ReFo: Cowboys @ Redskins, Week 17
There are few things better than a must-win game in the last week of the season with the final playoff spot on the line, and it’s even better if the game matches two heated divisional rivals. That was the case on Sunday as the Redskins, quite literally, ran over the Cowboys on the way to their first playoff trip since 2007, and first NFC East title since 1999. And, more impressively, they achieved this while led by a rookie quarterback. Now Washington hosts the Seahawks (also with a rookie QB at the helm) in what will surely be an exciting game.
Conversely, the Cowboys are in an all too familiar spot: a late-season failure after putting themselves in great position to make the postseason. With it come the familiar questions of whether their coach, quarterback, or even owner is capable of leading the franchise back to a championship. While that remains to be seen, let’s take a look at some of the key performances from Sunday’s showdown.
Dallas – Three Performances of Note
Romo Falls Short
At times the criticism of Tony Romo (-2.7) has been unfair, seemingly based more on reputation than his actual on-field play. This is not one of those times. In a must-win game in which the Cowboys needed their quarterback to come up big, he played down to his reputation as a big-game choker, completing just 52.7% of his passes and throwing a trio of killer interceptions. And the interceptions really tell the whole story with Romo; the worst came at 3:06 of the fourth quarter with Dallas down by three, as he attempted a swing pass off his back foot that was easily picked and effectively ended any Dallas chances. That sort of decision and throw in that situation is inexcusable for a player of his caliber and experience, though he had an unblocked rusher in his face. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, this was a theme throughout. For as mobile a guy as he is, Romo was awful under pressure; he completed 3-of-13 passes for 31 yards when the Washington pass rush got close.
Solid Ground Game
Perhaps overshadowed by the play of Romo and the Redskin rushers was that the Cowboys ran the ball effectively. They gained 100 yards on 23 carries with both DeMarco Murray (+2.0) and Felix Jones bettering 4.4 YPC. And it wasn’t just the backs, as linemen Ryan Cook, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Doug Free each graded better than +1.0 in run blocking and paved the way for a 6.4 YPC average to the right of center. Those three had been inconsistent run blockers for much of the season, with Free being rotated at RT every other series, but came up with some solid blocking performances in a big matchup. The team actually played a decent game offensively, save a few killer mistakes in a close game by the quarterback.
Despite playing Washington just over a month ago, the Dallas run defense was absolutely incapable of slowing down the Redskin rushing attack. We saw some good play up front by ends Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford, and Marcus Spears, but the Cowboys couldn’t hold up in the back seven. They were especially weak at ILB, where Ernie Sims (–3.6) and Dan Connor were easily blocked and neutralized at the second level. At least Connor came up with a single defensive stop in 35 snaps while being pushed around by fullback Darrel Young. The same can’t be said for Sims, who played more snaps, but missed two tackles and couldn’t contend with the Washington linemen. As bad as the interior was, though, the damage wasn’t limited to those two, as pretty much every player in the back-seven was unable to handle the zone/option scheme.
Had they not faced the same rushing attack a few weeks ago, their struggles might have been understandable, but in the second game against a division rival, this was an embarrassing performance in a must-win game for a team effort in run defense.
Washington – Three Performances of Note
The Other Guy
If anyone was still overlooking Alfred Morris (+4.3) coming into this game, it’s safe to say that’s not the case anymore. With RG3 slowed, his fellow rookie torched the Dallas defense on the ground en route to season-highs of 200 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. While you have to acknowledge the option game and the running abilities of his quarterback in his success, Morris certainly displayed the traits of an elite running back. He forced five missed tackles, gained 106 yards after initial contact, and used his speed to get to the edge on several long runs. And if you weren’t impressed enough with his speed and power, those runs also included some masterful cutbacks, like the one on his 32-yard fourth quarter TD run that left safety Eric Frampton diving for air.
As the Redskins enter the playoffs, they hope they can get more out of their quarterback, who despite some impressive runs was clearly hobbled. But this kind of performance shows that they can certainly rely on their other prized rookie.
Lock Down Duo
While Romo will deservedly receive most of the blame for his and the Cowboy offense’s poor showing, credit the Washington cornerbacks, who made life extremely difficult for the Cowboy receivers all night. DeAngelo Hall (+1.7) went toe-to-toe with Dez Bryant and more than held his own, breaking up three passes and limiting the dynamic WR to four catches on eight targets. Not to be outdone by Hall was Josh Wilson (+2.6), who gave up just two receptions for 13 yards and picked off an underthrown pass, while producing a hit and hurry in five snaps rushing the passer. Aptly, Romo had a QB rating of just 8.3 when throwing in Wilson’s direction. Not bad for a guy whom QBs had a rating of 102.3 when targeting on the season.
In a must-win divisional game, it’s interesting that some of the most impactful plays came from a 37-year-old linebacker, one that finished as our second-worst graded ILB this season. The Redskins clearly focused their defensive game plan on disrupting Romo, and London Fletcher was a significant part of that. He blitzed a season-high 16 times, mostly through the A-gaps, and came up with two sacks and an additional three pressures against a team that made some feeble attempts at handling the blitz. This performance doesn’t make up for his dismal play this season, though, and again he didn’t do much outside of the pass, with no stops in the run game despite a team-high nine tackles.
Outside of Fletcher, the Washington defense played well enough to win and looked strong in coverage, but otherwise underwhelmed on the front seven. They’ll have to improve if they want to do better than one-and-done in the playoffs.
– Robert Griffin was just 1-for-6 on balls thrown over 10 yards in the air.
– Targeted three times, Miles Austin failed to catch a pass for just the second game in three seasons.
– Pierre Garcon finished the season with an extremely productive 2.93 Yards per Route Run, but played just 403 snaps.
PFF Game Ball
Can’t go to anyone but Alfred Morris, who ran himself into the Redskin record books and his team into the playoffs.
Follow John on Twitter @PFF_JManey