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Commanders’ keys vs. Cowboys: Protect Carson Wentz and feed Terry McLaurin

Quarterback Carson Wentz takes the field before the Commanders' Week 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

If the Commanders had the option, they probably would strike Dec. 26, 2021, from the record. Just delete the 42-point thrashing they took in Dallas. Erase any memory of the sideline scuffle between defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and, for everyone’s sake, any mention of those heated benches.

On Sunday, the Commanders hope for a much different outcome against their longtime rival. But to remove any lingering taste of their last meeting, the Commanders must become a very different team from the one they have appeared to be in recent weeks.

Washington is looking to get back on track against a Cowboys team with an interim quarterback and an elite defense. Here are some keys to the game.

Feed Terry McLaurin

The Commanders’ offense never fully launched in the first half of the past two games. There were more Carson Wentz sacks (nine) than Washington first downs (seven), and Wentz spread the ball to an average of four receivers. Worse: The team failed to get Terry McLaurin — its top wide receiver, who recently signed a lucrative three-year contract extension — a single catch in the first half against the Lions, and it targeted him only once in the opening half against the Eagles.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner spoke to McLaurin this week to assure him that he remains a priority in the offense.

The curious case of Terry McLaurin and his lack of first-half targets

“In the passing game, unless it’s like a screen, there’s no guarantee ever that the guy you’re designing the play for is going to get the ball,” Turner said. “But there’s a lot of different things that we can do to get him the ball.”

In all three games this year, Washington’s offense has fed off its receiving corps, whether from a string of short gains by Curtis Samuel, an early score by Jahan Dotson or an explosive play from McLaurin. Getting all three involved early should help Washington avoid those first-half deficits. But it starts with McLaurin.

Protect Carson Wentz

The Commanders were tied with the Bengals for the most sacks allowed through three weeks (15), and they’re now on their third starting center in Nick Martin. Although blame might be shared for the recent sack-fest, Washington’s offense will remain inept if it can’t protect the ball and its quarterback. And shoring up the line this week will be tough.

Dallas’s defense leads the NFL with 13 sacks thanks to a front seven featuring linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Not that Washington needs any reminders after their meeting in December, when the two combined for two sacks and a pick-six.

How Daron Payne took his game to another level this season

Turner made it clear he has no plans to make personnel changes to the offensive line, outside of injury reinforcements. Still, there are some things he can do with the play-calling to help. Adding help up with additional blockers may be necessary, too.

“First things first, we got to protect the quarterback,” Turner said. “We got to protect the ball. We got to protect the quarterback. It starts with me. … And if we do that better, whether it’s drop back or play action, we’ll have some success.”

Win the turnover battle

Washington was the only team in the NFL to have just one takeaway in the first three weeks; credit safety Darrick Forrest and his game-sealing interception against the Jaguars for that one.

Although Washington’s secondary has come up with big stops and its pass rush has applied pressure, both sides need to finish to create turnovers. The pass rush and coverage go hand in hand.

“Sacks and turnovers come in bunches, and you just got to play and compete and really be focused,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

Washington’s pass rush has had some success; according to ESPN’s analytics, the Commanders are eighth in the league in team pass-rush win rate (47 percent). But finishing on the back end can be the difference between giving up an explosive play and recording a takeaway.

“We weekly emphasize that with instruction and opportunities to learn from how things are happening around the league and things and drills that we’ve done from the beginning,” Del Rio added. “We got turnovers in bunches throughout the offseason and really, I’m surprised we haven’t got ’em going yet; but they come, and we’ll get ours. So we keep pushing, keep playing.”

Start fast

Easier said than done, apparently. The Commanders opened the season with consecutive scoring drives against Jacksonville but were scoreless in the first half of their past two games. Washington’s tendency to trail early has been a lingering problem in recent seasons; it has the third-worst first-half scoring differential (minus-203) since 2020 and the second worst (minus-35) this season.

Establishing the run early could alleviate some of those issues. Washington ranks 25th in rushing yards per carry (3.7) for myriad reasons, but gaining more on the ground could help open up the passing game.

No team digs a 20-point hole like the Commanders under Ron Rivera

Before the start of the season, the team planned to use running back Antonio Gibson more as a route runner, a role that fit his background as a former wide receiver. It drafted Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round, and his play in training camp instilled confidence that he could be a feature back or work in tandem for a committee approach to the running game. But until he returns to the field after being shot during an attempted armed robbery — he’s eligible to be activated after Sunday’s game — finding more ways to get Gibson and J.D. McKissic involved earlier could ease the load on Wentz and the offensive line.

“If we’re going to be a play-action team, we’ve got to be a more effective running team because again, that slows things down,” Rivera said. “When you can do that, that discourages some of these guys from pinning their ears back and just going. … You do become one-dimensional, and we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it two weeks in a row that we’ve become one-dimensional because we haven’t been successful.”

Minimize explosive plays

Cooper Rush, an undrafted quarterback who has led Dallas to a 2-1 start while Dak Prescott nurses a thumb injury, will get his third start against Washington. Though he doesn’t have quite the arm Prescott does, Rush has plenty of playmakers at his disposal who could create trouble.

Washington has allowed 33 explosive plays already this season, including a league-high seven that went for 40 or more yards. The issue isn’t new for Washington’s defense; over the past three years, opponents have amassed 35 plays of 40 or more yards, the most allowed by any team.

Missed tackles, poor communication, wrong assignments and a general lack of execution have been the culprits, according to Rivera. Against Detroit, he felt his players weren’t even in position to stop the plays. Against Philadelphia, Rivera believed the Commanders were often in the right spot to make a play on the ball, but failed to do so.

“These offenses are good and are going to make plays, but you try to prevent them from making those big plays because that’s what leads to points,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said last Sunday. “I think I gave up two that both led to points, so that’s something we have to get better at and I have to get better at.”

Injury report: Wes Schweitzer, Washington’s replacement center for Chase Roullier, was ruled out Friday because of a concussion. That means Sunday’s game in Dallas will be the Martin Bowl, pitting third-string center Nick Martin against his brother, Cowboys guard Zack Martin.

Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is questionable because of a shoulder injury. Cornelius Lucas probably would start should Leno be unable to play.

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