Although the Cowboys and Redskins met just five weeks ago, Washington is already a different team. The Redskins came into that Thanksgiving matchup with a 4-6 record and little hope for the postseason. Heading into Week 17, Washington hasn't lost since the first week in November and they should probably be considered the favorite to win the NFC East. Passing far more often than they did to begin the season, the Redskins have been moving the ball with the best of them of late; over their six-game winning streak, Washington has averaged 30.3 points per game.
It starts with the running game.
Washington's offense moves because their star rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, is as versatile as they come. In many ways, Griffin lets defensive coordinators pick their own poison. If they play with two deep safeties, RGIII and fellow rookie Alfred Morris will gash them on the ground. If coordinators play with eight men in the box or, even worse, if they blitz, Griffin can beat them with his world-class arm; his record 141.8 passer rating against the blitz is evidence of that.
Averaging 6.6 yards per carry (YPC), the Cowboys can't let RGIII get going as a runner. They're going to need to find a way to stop Griffin without moving their safeties toward the line, though, or else they'll be susceptible through the air.
The running game is the passing game.
For the Redskins, the success of the running and passing games are inherently connected, even more so than for other teams. Because Washington sets up the majority of their offense off of read-option looks, the offense's ability to run the football is paramount in throwing the ball with some sort of efficiency. The Redskins' 39.2 percent play-action rate is evidence of just how intertwined their running game is with their air attack. In comparison, the Cowboys' play-action rate is just over one-quarter of that of Washington's.
While RGIII is a great quarterback no matter how you slice it, he's not nearly as effective without the threat of running. While the rookie has posted a 69.2 percent completion, 12.2 yards per attempt (YPA), and 119.7 passer rating on play-action passes this year, he's totaled only 5.8 YPA, less than half of that on play-action passes, on straight dropbacks. Thus, it's pivotal for the Cowboys to put the Redskins in pass-only situations.
The Redskins have altered their approach.
While the Redskins are still a run-first team, they've been passing the ball a lot more of late. When the Cowboys met Washington on Thanksgiving, the Redskins were running the ball 55.1 percent of the time through the first three quarters. Since that game, the Redskins' run rate in the initial three quarters has dropped to 48.1 percent, and consequently Washington is undefeated over that time.
The biggest change has come in the Redskins' first-down play-calling. Whereas Washington had run the ball 64.1 percent of the time on first down coming into the teams' initial matchup, that rate has plummeted to 52.4 percent over the Redskins' last five games – all wins. Passing on first down is generally suitable to running, and that appears to be the case even for a team as adept on the ground as Washington. Over the course of the Redskins' six-game winning streak, when the first-down play-calling has shifted, RGIII posted a 75.0 percent completion rate, 12.9 YPA, and a 137.5 passer rating on first down. Those aren't only world-class numbers, they're unprecedented.
Should the Cowboys play the pass on first down?
One of the reasons the Redskins have had such remarkable efficiency on first down is that defenses have still been playing them to run the ball. If the Cowboys anticipate the pass on first down and concede the run, it's unlikely that RGIII will be able to post 12.9 YPA, or anything close to it.
While it's certainly not a perfect situation to play with six and seven-man fronts on first down against the Redskins, it's better than being vulnerable to big plays through the air. Plus, Washington has been far more efficient on first down since they began passing more frequently. Coming into the teams' first meeting, Washington's average distance-to-go on third down was 8.16 yards; since that time, it's only 5.84 yards, suggesting they've set up "manageable" third downs not by running, but by passing. The 'Boys need to do everything possible to get Washington into pass-oriented situations, and forcing them away from the pass on early downs could actually be the best way to do it.
A few other notes
- The Redskins don't throw deep often; RGIII's 8.8 percent deep passing rate of throws at least 20 yards past the line ranks 32nd in the NFL. Although they don't throw deep frequently (or perhaps because of it), Washington has been extremely effective when looking downfield. Griffin has the league's second-best deep completion percentage and a 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
- Washington has still passed the ball only two times on second-and-1 this year. Those two passes were completed for a total of 15 yards, suggesting the Redskins really don't look to take shots downfield on second-and-1. It's a small advantage, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can effectively play to stop the run on second-and-short.
- Although the general consensus is that Alfred Morris has been impressive as a rookie running back, his 4.7 YPC is really just a product of playing with RGIII. Whereas other running backs have defenders flying up to greet them once the quarterback shows run-action, defenders can't key in on Morris in the same way because they don't know whether or not RGIII will keep the ball. Plus, when Morris has touched the ball this year, the Redskins have actually been worse off. He's totaled -4.6 expected points in 2012, good for 31st in the NFL, meaning his runs as a whole haven't helped the Redskins score. Any time the ball is out of the hands of RGIII and in the hands of Morris, Dallas should consider it a win.