Yesterday, I took a look at three key matchups for the Cowboys’ offense against the Redskins on Sunday night. Today, I’ll turn my attention to the defense to see how Rob Ryan can go about trying to limit the best rookie quarterback in NFL history.
Don’t bite on read-option plays.
The Redskins have one of the league’s top rushing games, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry. In terms of expected points—the number of points a team can be expected to score at any given point on a drive—Washington has “gained” 37.4 on the year. That’s the best number in the NFL by a wide margin, meaning the running game has helped the Redskins score more points than it has for any other squad. To give you an idea of how outstanding Washington’s running game has been, consider that only seven teams in the league have totaled positive expected points from running.
Despite that, the Cowboys can’t fly up against the run, particularly read-option plays. The reason is that the Redskins are also one of the best play-action teams in the league, parlaying RGIII’s rushing prowess into passing success. Actually, 39.2 percent of the Redskins’ passes have been play-action—about four times the rate of Jason Garrett’s Cowboys. Rob Ryan almost needs to concede the run and hope his front seven can do the job; once the safeties start creeping toward the line when they see run-action, it’s lights out.
Play the run on 2nd and 1.
Few teams utilize the upside provided by 2nd and 1—a down-and-distance on which an incompletion has little downside. Whereas teams like the Saints have passed the ball dozens of times on 2nd and 1, the Redskins have done it only twice all year. On top of that, they’ve gained only 15 total yards on those passes, suggesting that they haven’t tried to take any shots downfield. That’s a bit confounding for a team with such an awesome play-action game, but the Cowboys should use it to their advantage. It’s just a small piece of knowledge since the Redskins might see only one or two 2nd and 1 plays all game, but a bunch of tiny advantages can quickly change the course of a game in a league as competitive as the NFL.
Play press zone coverage.
I’ve already discussed Griffin’s dominance against the blitz. With 11 touchdowns, one interception, and 11.3 YPA, RGIII is about to break the record for highest passer rating against the blitz for any quarterback in NFL history at 141.8. Thus, the Cowboys would be wise to sit back in safe coverages and make RGIII beat them again and again. Playing zones could help contain Griffin on the ground since defenders will be looking right at him instead of turning and running in man coverage. Plus, if the Cowboys press even in zone coverage, they could potentially confuse Griffin while also playing to the strengths of their cornerbacks.
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.