When we say the “season is on the line” for the Cowboys, it’s true in more ways than one. In addition to needing to come out victorious in just about every contest for the rest of the season, the Cowboys’ fortunes are literally on the line—as in their offensive line. With left tackle Tyron Smith questionable—but in all likelihood improbable—the Cowboys will again need to scrap their way to victory while likely yielding multiple sacks.
LB Bruce Carter vs QB Robert Griffin III
RGIII has been as advertised and more in his rookie season, displaying the mobility everyone expected but the arm and pocket presence no one could have imagined. Ranked fourth in the NFL at 7.92 YPA and fifth in passer rating at 101.0, there’s no doubt that Washington’s offense will run through their dynamic quarterback for years to come.
Defensive coordinators often blitz rookie quarterbacks, but we saw Rob Ryan come after Brandon Weeden only four times on Sunday. He actually sent more three-man rushes—six—than blitzes. RGIII is certainly a different type of quarterback, but it could be more of the same from Ryan on Thanksgiving. Griffin has absolutely destroyed the blitz this year, racking up a passer rating of 126.3 when defenses rush more than four defenders. He has 9.82 YPA, seven touchdowns, and one interception against the blitz, and that doesn’t include how he can hurt defenses with his legs.
Thus, you’ll probably see the Cowboys keep seven and eight defenders in coverage most of the time on Thursday. Griffin is still going to try to beat the Cowboys as a runner, so the defense will need to play with sound gap control to halt the quarterback on the ground, especially when Washington runs read option.
The Cowboys’ best shot at keeping up with RGIII is inside linebacker Bruce Carter. With a 10.6 percent tackle rate and 5.79 YPA allowed in coverage, Carter may very well be playing football at a level equal to that of Sean Lee before he went down for the year. That’s big praise, but Carter deserves it. On Thursday, he’ll be a crucial cog in the Cowboys’ defensive attack.
RT Doug Free vs OLB Ryan Kerrigan
After allowing three sacks on Sunday, it’s appropriate to wonder whether or not Free will be starting for Dallas in 2013. For now, there probably aren’t any better options, especially if offensive tackle Jermey Parnell must fill in for Smith on the left side. Free’s matchup will again be pivotal for Dallas because he’ll face off against Washington’s top pass-rusher in outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan—a player who has rushed the passer from the right side of the Redskins’ defense on only 7.8 percent
of snaps this year. Free, who I’ve tracked as allowing more pressure this year than he did in all of 2011 at the more difficult left tackle position, will probably need help on the outside. Look for the Cowboys to run a lot of double-tight sets so that John Phillips can chip Kerrigan or stay in to block altogether.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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