3TFO: Redskins @ Cowboys, Week 12
One of the most recognizable NFL rivalries in the league continues on Thanksgiving Day as the Washington Redskins hit the road to take on the Dallas Cowboys. In the surprisingly weak NFC East the 4-6 Redskins and the 5-5 Cowboys both still have playoff hopes, especially with the defending division (and Super Bowl) champion New York Giants struggling in recent weeks.
In his first game in this rivalry, and as Washington’s head coach, Mike Shanahan got the better of the Cowboys at home on Sunday Night Football — he hasn’t beaten them since. Led by Rex Grossman, the Redskins did come close last year, losing to their hated nemesis twice by a combined 5 points. Further playing to Dallas’s advantage is the fact that Tony Romo is undefeated in games on this holiday, but he hasn’t faced rookie sensation Robert Griffin III. Here are some matchups that will shape this divisional battle.
Redskins Pass Rush vs. Cowboys Offensive Line
Washington’s pass rush and Dallas’s offensive line have both suffered due to multiple injuries, resulting in these aspects being weaknesses of both teams. The Cowboys front five was further decimated when Tyron Smith went down last week, leaving his status for this game in doubt. In his place, 2009 rookie free agent Jermey Parnell was beaten by Juqua Parker for a sack, a QB knockdown, two hurries and was forced to commit a holding penalty on the defensive end on one play. Those stats may give some the wrong impression that Parnell was abused in this game — quite the contrary, as those pressures were given up in 58 pass blocking attempts. Backup RG (and former Redskin) Derrick Dockery held his own in that game, allowing only a solitary hurry that forced him to hold (which negates the pressure on the stat sheet). Free agent offseason acquisition Nate Livings also did his part, conceding only a hit and a hurry in 69 pass blocking attempts. However, Mackenzy Bernadeau, originally a right guard forced to play center after the backup center (Ryan Cook) went down, and RT Doug Free were less successful as both were responsible for a combined five sacks and four hurries.
Fortunately for this unit, the Redskins’ pass rush has more often than not made life comfortable for opposing signal-callers. It says a lot that nose tackle Barry Cofield has been their most productive pass rusher (+6.6 in this department). Sophomore OLB Ryan Kerrigan has not been consistently generating pressure lately without peer Brian Orakpo to play opposite him, though he did beat LeSean McCoy for a strip-sack last week and could certainly give the struggling Free some problems. Though London Fletcher was a threat to passers last year, his decline this year has extended to this area — he has only a sack (for 0 yards where Christian Ponder ended up scrambling and sliding) and four hurries. Who wins this matchup will be a key to the game.
Alfred Morris vs. Cowboys Run Defense
Among our many signature stats is an ‘Elusive Rating’ among running backs. Rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris has surprised the whole league with his gritty play this year, so it’s not a surprise that he currently owns the third-highest elusive rating among starting running backs (53.7) with 31 forced missed tackles on the ground. However, he has been less effective as the season has worn on, rushing for no more than 76 yards in the past three contests and he hasn’t found the end zone since Week 6.
This week may be a tough one for Morris as Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware rank second and fifth among 3-4 OLBS in Run Stop Percentage (36 stops and only three missed tackles in this area between them). Not everyone in Rob Ryan’s defense is that good against the run though, especially Gerald Sensabaugh, the only safety who usually doesn’t leave the field (he’s missed only 18 of 564 total snaps) and ranks a pathetic 57th among safeties in RSP. Meanwhile, Brandon Carr is tied with six others as the worst in this area among CBs, with four missed tackles and no stops. If Morris can get past Ware and Spencer and onto the second level, he could find success and go a long way in pioneering an upset victory.
Jason Witten vs. Redskins LBs
Despite suffering a serious spleen injury in the preseason, Cowboys’ star tight end Jason Witten has been as dangerous as ever. He’s also by far the most targeted Cowboy (97, with Dez Bryant’s 85 the next closest) as well as the most targeted tight end in the league (Tony Gonzalez’s 85 being second). Though he does have seven drops and only one scoring catch, he’s also accumulated the third-most yards among tight ends (636) and has forced seven missed tackles.
Washington’s defensive schemes often ask their LBs to at least attempt to cover opposing tight ends. Despite Fletcher making a play on Brent Celek last week that resulted in a DeAngelo Hall interception, this unit has been repeatedly exposed in coverage. Gonzalez did the most damage (123 yards on 13 catches), mostly against Fletcher and sophomore Perry Riley, although the Pittsburg Steelers had three different tight ends catch TD passes (including Will Johnson, who also serves as a fullback). Fletcher may not be able to suit up due to injury, which would likely lead to more playing time for rookie Keenan Robinson, who hasn’t been tested much in coverage yet in only 50 snaps. Lorenzo Alexander, who plays numerous positions but mostly inside and outside linebacker, and Kerrigan (who was beat by Witten for a 23 yard catch last year) could also find themselves scrambling to bring down the prolific tight end.
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