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Dallas comes to FedEx Field on Sunday for a critical NFC East matchup

Meaningful games at home in December! Who’d’a thunk it?

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This is another very long article — it’s about 4,500 words. If you’re not in the mood for all the detail, you can just skip through and look at the headings to see if there’s anything you want to read.

If you get close to the end without stopping, the gist of the article is contained in about 150 words in the section titled “Washington’s game plan”.

What happened in the first 13 weeks?

In case you were frozen in Carbonite during the first half of the season, or perhaps you’ve just returned from the only place in the world without wifi, let me clue you in...

For the first 8 weeks of the season, Dallas was very successful; they were 6-1 and looking like they might go the rest of the season without losing a game. From Weeks 2-7, the Cowboys were undefeated and outscoring their opponents by an average of nearly 11 points per game. In this 5-game stretch, Dak Prescott’s offense didn’t score less than 20 points in a game, and they were averaging over 39ppg.

  • During the first 8 games of the season, Washington went 2-6. For the first 7 games, the defense was simply not showing up; opponents averaged 30 points per game from Week 1 to Week 7.
  • Similar to last season, however, the light seemed to come on for the WFT defense around Week 7. For the past five games, Washington has a 4-1 record, and the defense has surrendered 17.4 points per game.

Dallas has been less successful over the past 5 weeks. The Cowboys are 2-3, and they have lost 2 of the last 3 games. Dallas has gone from averaging 39 ppg in Weeks 2 to 8, to a more modest 25.6 ppg since Week 9, and they’ve been held under 17 points twice in those five games.

Interestingly, Washington’s change in fortune has — statistically, at least — been almost entirely on the defensive side of the ball.

  • During Washington’s 2-5 start, the offense averaged just about 21 points per game, and they were held under 23 points 5 times (all losses).
  • During the recent 4-1 stretch, the WFT is averaging 20 points per game, and has been held under 20 points 3 times (but winning 2 of those games).

In other words, the offense hasn’t gotten any better; in fact, from the standpoint of scoring, it has actually regressed a bit.

Anyone who has seen the November and December games, however, will know that, while Washington’s offensive point-scoring hasn’t taken off, the offensive effectiveness in many areas (such as sustaining drives) has improved; the team is playing complementary football.

On the other hand, while Dallas has outscored its opponents 128 to 100 over the past 5 games, the Cowboys’ offense has often looked out-of-sorts.

Different directions

We have two teams that have gone different directions after their midseason bye weeks. Dallas has picked up wins against two struggling NFC South teams (the Falcons and Saints), while Washington has posted four consecutive victories against Tampa Bay, Carolina, Seattle, and Las Vegas.

Dallas looks better on paper based on 13 weeks’ of numbers

Anyone who tries to handicap this game based on season-long statistics would just laugh; the 2021 season stats scream that Dallas is the better team.

Recent history

But when you narrow your focus to just the 3 or 4 most recent games, a very different picture emerges, and it’s easy to understand why Washington players, coaches and fans are feeling confident ahead of Sunday’s home game against the division-leading Cowboys.

Let’s get a look at some of the key statistics, with season-long stats on the left half, and the most recent 3 games on the right.

Washington’s Offense

As indicated above, you’ll see that while the Dallas offensive numbers have faltered pretty dramatically over the past three weeks, Washington has shown only minimal improvement statistically.

The primary change for Washington is an uptick in rushing yardage, from around 124 yards per game to 151 yards per game, and a dramatic increase in time of possession. Washington’s ToP number for the season as a whole is pretty strong, and only the Ravens have possessed the ball more over the past three weeks.

A fundamental shift that began in Week 7

While those two statistical changes seem hardly noticeable, they represent a fundamental shift in how Washington has been playing football. Prior to the Raiders game, I wrote that through the first 8 games of the season, Gibson had averaged less than 14 rush attempts per game, and he didn’t have more than 20 carries in any individual game, but that in the three games since the mid-season bye week, Gibson had averaged 24 rush attempts per game, and had had only one game with less than 24 carries.

The general trend continued in Las Vegas last Sunday, with Gibson seeing another heavy load against the Raiders — 23 carries for 88 yards.

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail...

Washington is using Antonio Gibson as a tool to consistently make positive yardage, eat up the clock, and extend drives. You can see from the chart above that Washington is in the top-ten in “Drive Success Rate”, which is a metric from Football Outsiders. I don’t have the ability to separate out that statistic for the past three games, but I feel confident from watching the games that this number is skewed towards the post-bye week games (all wins) in which Washington has been relying more heavily on Gibson.

The Riggo drill

I’ve seen more than one commenter in recent weeks mention the Riggo Drill, which is a reference to No. 44, John Riggins, who was used as a battering ram in the Joe Gibbs offense, and who famously ran the ball 34 times for 136 yards in the pouring rain in Tampa in 1982. The first time I heard the comparison, I was almost offended. Who would dare compare John Riggins to Antonio Gibson, a converted wide receiver?!

Yet the comparisons are there to be made. Riggins, as a player, stood 6’2” and 230 pounds. Gibson is 6’2” and 220 pounds. Riggins, in his 9 seasons in Washington, averaged 3.8 yards per carry, and exceeded 4.1 ypc only once (in 1979). Yet Riggins topped 1,000 yards in 4 seasons as a Redskin by carrying the ball a lot. In 1983 and 84, Riggins averaged 24 carries per game. Gibson so far this season, is averaging 3.9 yards per carry — a very Riggo-like number.

I don’t want to carry the Riggins/Gibson comparison too far. Riggins scored 24 rushing TDs in ‘83 and another 14 in ‘84, and the incredible 14 seasons he played at the running back position landed him in the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest to ever carry the rock. But, if you squint a little, it’s not hard to see shadows of Joe Gibbs, John Riggins and the Riggo drill in Scott Turner’s play calling of the past six weeks.

3 yards and a cloud of dust

The effect of all this “3 yards and a cloud of dust” running — possessing the ball and keeping the clock running — has been significant. For the season, the Football Team is averaging 64.8 offensive plays per game (9th), but since the bye, they rank 6th, at 68.3. Meanwhile, the opposing teams are running fewer plays — 60.3 plays per game for the season (5th), but a mere 50 plays per game over the past 3 games, which leads the NFL.

Washington has taken over the game script since the Week 9 bye, fundamentally committing to running the ball no matter what, and playing complementary football, with the WFT’s rested and motivated defense doing its job. The result is a 4-game winning streak, and, dare I say it, a style of football that I haven’t seen from the Redskins...err...from Washington’s football team in a long time.

Washington’s Defense

Defensively, Washington has seen a dramatic improvement since Week 8, while Dallas has slipped a little bit.

Cain’t run, cain’t pass, cain’t score

In the past three games, Washington is 9th in the league in yards allowed, at 291, and the WFT defense simply isn’t allowing anyone to run the ball, giving up just 74 rushing yards per game (including, obviously, quarterback scrambles), which is 3rd in the league.

All opposing offenses have been able to do since November arrived is pass the ball. And while Washington had the worst pass defense in the league in September and most of October, since Halloween, they rank a respectable 19th, surrendering 218 yards per game. No team has scored more than 21 points on the WFT defense in the past 5 games, and 4 of those offenses were held to 19 points or less.

This is a pretty incredible turnaround.

This is the dominating defense I had expected to see from Week 1.

This is the defense I was thinking about when I made my heady preseason prediction of a super bowl win.

Football is a lot of fun when your offense consistently earns first downs, your defense shuts down the opposing running attack, and the opponent is forced to throw nearly every play.

What’s changed?

Early in the season, the strategy didn’t pay off because the secondary wasn’t playing well. We routinely saw blown coverages and opposing receivers running free. While that has happened a couple of times recently (most notably last week against the Raiders), the secondary has been playing much better since Week 7 against the Packers.

Over the past three games, Washington is 5th in points per game surrendered at 17 ppg, which has allowed the team to win the past two games when the offense scored only 17 points.

Keeping opposing quarterbacks on the sidelines

At the heart of this defensive success has been the complementary football being played that is limiting opposing offenses to just 50 plays per game. Most teams average about 17 offensive plays per quarter. The effect of Washington’s offensive and defensive approach has been to force opposing offensive coordinators to play just 3 quarters of football (50 plays) and to rely almost exclusively on the passing game. When you only get 50 plays, every failed run is a saber cut that the opponents can’t afford.

The game against the Seahawks was probably the best example of this plan in action. Seattle ran a mere 45 offensive plays. They rushed 12 times for 34 yards, and were forced to rely on Russell Wilson’s passing. They completed 20 of 31 pass attempts for 233 yards, with 2 sacks. In that game, Washington rushed 43 times for 152 yards and possessed the ball for an incredible 41 minutes and 40 seconds.

But it was also apparent in the win against Tampa Bay, who ran just 47 offensive plays, rushed 13 times for 53 yards, and threw the ball 34 times for 220 yards.

In fact, here is the formula laid out in the form of a chart

Ron Rivera said that the “turning point” in the season came in the second half of the loss to the Chiefs, and that the coaching staff realized after that game that the Football Team wasn’t running the ball enough. While Washington lost its next two games (Packers and Broncos), it was already implementing the new game script that has defined the 4-game winning streak:

  • hand the ball to the WFT running backs at least 24 times per game
  • smother the opponent’s run game
  • control time of possession
  • limit the opponent’s number of offensive plays
  • force the opposing team to rely on the quarterback’s arm, and keep him under 250 passing yards

The question is: Can Washington impose its will (in the form of game script) on the Cowboys, the same way they have against Rodgers and the Packers, Brady and the Bucs, Newton and the Panthers, Wilson and the Seahawks, and Carr and the Raiders?

Does Dak Prescott and his Cowboys team have something that these others don’t?

Dallas offense

Well, one thing Dallas has is the #1 offense in the league, averaging over 416 yards per game on the season.

Moreover, the Cowboys boast the 6th best rushing offense, at 129 yards per game, and the 4th best passing offense at over 287 yards per game.

They are 2nd in scoring, at 29.4 yards per game, and Dallas has been winning the time of possession battle, averaging 30:19 per game this season.

Jeez...that sounds pretty scary

It sounds as if Washington might struggle to impose its will on a team that has so many offensive weapons.

But, like Washington, remember that Dallas is living out a tale of two seasons. They have not been the same team of late that they were in the first 8 weeks of the season.

Weeks 11-13 for Dallas

Over the past three games, Dallas’ top-5 rushing offense from early in the season has fallen on hard times. They rank just 24th in the league in rushing (97.3 ypg) since Week 11. That stretch includes losses to the Chiefs and Raiders, and a win against the Saints (the game where QB Taysom Hill injured a finger on his throwing hand in the 2nd quarter).

The Cowboys have been throwing the ball, averaging 266 yards per game, but they have averaged just 23 points per game (13th), and their Time of Possession has fallen to an average of just 24:29.

Dallas - rushing the ball

Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t rushed for over 51 yards in the past 6 games, and he has been above 71 yards only 3 times this season (Weeks 3-5, when he averaged 116 ypg and looked like his “old self”). It didn’t last. In the other 9 games of the 2021 season, Elliott has averaged just 46 yards per game.

Despite whatever Jerry Jones might have to say about it, Elliott does not look healthy, and the 5 years remaining on his contract (including his 2022 cap hit of $18m and dead cap of $30m) are looking pretty ugly.

Tony Pollard has picked up some of the slack, but since mid-October, Pollard has only rushed for over 50 yards one time — his 71-yard effort against the Saints last week.

The fact is, the Cowboys did rush successfully against New Orleans, but this Saints defense is not the monster it was early in the season; in fact, the NO defense ranks 30th in the league in rushing defense over the past three games at 167 yards. Seen in that light, the Cowboys’ 146 rush yards seem like a bit of underperformance.

Only the Panthers, using the combination of Christian McCaffrey and Cam Newton (10 carries each), have been able to rush for more than 83 yards against Washington since Week 7.

My guess is that the combination of Elliott and Pollard won’t be any more successful. I’ll be surprised if Dallas can exceed 85 yards rushing on Sunday at FedEx Field.

Dallas - passing the ball

Dallas has a deep group of pass catchers.

As you can see from the chart, while CeeDee Lamb has similar numbers to Terry McLaurin, the Cowboys’ next three most productive receivers (Cooper, Shultz and Wilson) are not far from doubling the yardage totals of Washington’s 2nd, 3rd & 4th pass catchers, and Dallas’ top-4 have 18 touchdowns, compared to 10 for Washington’s top-4.

A look at the average yards per catch will further underline the point. None of the Cowboys’ top-5 pass catchers averages less than 11.2 yards per reception. Meanwhile, 3 out of 5 of the WFT pass catchers are at 10.6 ypc or less.

  • The Cowboys have 3 receivers over 550 yards receiving this season; Washington has one.
  • The Cowboys have 6 receivers averaging 11.2 ypc or higher; Washington has two.
  • The Cowboys have 3 receivers with 4 or more TDs; Washington has one.

Dallas fields an offense replete with pass receiving weapons. They have the capacity to stress Washington’s secondary.

But will they?

How likely is it that Dallas will either rush for over 85 yards or pass for over 250?

What is the Dallas offense likely to produce on Sunday?

Let’s look at Dallas’ offensive production since Week 9. Remember that Prescott got hurt in Week 6, and sat out Week 8 despite having a bye week for recovery in Week 7. Some people have suggested that he hasn’t looked quite the same since.

As you can see, Prescott’s passing yards have been modest in 3 of the 5 games, and the Cowboys’ rushing totals have been unimpressive aside from the most recent game in New Orleans.

We’ve already established that the Saints run defense has been among the worst in the NFL in the past month. What do we know about the Falcons & Raiders pass defense? Well, both are fairly middle-of-the road, ranking 18th & 14th in the league respectively.

Over the most recent three games, however, both have been less effective — Vegas ranks 22nd and Atlanta ranks 29th, while Washington ranks 18th.

All in all, while the Dallas offense clearly isn’t going to roll over and play dead, the Washington game script of <250 passing yards, <85 rushing yards, >24 offensive run plays and 33+ minutes’ Time of Possession seems achievable.

Injuries

Every game is affected by injuries, and this one will be no different.

Washington Football Team injuries

The key recent injuries for Washington seem to be the loss of Logan Thomas for the rest of the season, the potential absence of JD McKissic (concussion protocol), the potential absence of Landon Collins (foot), and the continuing absence of Wes Schweitzer (who has been ruled out for Sunday’s game).

On the positive side for Washington, Ricky Seals-Jones, Brandon Scherff, Jamin Davis and Tyler Larsen were all full participants in practice on Friday,

If Ricky Seals-Jones can play, then that lessens the sting of Logan Thomas’ injury, and if both Scherff and Larsen are healthy, then the absence of Schweitzer is a bit less worrisome.

biggest defensive impact

Although Landon Collins raised the ire of most WFT fans early in the season with poor play, since Week 7 or so, when he embraced the position adjustment to “dropdown safety” more fully following Jon Bostic’s injury, he has played at an increasingly high level, and his absence from the Raiders game was noticeable. Having him back to put pressure on the run game an in the pass rush would be ideal this week.

biggest offensive impact

On the offensive side of the ball, JD McKissic was noticeable due to his absence from the passing game against Las Vegas last week. When McKissic is in the game, he is an effective protector against the blitz, a top target as an outlet receiver when the pressure is on or no one is open, and an explosive playmaker at any time. Personally, I trace a lot of Taylor Heinicke’s struggles in Vegas to McKissic’s absence. Dallas, with Micah Parsons, is able to both pressure and pursue, which should make JD McKissic invaluable if he is healthy enough to play on Sunday.

Dallas Cowboys injuries

On paper, Dallas is very healthy. Only Tony Pollard is listed as “DNP” for the full week, though, if he is unable to go, that would likely be a major concern for the Cowboys.

As mentioned earlier, Zeke Elliott is obviously not healthy (well, it’s apparently not obvious to Jerry Jones), and many NFL fans have commented that Dak Prescott hasn’t seemed quite right since his Week 6 injury. Consider this article from a Cowboys writer on Fansided that was published this week:

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed something to be “off” with Dak Prescott since he tweaked his calf against the New England Patriots in October.

Before his injury he looked confident and steady in the pocket. Holding his ground, unfettered, waiting until the perfect time to deliver a perfect pass to his receivers.

Now it seems like he lacks confidence or he’s simply more hesitant to throw the ball deep. One pass that comes to mind is on 4th & 2 in the 1st quarter of the Saints game this Thursday.

A great play call by Kellen Moore. Play-Action and the entire Saints defense shifts with it. Dak is rolling out wide. Cee Dee Lamb had shifted behind the line of scrimmage during the PA, runs into the flat and cuts up into the open green leaving CB P.J. Williams behind.

All Dak Prescott needs to do is make an accurate throw on the run like he has many times before. Wide Left. Turnover on Downs and easily missed points along with it.

Dak missing the throw on the run has been a recurring problem, especially in key situations.

He is still making spectacular throws but the QB from weeks 1-6 doesn’t seem to be there right now.

In the first six games, Prescott completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,813 yards (302 yards per game), 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, while posting a 115.0 passer rating. In the five games since returning from his calf injury, he has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,357 yards (271 per game), seven touchdowns and four interceptions, while posting an 87.4 passer rating.

A lot has been made of the Cowboys “getting healthy at the right time”, and it may be true, but if Pollard is out (he is questionable for the game), Elliott is hurting, and Dak ‘isn’t quite right’, then the Cowboys may not be as healthy on the field as they are on paper.

Prescott under pressure

One thing I read almost weekly going into games is comments calling for Washington to blitz the quarterback and put him under pressure. Intuitively, it seems like a good idea.

However, I think Washington has faced a lot of quarterbacks this season who handle the blitz well. In fact, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are all ranked in the top-6 for Quarterback Rating under pressure. Last week, against Derek Carr, my preview article said that Washington should rely on rushing 4 and playing coverage; that was because Carr is very good against the blitz (he has a 96.7 QBR under pressure).

It turns out that Dak Prescott also belongs in this group — he is ranked 7th, with a QBR of 101.7 when pressured.

Source: Statmuse.com

This NFL.com article was written in 2020, but offers some useful insight to what Dak Prescott does when facing pressure:

He was satisfactory under pressure, you might say. But then, if you dive deeper into the numbers, you see Prescott attempted the third-most pressured passes (144) of anyone on this list. And you see he’s one of just two on this list to break 1,000 passing yards under pressure. And then you see his 7:3 TD-INT ratio while under pressure, and his 167 pressures recorded and his three DIMES completed on pressured attempts. And you sit back and say, “You know, that’s quite all right.” THEN you dive deeper into the NGS record books and see Prescott is tied with Philip Rivers for the fourth-most touchdown passes completed under pressure since 2016 (19), whereupon you flip the page to discover Prescott has the highest single-season completion percentage above expectation under pressure in a single season since 2016, which for whatever reason was a banner year for that metric in the history of Next-Gen Stats.

In short, while I realize I’m starting to sound like a broken record, and that it’s not what most Washington fans want to hear, I’m going to say again this week that Washington should rely heavily on 4-man pass rushes with blitzes used situationally, similar to the Raiders game.


Click here to read reviews of previous WFT games in the 2021 season


Dak Prescott is only the 29th most pressured passer in the NFL at 19.7%. Usually, there’s a reason why trends take hold (the most-pressured NFL quarterbacks are Zach Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Darnold).

NFL coaches go with what they think will work based on study of game tape.

Tom Brady — this will surprise no one — is the least pressured QB in the league.

Washington needs to repeat the defensive rush plan from last week’s Raiders game, but this time with Landon Collins and Jamin Davis on the field to help. (Note that while Jamin Davis was listed as “Full” for Friday’s practice, he has not yet cleared the concussion protocol, and his availability is likely to be a game-time decision).

Scoring

The biggest difference between Dallas and the other teams that Washington has faced this season is Scoring Offense. For the full season, Dallas is ranked #2, averaging 29 points per game.

Even in their most recent five games (2-3 record) they have averaged 25.6 points per game, and they scored 33 points in the Thanksgiving day loss to the Raiders.

  • During the first 7 games (6-1 record), Dallas outscored its opponents 225-162
  • During the most recent 5 games (2-3 record), Dallas has outscored its opponents 128-105

In short, winning or losing, Dallas is generally scoring points. They have scored over 40 points in a game three times this season.

Conversely, Dallas has been held under 29 points only 4 times all season, and they are 2-2 in those game. They won two games in which they scored 20 points, but lost another two games in which they were limited to 16 and 9 points.

Washington is not going to win this game by scoring 17 points as they did against the Seahawks and Raiders.

Three times since Week 8, Dallas has been held to 20 points or fewer (Viking, Broncos, Chiefs). Washington can probably count on limiting the score a bit by controlling the game script (lots of Antonio Gibson, limit the time available for Dallas’ offense to see the field), but the target needs to be limiting Dallas to 20 points or less. Washington isn’t likely to win a shootout against the receivers that Dallas can put on the field.

Fortunately, over the past 5 games, Washington opponents have averaged 17.4 points per game, and no team has scored over 21 points.

Washington’s game plan

The script is written; all Washington needs to do is execute.

  • WFT = 24+ rushing attempts (the more, the better)
  • WFT Time of Possession: 33 minutes or more (the more the better)
  • Limit Dallas offensive plays to less than 55 (the fewer the better)
  • Shut down the Dallas running attack = <85 yards (the fewer the better)
  • Control the Dallas passing game (don’t get beat deep; tackle well; <250 passing yards)
  • Generally use 4 pass rushers; blitz selectively
  • Washington needs to convert on 3rd down and score in the red zone - Score 24+ points (the more the better)
  • Hold Dallas to 20 points or less - don’t get in a ‘shootout’

What’s at stake

Washington needs to keep winning to get to the playoffs. With 5 games left, a 3-2 record will likely see them get in as a wildcard team at 9-8

BUT

Washington still has a genuine opportunity to repeat as Division Champs, though they will probably need 10 or 11 wins to make that happen. They either need to finish with the best record in the NFC East or finish in a tie and have the tie-breaker advantage.

To keep this discussion simple, let’s talk only about Washington and Dallas, and forget about he Eagles right now.

Losing twice to the Cowboys would simply eliminate any chance of Washington winning the division championship.

Sweeping Dallas would — outside of the other 3 remaining games — put the Football Team into a tie with the Cowboys, but Washington would hold the tie-breaker. This would be a strong position to be in.

Splitting with Dallas would be bad. It would leave Washington 2 games in back of the Cowboys with only 3 other games on the schedule, requiring Dallas to lose them all for Washington to repeat based on W-L record. Even worse, Dallas currently holds the conference record tiebreaker; after splitting games, Dallas would have a 7-2 mark while Washington would be at 6-3. Washington would need Dallas to go 1-2 in the other three games while Washington goes undefeated (3-0) to end up as champion based on tie-breakers.

In short, while a win this Sunday keeps Washington firmly entrenched in the race for both a wildcard spot and the NFC East title, a loss would, practically speaking, nearly put an end to thoughts of a 2nd straight division crown, though it would amount (for the moment at least) to a mere setback in the NFC wildcard competition.

We’ve got what we always ask for — meaningful football against the Dallas Cowboys in mid-December.

LFG!