The Dallas Cowboys are coming to FedEx Field on Sunday, and, despite everything that has gone badly for Ron Rivera’s squad through the first six weeks of the season, they have an opportunity to stay relevant in the division by getting a win against the struggling Cowboys before enjoying a bye in Week 8.
If the burgundy and gold wants to steal an unexpected victory here, however, there are four key things they will need to take care of.
Number One: BLITZ!!
In last week’s article, I said that the team would need to pressure Daniel Jones with four rushers and drop seven because Danny Dimes was completing 61% of his passes whether he was blitzed or not, but his completion rate fell dramatically when he was pressured by four rushers and had to throw into 7-man coverage. I guess Jack Del Rio missed the article, because, against my advice, he blitzed the Giants offense, and Daniel Jones made him pay for it almost every time.
Well, Andy Dalton isn’t Dak Prescott, who can extend plays and beat a pass rush, and it turns out that he isn’t Daniel Jones either — blitzing Dalton should pay dividends. He threw two interceptions against the Cardinals, and was heavily affected by pressure and blitzes.
In his limited action so far in 2020, Dalton has completed 71.4% of his passes at an average of 6.5 yards per attempt when not under pressure. Those figures fall to 47.1% completion rate and 3.4 ypa when he is under pressure. Looking back to his 2018 season with the Bengals, Dalton had a completion rate of 68.2% when not pressured, but 44.9% when pressured. His understanding of the Cowboys offense is more limited since this is his first season in the system, and the Washington pass rush should be able to overwhelm the Dallas offensive line, which is a patchwork of young, inexperienced players who haven’t played together before, and who are operating on a short week following their appearance on Monday Night Football and traveling West to East for the Sunday game.
Confuse the protection; harass Andy Dalton, and reap the rewards.
Number Two: RUN THE BALL!!
The Cowboys are giving up the second most rushing yards per game in the NFL, at 173.3 yards per game. This home game should be the breakout we’ve been waiting for for Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. Scott Turner should be making use of the return of Brandon Scherff, the generally good play of Roullier and Morgan Moses, and the improving play on the left side of the line and come up with a run heavy game plan that exploits the weakest part of a Dallas defense that has been giving up 36.3 points per game — the worst in the NFL.
While it’s true that the WFT offense hasn’t scored much this season, three of the team’s 5 losses have come against the Ravens, Cardinals and Rams, who ranked 1st, 2nd and 5th respectively in points per game given up. Those same three teams, along with the Giants, are all ranked in the top 13 in yards per game given up, so the offensive struggles of both the Haskins-led and Allen-led offenses have come against teams that offered a much stiffer challenge than the one that should confront the burgundy & gold this Sunday.
The Football Team should be able to run the ball effectively on Sunday.
Number Three: Win the turnover battle
Turnovers are always important, but against some teams (like the Ravens) the goal may be “don’t let giveaways exceed takeaways”, knowing that the other team will likely get their share.
Not so with Dallas. The Cowboys defense has been very ineffective at forcing turnovers in 2020, while Andy Dalton and Ezekiel Elliott proved especially generous in giving the ball away on Monday night against the Cardinals. But that 4-turnover hot mess on Monday night wasn’t really a huge outlier. Through six weeks of the season, the Cowboys have given the ball away 15 times (6 interceptions, 9 fumbles) which is the most in the league. Even before the 4-turnover game in Week 6, the Dallas offense was averaging more than 2 turnovers per game.
Zeke Elliott is responsible for 5 of those lost fumbles. One issue seems to be that defenses know he always carries the ball under his right arm, and they may be targeting him more effectively. Some have suggested that his propensity to wear long-sleeves may be a contributing factor. It may also be that, with Dak Prescott gone, Elliott is simply trying to do too much. Whatever the case, he’s been vulnerable this season, but following the 2 fumbles on MNF, there’s every chance that he becomes proactive this week. He will at least be more aware of the need to protect the ball at all costs.
While the Dallas offense has been giving the ball away with regularity, one of the failings of the Mike Nolan defense has been that they haven’t been producing takeaways, with just one interception and two forced fumble recoveries in 6 games. The result is a -12 turnover ratio, which compares to Washington’s +1.
Look for Kendall Fuller to continue his unbelievable streak of PBUs and INTs, and for the defensive front to force at least one strip sack or other forced fumble in the backfield against the young backups that make up the Dallas offensive line at the moment.
Number Four: Score touchdowns from the Red Zone
Among the weaknesses of the Dallas defense is the lack of ability to stop opponents from scoring in the red zone. The Cowboys rank 20th in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing a touchdown on 2 out of every 3 trips to the red zone.
Washington has struggled for years to improve its red zone scoring efficiency, but things are improving a bit in 2020. After scoring TDs on just 48.8% of trips to the red zone in 2019, the burgundy & gold offense has improved to 64.7% (16th) for the first six games of 2020; this despite three of its 5 losses coming against teams ranked in the top half of the league in red zone scoring defense. (As an aside, the Redskins defense ranks 8th in this metric, allowing TDs on just 55% of opponent drives that reach the red zone).
Last Sunday, the team finally did something that it has been trying to do since the days when RG3 was the quarterback, by throwing a high arcing TD pass to a tall receiver at the back pylon. Against the Giants, Kyle Allen hit TE Logan Thomas on a pass that would have made Jay Gruden proud. This follows several successful rushing attempts for TDs on goal to go situations earlier in the season.
All in all, the Washington offense is demonstrating the ability to score at at least an average rate in the end zone, while the Dallas defense is below average at stopping red zone touchdowns. Scott Turner has to be able to establish long drives via the run that end up with touchdowns on the scoreboard against this highly suspect defense of the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
Predict the turnover ratio for the WFT this week
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+3 or more
-3 or more