The Washington Redskins got to show how good they could be in prime time by beating the Green Bay Packers, 42-24, on Sunday behind strong efforts on both sides of the ball. Up next is their toughest test yet, a 9-1 Dallas Cowboys team on Thanksgiving, where a win goes a long way to solidifying Washington’s chances for a playoff berth.
“Green Bay’s struggling on their end a little bit,” Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson told ESPN’s John Keim. “This next game [against Dallas] will determine a lot. If we go out and knock them out, a lot of people will see what we’re about.”
The Redskins are 11-4-1 over their past 16 games, the most wins they have had over a 16-game stretch since 1992. But you could argue they haven’t faced a team this strong in any of those games. And that includes their first meeting with Dallas in Week 2 of this season.
The Cowboys were ranked No. 14 in Football Outsiders’ overall Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric that week, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. They are No. 3 this week. The only Redskins opponents in that same ballpark during the past 16 games are the Steelers (who were ranked fourth in Week 1 when they beat Washington, 38-16) and the Eagles (who were ranked fourth in Week 6 before losing to the Redskins, 27-20). None of Washington’s other 14 opponents ranked in the top 10 for overall DVOA at the time of the matchup and 10 of the 16 ranked in the bottom half of the league.
If Washington is to pull off an upset again — it is a seven-point underdog on the road — it will have to stop a high-flying offense that features rookie of the year candidate Dak Prescott under center, MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant split wide.
Prescott has completed 214 of 316 passes for 2,640 yards with 17 touchdowns against two interceptions, relegating Tony Romo to a backup role in the process. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, only the Patriots’ Tom Brady has been a more valuable passer this season.
Behind Prescott is Elliott, who broke the Cowboys’ rookie rushing record in just 10 games and is set up to make a late run at Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record. Elliott has 1,102 rushing yards on the season along with nine touchdowns.
Most Rush Yards in 1st 10 Career Games
1983 Eric Dickerson 1,223
2007 Adrian Peterson 1,197
2016 Ezekiel Elliott 1,102 pic.twitter.com/cD6ywnUy3x
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 20, 2016
Traditionally, rookies at quarterback and running back meant all a team needed to do was stack the box on defense and make the inexperienced passer beat you. Not only is this Cowboys’ team too skilled for that, they have an offensive line that deserves consideration for the MVP award.
According to Football Outsiders, through Week 10, the Cowboys’ offensive line ranks fifth in stuff percentage, allowing just 15 percent of their team’s running plays to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, this same unit has also allowed the fewest total sacks hits and hurries (78) this season. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Washington’s defensive end/nose tackle, Ziggy Hood, who has struggled against the run this season.
Among 22 defensive ends playing at least half of their team’s snaps in a 3-4 defensive scheme, Hood ranks last for his (in) ability to stop the run. He’d remain last if we included all 51 defensive ends in this scheme playing at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps.
As bad as that is, what’s more troublesome for Washington is what happens after Elliott busts through a gap on the line. The Redskins allow the third-highest second-level yards per carry (1.44 yards earned per attempt between 5 and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and rank 16th for open-field yards (0.75 of a yard earned per attempt more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Inside linebacker Mason Foster is going to have to come up big for Washington — among the team’s linebackers, he’s the only one with a negative run-defense rating by PFF.
If the Redskins manage to keep the Cowboys’ running game under wraps, they will still have to contend with Prescott throwing to Bryant, who is averaging 1.94 yards per route run this season and has caught all three targets 20 or more yards for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Luckily for Washington, cornerback Josh Norman appears up to the task.
I admit I was skeptical of Norman’s ability to transform this secondary, but he’s been superb this season, allowing a reception once out of every 14.4 snaps in coverage (fifth best among corners this season) for a 87.6 passer rating against.
When Washington has the ball, Kirk Cousins should produce against the Cowboys’ struggling secondary. Dallas allowed 6.6 net yards per pass attempt this year and its pass defense ranks 25th in DVOA. Their best corner, Morris Claiborne, was holding opponents to 0.81 of a yard per snap in coverage but tore a piece of bone off his pelvis (ouch!) against the Eagles on Sunday and could miss the next two to three weeks. The Cowboys other two corners, Anthony Brown and Brandon Carr, are allowing 1.56 and 1.05 yards per snap in coverage, respectively. Free safety Byron Jones isn’t much help, either. He is allowing 0.63 of a yard per cover snap, placing him 42nd of 59 qualified safeties this season.
If Cousins can’t get the passing game going, it may be tough sledding for Washington to pull off the upset: the Cowboys defensive line is stopping 22 percent of runners at or behind the line of scrimmage (league average is 19 percent). If defensive tackle Terrell McClain gets going again — he has 19 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage this season but just one in the past three games — the Cowboys could be even more formidable up front.
“For us to keep pace in the division and have a chance at the division title,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden told the Associated Pressress, “we’ve got to play our best game Thursday.”