There is no one way to knock a pack of Cowboys out of their saddles, Coach Joe Gibbs insisted yesterday.
"These games come in all different shapes and sizes," the Washington Redskins' coach was saying about a rivalry with Dallas and Tom Landry that will again reach the boiling point Sunday in Texas Stadium. "There just isn't any one patent on how to beat them."
These are the facts: the Redskins have beaten the Cowboys twice in a row and are trying to beat them twice in the same regular season for the first time. Dallas, the Redskins and the New York Giants are in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC Eastern Division at 9-5 and each desperately needs a victory for a spot in the playoffs.
Although the scores of the Redskins' 31-10 victory in Texas Stadium late last season and their 34-14 victory in RFK Stadium this Oct. 14 are similar, they were built in very different ways.
Against Dallas late last season, the Redskins altered their usual offensive set, replacing tight end Clint Didier with a third wide receiver, Alvin Garrett. The strategy change was created, Redskin coaches said at the time, to open up the running game.
Facing an extra wide receiver, the Cowboys had to move their safeties, always their leading tacklers, away from run support and blitzes.
The result was that quarterback Joe Theismann threw two touchdown passes for a quick 14-0 lead and the confused Cowboys, who even strayed from their run-stop flex defense for several series to help stop the pass, allowed John Riggins the space to run for 89 yards and two touchdowns. The Redskins finished with 166 yards rushing.
In the 34-14 victory here, the Redskins did not alter their offensive set. Rather, they plowed straight ahead. Riggins ran for 165 yards on 32 carries, following in the wake of the Hogs. And on the first play of the third quarter, the team's newest weapon, wide receiver Calvin Muhammad, blew past cornerback Ron Fellows for an 80-yard touchdown pass and a 24-7 lead.
In both those games, the Redskins' defense kept Dallas' running game at a near-standstill. The Cowboys rushed for just 33 yards in Dallas last year and just 90 yards in RFK Stadium this year, including a 29-yard touchdown the first quarter by running back Tony Dorsett.
And, in both games, Redskins all-pro defensive tackle Dave Butz was at his most dominant. He had three sacks of quarterback Danny White in Texas.
In fact, Butz has been so impressive against Dallas that fellow defensive tackle Darryl Grant says, "How has our defense stopped Dallas for two games? We just turned Dave Butz loose."
So, what can we expect for Sunday, if trends of these two games and this season hold firm?
The Dallas offense has been a bundle of inconsistency this season. As always, the Cowboys will try Sunday to give Dorsett, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the seventh time in eight pro seasons, running room. Problem is, the offensive line has been troubled by injury and ineffectiveness. It's the primary reason Dorsett is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry this season, a half-yard below his career average.
"I know the trouble with the Cowboys' running game isn't with Dorsett, (Ron) Springs or (Timmy) Newsome," free safety Curtis Jordan says. "Their offensive line has had the trouble."
Starting quarterback Danny White has had moments of greatness against the Redskins. He threw scoring passes of 51 yards and 75 yards to receiver Tony Hill to lead the Cowboys to a 31-30 comeback victory over the Redskins in the season opener last year.
But White has been inconsistent this season; witness his four interceptions thrown in the Cowboys' 26-10 victory over Philadelphia last week. For certain, the constant shuffling with Gary Hogeboom hasn't helped.
Hogeboom and White (who played just the fourth quarter) completed 26 of their 44 passes for 294 yards in October, with three interceptions. One interception, by linebacker Monte Coleman, was returned 49 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys have had three interceptions returned for scores this season.
"Anybody knows the key to a good pass defense," cornerback Vernon Dean said, "is a good pass rush."
And the Redskins have that this season, with a league-leading 58 sacks. (The league record of 67 in a season, set by Oakland in 1967, is within reach.) It makes it difficult for White to locate tight end Doug Cosbie (51 catches) and Hill (41) when pressured.
The Redskins had three sacks and three interceptions in both victories over Dallas. How much has the Redskins' pass rush had to do with that? "It has everything to do with it," defensive end Charles Mann said. "That was one of the keys to them throwing interceptions, a hand in the quarterback's face or hitting him hard as he throws. At least, that is what I'd like to think caused them."
The strength of the Dallas defense has been in defending the pass. Seems like it's always been that way. In fact, the Cowboys have jumped to early leads over New England and Philadelphia the last two weeks by returning interceptions for touchdowns. Safety Michael Downs had one; safety Dennis Thurman had the other.
This much seems certain: the Redskins will run right at the flex Sunday.
And why not? Dallas has had great difficulty stopping the run this season, rating 24th in the 28-team league in rush defense.
Don't expect the Redskins to use a three wide-receiver formation for the entire game again, although this time it could consist of Art Monk, Charlie Brown and Muhammad (instead of Garrett).
"I don't think it would be as much of a surprise now, because they saw it already," said Gibbs.
Theismann says it is not a coincidence that Dallas has lost four of its five games to division opponents (the Giants twice and the Redskins and Cardinals once).
"If you understand the things that (Dallas' defense) is doing, then it's only a question of execution," he said.