According to my count, this will be the 97th meeting in what many suggest has been the best rivalry in the NFL over the last 50 years. Personally, I might take issue with that claim - even for a Cowboys rivalry I prefer both the Giants and the Eagles (but I am told that proves I have only been a close observer of Dallas Cowboys football since 1998), but regardless, it is still about as storied as they come.
You don't have to be a great student of the rivalry to know that the beauty of Cowboys-Redskins is that, for once, you can really believe the tired cliche' of "you can throw the records out when these two teams play eachother". You see, it is actually true!
Whether it was 1989 when the Cowboys got their only win at the hands of a good Redskins team, or in 1995 when the Cowboys were swept by the Redskins before they won their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years. That season, the Redskins played 2 QB's, Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte, and each of them beat the Cowboys when they got the chance. Crazy. It makes no sense.
Dave Campo could only must 15 wins in 48 games in his 3 years as Cowboys coach, and 5 of them were in 6 games against Washington. The Cowboys, who are 20 games over .500 in this series won 14 of 15 from 1997 to 2004, when the Cowboys were not playing their finest football. Then, when things started to turn towards quality returning to Dallas' organization from 2005-2008, the Cowboys confusingly have now dropped 5 of the last 8 games against those Redskins.
NFL players seldom dig through the historical archives to find these facts. They have their jobs, and I have mine. They merely talk to their buddies around the league to find out which teams are good and which teams are jokes. That is why this stuff never changes. You know that this is a serious rivalry, and I know that this is a serious rivalry where anything can and will happen, but the players never learn this lesson and that is why it can happen again on Sunday.
Truth be told, the Redskins are a mess. Don't let a win on Sunday against Denver fool you, that was with Denver falling prey to a trick Field Goal for a Touchdown and an injured QB who left the game with a half to play. Chris Simms could not save the Broncos, but that is the only win for the Redskins beyond their 2 other home victories against league patsies, St Louis and Tampa Bay.
They have coaching chaos, they have ownership under fire, and they have many, many injuries. Albert Haynesworth has been in a walking boot all week, and Clinton Portis is out.
The Cowboys are in need of 2 wins in 5 days. Over the years, they seem to have a pretty good track record of pulling this off. Win on Sunday at home, wait 4 days for another team to travel on short rest, and win again on Thanksgiving Day. Most years, it seems like a good idea. But, in 2009, it is imperative. This team must get to 8-3, so that it can enter December with a brave face for what lies ahead and their battle with their demons. Think about it, 3-2 would then take you to 11-5 and a likely division title, with 2-3 still at 10-6 and likely a firm hold on a playoff spot.
But it starts on Sunday in a game where the Cowboys are heavily favored. They have a few new starters after they lost a starter on each side of the ball to injury, but that should not keep them from two home games against teams that will be going nowhere in 2009.
ON OFFENSE: If there is one thing we have learned about Jason Garrett over the years, it is that he has good hearing. We see this because of his drastic over-corrections of things that the masses complain about the week before. In 2008, there were 2 such moments, 1 when he had that crazy 11 run, 47 pass performance against Washington. The next week, it was as if he was merely calling plays in a sarcastic "I'll show you" sort of way, as he switched to a 38 run/24 pass split against the Bengals.
Then, after the '08 Deion/Terrell interview where Terrell blamed the world for him not getting the ball enough, after the win in Washington. The next week, against the 49ers, Terrell had far and away his biggest game of the season as Garrett called his number time and time again, throwing 13 balls at him on his way to 7 catches for 213 yards.
So, knowing this pattern, and knowing that the Redskins probably know it, too, expect the Cowboys to force the running game, and the Skins to sit there ready for it. This could result in a painful 1st half of very little action (think 1st half of Carolina game) and plenty of collisions until things sort themselves out.
The Cowboys also should consider that blitzes are going to continue to rise until they prove they can handle it. 9 sacks allowed in the last two weeks is a troubling total, and one that will get the attention of those who game plan against the Cowboys. It is a logic approach to figure out what Dallas does poorly, and then present them with similar challenges to see if they are any better this week.
1) - Pass Protect - For several years, the Redskins have not been able to get to the quarterback with their front 4. Well, those days have changed and they now have a solid pass rush that can get to the Quarterback on a semi-regular basis. Everyone questioned the wisdom behind signing Albert Haynesworth to that fortune, wondering if his motor would run if he was paid. Well, so far, so good. He demands a double team on every down, or he slices through the guard/center splits and ends a run or pass play with ease. His disruption is not often seen in this league, and because he is so special, he instantly makes a player like Andre Carter back into a serious pass rush force. 4 sacks for Carter in 16 games in 2008 has turned into 8 sacks in 9 games in 2009. Double teams inside mean 1-on-1 on the edge. You must give Doug Free support against Brian Orakpo, or he will get bullrushed. This is a great time to find out how stout Free can be on the corner, and I am anxious about the results. When the front 4 can get pressure, then the LB's and DB's job is so much easier.
2) - Power Run Personnel Sets - Because of Haynesworth, many teams try to run to the corners. I would like the Cowboys to stop messing around and put the power running offense back on the field. It has worked all season with the "22" set and the "13" set. This means that you deploy only 1 WR, and declare that you are likely to run the ball with great power. You will face 9 in the box. Here is the total of times in each of the first 9 games where the Cowboys have used these two sets combined: 8, 18, 17, 11, 13, 21, 19, 14, and then just 4 in Green Bay. This is why I screamed all week. Out of the "22" package, the Cowboys run for 6.26 yards per carry this season. For pete's sake, use it every week!
3) - Get Miles Austin Going Again - After taking the NFL by storm in October, Miles has had trouble solving the new coverage schemes that he has to deal with. He has 69 yards in the last 2 games, and has spent much of the game running routes against tight coverage and never really getting a sniff. He still hit a very crucial home run against the Eagles, but he has not been the drive-to-drive threat that he was before the road trip. I need plays going to my best playmaker down the field. This happens off of Play Action, so I would like to call for this when the time is right.
4) - Take Care of the Football - We talked about protecting the football last week, and I wrote last Friday if the Cowboys kept the giveaways to 2 or less, they likely win. Well, they did not, as 3 giveaways only added to the frustration. No takeaways from the defense did not help either, and the Cowboys cannot win when they are -3. Washington is a team that needs significant favors from the turnover game to compete, so once again it falls to Tony Romo to be careful with the ball.
Hypothetically, this unit should have a far easier goal on Sunday. Stopping a very, very poor offense that has not done much of anything on the road. The Redskins have played 4 road games, and have yet to eclipse 17 points in any of them. They cannot move the football most of the time, and now have subtracted Chris Cooley, Chris Samuels, and Clinton Portis from an already pathetic attack. There is no way to sugar-coat this, and if the Cowboys are sound in their assignments early, they should be able to choke the life out of this fragile offense, and coast to a performance that reminds you of the Seattle game.
The one thing that was accomplished last week was the performance of Ladell Betts. He is a veteran runner who doesn't dance around but heads north in most cases and tries to not ever take a negative play. He likes to pound that ball up in there, and will test the Cowboys run defense. There ability to stop it will set the tone for this thing. I would like to see Keith Brooking return to his very visible status that we saw before the most recent road trip. I don't think he has jumped off the screen nearly as much as he did when they last played in Arlington.
1) - Plug the Run with Betts - At certain times during the season, the Cowboys have looked very stout against the run. Frankly, in all of their home games, it looks like they are very aggressive with their linebackers shooting the gaps at the snap and making things very, very difficult for Run-first offenses. Carolina and New York both wanted to establish a run game in Arlington and had no success. I believe it is vital that the Cowboys come out early and show that patched-together Redskins OL that there will not be similar success to what they found last week against the Broncos.
2) - Crowd the Line of Scrimmage - This, of course, works in conjunction with objective #1. I believe playing Washington calls for a very front-loaded defensive look against the Redskins. You don't want to expose yourself on the flank to where a broken tackle on a WR screen costs you an 80-yard Touchdown, but, you do want to make Jason Campbell hold the ball and throw it down field. He likes many easy, rhythm passes, and if you push up into a press coverage, you certainly ask Alan Ball to be sharp as the Center Field Safety on Sunday, but I think you must. I am not sure the level of Mike Jenkins availability, but if he is there, I need Newman and Jenkins up in the face of the Redskins WR, taking away the bubble screens and short routes that they feed upon.
3) - Show Me that Defensive Back Depth - You will need to demonstrate with Alan Ball, Orlando Scandrick, and maybe even Mike Hamlin that there is quality in the depth of defensive backs that have been assembled. I am not sure what to think of Ball, other than it is clear they want to keep Patrick Watkins off the field at all costs in the base defense. You have to know that Sherman Lewis/Jim Zorn will want to challenge the young, unproven backs.
4) - Don't Let Them Believe - This is key in a rivalry game against a double-digit underdog. Jump them early. Do not give this mentally-fragile offense who doesn't know how to produce more than 17 any hope. I would not ease into this game as a defense. You are at home and you need a win. Jump them from snap 1 with blitzes and aggressive play, knowing that if you get burned you have 55 minutes to get it back. Release the hounds!
This game cannot be lost. This team has the perfect remedy for a week of Cowboys-Nation panic, the hapless Redskins rolling in to Cowboys Stadium. I think this Cowboys team has been knocked off its perch, a bit, and should be in a good position to get healthy and to take care of their pre-Thanksgiving business. This calls for a dominating, physical win.
Cowboys 35, Washington 20
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