3TFO: Cowboys @ Redskins, Week 17
For the second consecutive season the Dallas Cowboys travel to a division rival in the season finale with the NFC East title on the line in a matchup deemed worthy of two prime-time spots. The opponent is the arch rival Washington Redskins, and their first matchup was the annual Dallas Thanksgiving Day game. The Cowboys lost that game 38-31, as rookie Pro Bowl QB Robert Griffin III threw for over 300 yards, with four TDs.
Washington hasn’t swept Dallas since 2005, and hasn’t won the division since Norv Turner was their head coach (1999). Yet, here they stand with a six-game winning streak and a de facto playoff game on their home field. Mike Shanahan’s team is coming off the first sweep of the Philadelphia Eagles since 2008, even though that contest came down to the final play. The Cowboys are coming off an OT loss at home to the Saints, despite a clutch performance from Tony Romo. Here are some factors that will determine which team will host a playoff game next weekend.
Stopping Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant has been dominating every secondary he’s faced lately, and he’s gotten the best of Washington’s secondary in the past three meetings between these rivals dating back to early last season. After abusing DeAngelo Hall on crucial 3rd-and-long situations in both games last year that put Dallas in position to kick game-winning field goals, the Redskins elected to primarily use Josh Wilson on Bryant last time out. Wilson did force Bryant to fumble after one catch, but otherwise Bryant soundly won this matchup from the very first snap where Wilson was flagged for PI. Bryant was a main factor in the Cowboys climbing back into that game, with five catches on six targets against Wilson for 129 yards and two TDs (one an 85-yard catch-and-run where Wilson unsuccessfully tried to make a play on the ball).
While Wilson was the primary Redskins DB assigned to Bryant, the third-year receiver did find himself lined up across from other defenders at times, including now-suspended Cedric Griffin. He would have beaten Griffin for a 44-yard TD catch in the final minute of the game had FS Madieu Williams not jarred the ball loose before he could complete the catch. With Griffin gone and Hall in the slot when necessary, the Redskins have had to come back to rookie Richard Crawford, who made some plays last Sunday but still got burned for a 59 yard score by Cincinnati’s Andrew Hawkins in Week 3. They also tried using D.J. Johnson, but the 2009 undrafted free agent nearly let the Cleveland Browns back into the Week 15 game by conceding a 69-yard score, along with a TD to Jeremy Maclin and a missed tackle in coverage last week. It will be interesting to see who besides Wilson ends up responsible for Bryant, and how often Dallas goes after that unfortunate defender.
Alfred Morris vs. Cowboys Run Defense
Like many teams this season, the Cowboys couldn’t stop Alfred Morris enough in their last meeting. The sixth-round pick gained 113 yards on 24 carries and scored a TD, while also forcing two missed tackles. Making only two defenders miss in a game is not a great stat, but also not a stat indicative of his performance, as Morris gained his yards despite three red-graded run blocking games from his offensive linemen. Nicknamed ‘The Butler’ by some, Morris is more likely to carry defenders for a few yards than juke them — examples include the first play of the second quarter in that game where he dragged Danny McCray 5 yards after contact, and the 5:43 mark of the second quarter of last week’s game where he moved Kurt Coleman at least 4 yards before going down.
The Cowboy’s run defense has suffered without DL Kenyon Coleman (who didn’t have a negative grade in this area in the seven games he played) and inside LB duo Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Fortunately for Dallas, they still have Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher. Spencer, despite an underwhelming performance against the ground game last week, leads all 3-4 OLBs in our Run Stop Percentage signature stat, while Hatcher ranks seventh among 3-4 defensive ends. Stopping RG3 will be important, but stopping The Butler may be a key to the Cowboys pulling off the upset.
DeMarco Murray vs. Redskins Run Defense
One of the biggest factors in this game will be how Washington’s defense handles sophomore DeMarco Murray, who was inactive in the first meeting. Murray can dodge defenders (19 forced missed tackles on the ground this season), but he’s especially dangerous at keeping the play alive when nothing is initially available — this showed up again last week with 13:09 in the third quarter where he began right, found his fullback bull-rushed back into him, then went left and made Will Smith pay for losing contain with a 9-yard gain on first down. Perhaps a better example of this came way back on opening night in New York when, with 4:35 left in the third quarter, he was met in the backfield by Mathias Kiwanuka going right, kept his feet alive, bounced left, squirmed out of a Justin Tuck tackle and then proceeded to return right and race 48 yards down the sideline.
Dallas didn’t test Washington’s run defense the first time (11 carries for 35 yards total) but there are weaknesses here. OLB Ryan Kerrigan has had problems keeping contain since he entered the league last season, while NT Barry Cofield, despite having an outstanding year rushing the passer, has been moved out of running lanes all year and ranks in the bottom of our Run Stop Percentage rankings among defensive tackles (tied for 49th). Veteran London Fletcher has also been a liability with 10 missed tackles on runners, while fellow ILB Perry Riley, despite being able to violently close on runners when unblocked, has had problems getting off blocks. Surprisingly, one of the most reliable Redskin defenders in this area is maligned DB Hall, who ranks third among CBs in Run Stop Percentage with 12 stops and only three missed tackles.
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