3TFO: Cowboys @ Redskins, Week 16
The 7-7 Dallas Cowboys travel to Washington to take on the 3-11 Redskins in the latest chapter of this ancient NFC East rivalry. The Cowboys need this win to keep their playoff hopes alive after their latest fourth-quarter meltdown to the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers at home; a victory on Sunday would set up a de-facto playoff game in the final week for the division title against Philadelphia for the Cowboys. It would also be the third consecutive year where Dallas had a chance to clinch a home playoff game in the final week.
Meanwhile, the defending NFC East champion Redskins are looking to snag at least one division win in this nightmare season. They swept the Cowboys last season, including that final game in prime time where Tony Romo threw three interceptions. Those victories were accomplished with Robert Griffin III at the helm though; can Kirk Cousins lead this squad to a win over their most hated rivals and possibly end their playoff hopes?
DeMarco Murray, the former third-rounder, has proven his worth when on the field. Although he’s missed a few games this year – injuries have been a concern – he still has 31 forced missed tackles, eight TDs, and a 5.5 yards per carry average. Against the Redskins in Week 6 he had a score and 29 yards on seven carries before getting hurt. Last week he had 134 yards on 18 official carries – but he only had eight carries in the second half (two which were negated by offensive holding penalties, which also negates them from the stat sheet). This has been a common theme for the Cowboys over the years – why do they start limiting running plays with a lead? Often you could blame head coach Jason Garrett or the offensive coordinator, but now QB Tony Romo also shares some of the blame, which Garrett noted in a press conference following that latest loss.
The Redskins’ defense as a unit has the lowest PFF grade in Run Defense. Brian Orakpo, in a contract year, is having by far his best season against the run (+9.8, which is also by far the best on the defense). Sophomore Jarvis Jenkins, after a four-game suspension, has also contributed in this area despite only three stops against opposing ground games. ILB Perry Riley, the heir apparent to London Fletcher (who’s struggled in every facet of the game), has flashed this season and played better in three of the last four games, but still has a -6.1 grade in run defense on the season despite 31 stops; he often finds himself out of position or unable to shed blocks. NT Barry Cofield also continues to be a stellar pass rusher while getting pushed around when the opposition runs. The secondary is also unreliable with rookie David Amerson having by far the highest grade here among the DBs at +0.1. But the real question: will this unit even need to defend the run that much in the second half?
Dez vs. Hall
DeAngelo Hall has received some praise this year, mostly for games where he primarily shadowed one receiver on a team – a list including Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White last week, and Dez Bryant. Bryant has emerged (arguably before this season) as an elite WR, a weapon capable of beating the defender on a goal-line pass, stretching the field as a deep threat, or making circus catches with multiple defenders surrounding him. In that first meeting, Bryant caught five of eight passes against Hall for 36 yards and a pair of first downs. Romo only targeted Dez four times in the first half (all in coverage vs. Hall), including three consecutive targets that ended and began the first and second quarter. The last target was caught for five yards on 2nd-and-6, but was also nearly intercepted by Hall. The third quarter saw three incompletions toward the star WR – one was due to close coverage by Hall, while the other two, both on crossing patterns, were inaccurate passes by Romo under pressure. In the final quarter, Bryant caught the only pass thrown to him (again on a crossing route) and broke Hall’s tackle attempt for a first down and 17-yard gain. Who wins this rematch is very important for the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.
Redskins Running Game vs. Cowboys Defense
While there is doubt about how often the Cowboys will run the ball, there is little doubt the Redskins will run it early and often (granted the game doesn’t get out of hand). But can the banged-up Cowboys defense stop it?
Alfred Morris, in his second season, has proven despite other struggles on his offense that his outstanding rookie season was no fluke. Morris has the seventh-most forced missed tackles among RBs this season and the sixth-best rushing grade. It is concerning that he fumbled twice last week, but he is still the workhorse in Washington. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the first Dallas game and last season, the Cowboys will not have to worry about RGIII running the ball.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ depleted defense awaits. DeMarcus Ware continues to contribute, but otherwise his current teammates have not been able to produce against opposing ground games. Sean Lee almost certainly won’t play. It’s unclear whether Bruce Carter will be able to play, but he’s been a liability in this area anyway. 2012 fourth-rounder Kyle Wilber had helped out at the LB position (he was being used strictly as a lineman for much of the year), but in the past two weeks has a -1.5 run defense grade. Backup LBs Justin Durant and Ernie Sims rank at the bottom among their fellow Dallas defenders at stopping the run. Safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church have positive grades here, but Church had his second-worst performance against the run in that first meeting, including a horrible angle on Morris’ TD run.
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