FRISCO, Texas –With this Thursday night game against Washington right around the corner, here's a look at the two big keys I think will help decide the outcome when the Cowboys face the Redskins.
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
The Cowboys are making changes in their secondary this week. Anthony Brown hasn't been good, but he's not the only one. Everyone that has taken snaps has been poor at some time, so those changes are necessary.
As much as Jay Gruden likes to use "11" personnel, I would expect the Cowboys to match him with sub packages of nickel and dime. Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Ryan Grant have some explosiveness to their games. Also add Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis to the mix, and defensively you had better be ready for an all-day fight. Kirk Cousins has always been a thorn in the side of the Cowboys defensively, but it hasn't always translated into victories. Five weeks ago, Cousins was severely compromised with several of his offensive linemen out for the game.
Things haven't improved much for him since then, but Cousins has still engineered victories against the Seahawks and Giants with close defeats to the Vikings and Saints. If the Cowboys are going to win this game as much as I want to say it has to be on the offensive side of the ball, it's their defense that's going to have to come up big.
Look for Cousins to attack this Cowboys defense, not by running the ball, but through the air. Cousins is going to come out and test these adjustments in the secondary. He is going to find out quickly if Chidobe Awuzie can play on the outside or if Xavier Woods is good enough to hold up on the inside against Crowder.
The Cowboys have to prove that they can stop the Redskins from running those crossing routes, which opponents have made a living on during this three-game slide. If the Cowboys can successfully shut down the Redskins from throwing the ball, it's their best chance of winning this game.
Washington Redskins Win If:
Without Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup, opponents have not respected the Cowboys' running game. It hasn't been poor, but all the scheme things the Cowboys do off it just aren't there. Defenses are not selling out to stop the run like they do when facing Elliott.
The lack of a true play action game has not only hurt Dak Prescott, but the tight ends and receivers who are facing different coverage packages in the secondary. It has been tough for Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten to find space when defenders are not committed to having to stop the run.
The strength of the Redskins defense is their pass rush. Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Junior Galette are outstanding players, and, if not accounted for, can present problems for an offense to successfully move the ball.
When these two clubs last met, the game was played in a driving rain storm where Elliott was able to hammer the ball at this front. This time around, the Cowboys will not have that option, which plays right into the Redskins' strength. If the Redskins are going to win this game, like the Cowboys they're going to need to defend the pass -- and that starts with their front.
I expect that Scott Linehan will try and create more big plays, so look for the ball to go down field. If that's the case, those routes take time to develop, which means the protection has to hold up longer.
Teams that have shut down this Dallas offense have found ways to affect Prescott in the pocket. The pressure has forced mistakes along with poor decisions. If they find a way to establish that consistent pressure, winning is a strong possibility.