As far as regular season games go, this is the crème de le crème—Week 17 versus a heated rival with the division title on the line. Keep your eye on these three things as the Cowboys attempt to steal a victory—and a postseason berth—in the nation’s capital.
Will Rob Ryan blitz Robert Griffin III?
When we discuss whether or not a defensive coordinator will blitz a quarterback, we normally assume a certain level of blitzing as a baseline. While the Cowboys obviously can’t simply sit back in the same defense all night against the Redskins, this game could be the closest we see a Cowboys defense come to truly not blitzing.
Rob Ryan dialed up only seven blitzes in the teams’ first matchup, and RGIII absolutely torched him. Actually, Griffin currently owns the best single-season passer rating against the blitz in the history of the NFL. Yeah, ever. Against 91 blitzes this year, the rookie has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 1,028 yards, 11.3 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and one interception—good for a 141.8 passer rating. If the Cowboys find themselves in a position where they’re forced to blitz to try to create turnovers, they’re going to be in trouble.
How much pressure can Dallas get without blitzing?
The implications of RGIII’s success against the blitz are obvious enough; the Cowboys need to get pressure on him without blitzing. So will they be able to do it? With a 6.3 percent sack rate on the season, the ‘Boys currently rank just 16th in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Redskins sport an offensive line that’s played about league-average football. They’ve given up a sack on 7.0 percent of their dropbacks—just 21st in the league. However, some of those sacks are due to Griffin holding onto the football (a positive, in most cases), and the Redskins have also simply gotten unlucky.
In the preseason, I created a formula to determine how many sacks an offense “should” give up based on how much pressure they yield. Using that formula, the average number of sacks we’d expect given Washington’s rate of pressure is 27—five fewer than what they’ve allowed. That basically means they’ve been unlucky in regards to sacks, i.e. they aren’t as poor as the numbers suggest. Look for Ryan to feign way more blitzes than he actually sends in an effort to confuse the offensive line and get pressure without sending more than four rushers.
Will Jason Garrett get conservative?
It’s no coincidence that the recent explosion from the Cowboys’ offense has come at the same time that Garrett dramatically increased the rate of deep passes to Dez Bryant, particularly off of play-action looks. After 18 play-action passes against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, however, we saw Garrett call only four against the Saints. Tony Romo completed two of them for 74 yards and a touchdown. On the season, Romo’s 118.5 passer rating off of play-action looks ranks fourth in the NFL. Whoever said you need a strong running game to set up play-action probably wasn’t a numbers guy.
This week, it’s imperative that Dallas attack a porous Redskins secondary. Both of their cornerbacks have surrendered over nine yards-per-attempt, due in large part to a below-average pass-rush. The Cowboys really don’t need to “set up” anything on Sunday night; they need to pass the ball early and often on their way to the NFC East title.
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.