The term "must-win game" gets used liberally as early as the second month of the season, but a victory in the majority of such contests isn't truly a necessity. Well, it is on Sunday night. You don't need me to explain how badly the Cowboys need a win over the Washington Redskins in Week 17 or the positive implications a division title could have on the state of the organization, so let's discuss not why the 'Boys need to claim victory over Washington, but how they're going to do it by breaking down the Redskins' offense.
Redskins' Rushing Offense
At 5.1 yards per carry (YPC), the Redskins rank third in the NFL in rushing efficiency. Led by rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, Washington is actually an even better rushing team than their YPC suggests. By breaking down all running plays in terms of the "expected points" a team can expect to score on a given drive before and after a play, it's possible to account for specific game situations. A 2-yard run on first-and-10 is a negative for an offense, it decreases expected points, whereas a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-1 dramatically increases expected points.
Washington ranks first in the NFL in expected points added from their running game at 37.4, well ahead of every other team. To give you a sense of just how dominant the Redskins' rushing attack has been in 2012, consider that only seven teams in the entire NFL have even created positive expected points with their running games.
Redskins' Passing Offense
While we often envision a distinct dichotomy between running and passing, the Redskins have done an amazing job of molding the two play-calls together; their passes resemble runs, and vice versa. Not only that, but a lot of Washington's passes are runs. That is, the Redskins have run-pass options after the ball has already been snapped. Whereas most teams (including Dallas) determine whether they'll run or pass before the snap, RGIII has the ability to read defenses post-snap to determine whether to hand off the ball or keep it himself (and then again whether to run or pass).
Thus, Washington's running and passing games are inherently intertwined. I've shown that most teams don't need a large number of runs, or even a particularly efficient running game, to set up the pass. The Redskins' offense is so unique, however, that the success of either their passing or rushing offense strongly affects the efficiency of the other in more than an indirect manner.
Having said that, the Redskins' ability to run the ball, and more specifically, Griffin's ability to run the ball, is the primary reason they have the league's top passing offense in terms of net-yards per attempt (YPA) at 7.3 and first-ranked overall offense at 6.2 yards per play. And just to display the importance of a dominant passing attack, think about this: Washington has created 99.3 expected points through the air, well over twice as many as their first-ranked run offense, but their passing expected points rank them only ninth in the league.
Since the Redskins possess perhaps the most potent overall offense in the NFL right now, it's mildly surprising that they rank only fifth with 2.26 points per drive. That's particularly true when you consider that they've thrown interceptions at the fourth-lowest rate in the league.
Despite a league-leading passing offense in terms of net-YPA, the Redskins are just 12th in the NFL with a 48.5 percent passing success rate, the percentage of passing plays that increase the offense's probability of scoring on a given drive. That suggests that the Redskins have benefited from big plays via the air, i.e. if you limit their big plays, you can potentially stifle Washington's offense even more so than the average team.
With the way RGIII has performed against the blitz this year, though, it's no wonder that Washington has been able to strike quickly. As it sits right now, Griffin will likely record the highest passer rating against the blitz in NFL history. That's for any quarterback, not only rookies. Against 91 blitzes in 2012, RGIII has posted a 69.2 percent completion rate, 11.3 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and just one interception, good for a passer rating of 141.8.
What can Dallas do?
The challenge every defensive coordinator faces when calling plays against RGIII is that the rookie star can beat defenses in so many different ways. If you play him conservatively, Griffin will attack you on the ground. If you blitz him, well, the numbers speak for themselves.
While it's always true that defenses need to get pressure on the quarterback, the Cowboys need to find a way to do it this week without blitzing. If DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, & Co. can get to Griffin on their own, the Cowboys will be in good shape. If defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is forced to blitz atypical pass-rushers, Dallas will be in trouble.
Ultimately, you could see Ryan really mix up his looks this week, showing blitz a whole lot more often than he actually sends pressure. By playing with eight men in the box but dropping half of those players into coverage, the Cowboys could potentially limit the Redskins' ground game while not becoming more susceptible to deep passes than normal. If they confuse Washington's offensive line enough to get a free rusher or two, they should be able to occasionally bring down the quarterback of an offense that ranks in the bottom half of the league in sacks allowed.