attempts in each of those games. He’s been wildly inefficient on those throws though, as Wentz currently ranks 22nd in both EPA/play and CPOE while ranking 24th in QBR.

But the biggest problem for Wentz is the same as it’s ever been: he just holds the ball for way too long. Wentz’s time to throw was 3.03 seconds in the first two weeks of the season, most in the NFL; he cut that down to 2.6 seconds this past week but barely completed half of his passes against the Eagles.

Wentz’s extreme patience in the pocket has once again led to a high number of sacks for him; the quarterback was tied with Joe Burrow for most sacks taken so far this year entering Week 4. What’s crazy is that Wentz is only 10th in the NFL in pressure rate. In other words, defenses are converting pressures into sacks at a very high rate against Wentz, undoubtedly due to his inability to get the ball out faster while maintaining his accuracy.

Wentz will now face the Dallas defense, which is third in the league in pressures and leads the league in sacks. Micah Parsons has four sacks and also leads the NFL in pressures, while both DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong have three sacks to their name. This feels like a nightmare scenario for Wentz.

On the other side of the ball, Washington’s defense has yet to return to their dominant ways that led them to an NFC East title just two years ago. They’re 29th in defensive DVOA and, despite having the eighth highest pass rush win rate, are just ninth in sacks and 17th in pressure rate. Those aren’t necessarily terrible metrics but they’re well below the standard this defense has set for themselves.

Making matters worse, the Commanders secondary has been giving up big plays too. Cornerback Kendall Fuller has given up the second most passing yards in the NFL, with nearly 80% of those yards coming before the catch. Safety Darrick Forrest has also surrendered the fourth most yards of any safety. Meanwhile, cornerback William Jackson has struggled to make stops: he’s allowing completions on 78.6% of his targets and is allowing the ninth highest passer rating when targeted among all corners.

That bodes well for a Cowboys offense that’s really starting to click. Cooper Rush led the offense to scores on three of his final four drives against the Giants, with the lone exception being a drive in which Dallas was merely trying to kill the clock. Rush seems to only be gaining confidence throwing the ball. Now he faces a pretty leaky secondary that struggles to rush the passer, and he might be getting Michael Gallup back too.

Of course, this offense’s identity is still running the ball, and there’s no reason for them to change that this week. The Cowboys lead the league in run block win rate and have been one of the league’s most efficient teams at running the ball outside the tackles. By contrast, the Commanders are 26th in run stop win rate, are allowing the third most yards per carry in the league, and nearly 40% of the yards they’ve surrendered on the ground have come on runs outside the tackles. Anything can happen on any given Sunday, but the Cowboys offense appears to have a big advantage heading into this one.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the Commanders, though, is their slow starts. In each of their last two games, Washington’s offense has been held scoreless in the first half. Last week, they didn’t score until the fourth quarter. On the year, Washington is being outscored 49-14 in the first half of games. The Dallas defense has yet to allow a touchdown in the first half this year, and the Cowboys are outscoring opponents 26-18 in the first half. Washington can’t afford to dig themselves another hole early on, especially against such a formidable defense.

If you had said two weeks ago that the Cowboys would enter this matchup feeling more confident about their quarterback situation than Washington, most people would’ve laughed at you. But that’s the reality here: Rush has been an infinitely better quarterback than Wentz so far this year. That’s only one reason why the Cowboys enter this game as the better team.

You can never count a team out before kickofff, and especially not in a divisional matchup, but the Cowboys look to be in a good spot to get a third straight win this week.

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