Sunday night’s showdown between the Cowboys and Redskins is filled with mismatches across the field. Dallas and Washington both figure to move the ball down the field with relative ease; the Redskins’ top-ranked passing offense is almost assuredly going to give Rob Ryan’s defense fits, but their secondary likely won’t stop Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, either. Let’s take a look at some of the most pivotal matchups that the Cowboys’ offense needs to exploit to keep pace with the Redskins.
WR Dez Bryant/Miles Austin versus CB DeAngelo Hall/Josh Wilson
It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Bryant will have a big game this week. The receiver has now scored in seven straight games, including three contests with two touchdowns. Bryant’s 23.3 percent touchdown rate over that time is phenomenal. Meanwhile, Redskins cornerbacks Hall and Wilson have both allowed at least 9.55 YPA and a 93.3 passer rating. Wilson has yielded six touchdowns and Hall a 69.6 percent completion rate.
Perhaps more important, Wilson and Hall have given up 463 and 366 yards-after-catch, respectively, ranking them as the worst and fourth-worst cornerbacks in the entire NFL. With the size and run-after-catch ability the Cowboys have with Austin and Bryant outside, look for the rate of quick screens to continue to increase.
RT Jermey Parnell/Doug Free versus OLB Ryan Kerrigan
Washington’s pass-rush is one of the worst in the league in terms of sacks, ranking 24th in total sacks and 29th with a 4.8 percent sack rate. They’re probably a bit superior than those numbers suggest simply because they’ve gotten to the quarterback at a higher rate than their sack total represents. Washington’s 30 sacks comprise only 14.8 percent of their total pressure on the year, meaning they’ve been unlucky in bringing down the quarterback.
Still, the Redskins’ pass-rush is far from elite; it’s one of the primary reasons for the struggles of the secondary. Their top pass-rusher—outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan—lines up on the left side of Washington’s defense on three-fourths of snaps, so he’ll be matched up primarily with the Cowboys’ right tackle. Whether it’s Parnell or Free, they’ll need help. Remember that Jason Witten’s blocking usage has increased substantially in the past three weeks; Witten has stayed in to block on 17 passes in the past two games after doing so only seven total times in the three games prior. Eight of those passes have been play-action looks, so expect Dallas to use Witten in pass protection a handful of times on Sunday night, showing run-action and getting the ball to Bryant downfield.
Cowboys’ Interior Line versus Redskins Defensive Line
Washington runs a 3-4 defense just like Dallas, except their defensive line—not the outside linebackers—are the strength of their front seven. Former Cowboys defensive end Stephen Bowen works with Jarvis Jenkins and Barry Cofield to get more pressure on quarterbacks than the typical three-man front. They’ve combined for 46 pressures this year. In comparison, the Cowboys really have just one dominant defensive lineman—Jason Hatcher. Hatcher has 28 pressures alone this year, but the next-best defensive lineman in Dallas—Jay Ratliff—has posted just eight.
It’s going to be difficult for Dallas to double-team the Redskins’ defensive linemen, but they can do their best to avoid exposing their struggling interior line by running outside and using Lawrence Vickers as a personal protector for Romo in obvious passing situations.
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.