Before the Redskins take on the Cowboys at FedExField, Redskins.com's Jake Kring-Schreifels and Dante Koplowitz-Fleming provide the storylines and matchups to follow on Sunday.
1. Keep eyes on Dak Prescott
Dallas is coming off their biggest win of the year, and quarterback Dak Prescott had a lot to do with it. Prescott was having a middling season before last week’s win over the Jaguars in which he showed some of the ability that helped crown him as the 2016 rookie of the year.
Against Jacksonville, Prescott threw for two touchdowns, ran for another and didn't turn the ball over. In addition, he compiled a career-high 82 yards rushing on 11 attempts through a combination of designed runs and improvised scrambles.
Prescott does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield while scrambling, making him especially dangerous when he gets outside of the pocket, which makes him tough to defend.
Washington had a similarly tough task with Cam Newton last week, who is arguably the most dangerous quarterback when outside of the pocket. Washington might employ a tactic similar to what they did last week by having linebacker Mason Foster spy the quarterback, hanging around the line of scrimmage of passing downs.
Foster told reporters Wednesday that containing Prescott will be a focus.
“Yeah it is dangerous, anytime you get a quarterback who’s scrambling like that, still looking downfield and making throws on the run, you know playing outside the pocket like that, it’s tough on the whole defense,” Foster said. “It puts a lot of stress on you so you know you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Luckily for Washington, there’s a caveat to Dallas’ success: It’s only come while at home. Their home-road splits are stark. For example, their offense is averaging 28.7 points while at home, but only 12.3 points on the road. With the game this Sunday at FedExField, Washington has to be hoping they get the road version of the two-faced Cowboys offense.
On the other hand, Prescott has a great track record against Washington with five total touchdowns, no turnovers and a perfect 4-0 record. The Cowboys have had their number lately, and safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. knows they’ve got to put together a solid defensive performance in order to break the streak.
“We [need to] make them one dimensional, it’s time for the rushers up front to go eat, it’s time for us back in the back to lock up and play man and do what we do best,” Swearinger Sr. said. “[Prescott’s] definitely a hard task, but we’ve played against a running quarterback last week in Cam so we kind of did a decent job of keeping him in the pocket, so we’ve just gotta rebound and do the same thing we did but better.”
Washington will also look to rebound for their first back-to-back win of the season, and it beings with limiting the Cowboys’ offense.
2. Start fast
Because the Redskins’ season has been a series of ups and downs, high and lows, it’s been easier to spot the differences between wins and losses, the responses to victory and adversity.
So far this year, following the team’s two losses, the Redskins have played well early in their next game. After falling to the Colts, the Redskins responded with a plethora of points in the first quarter. That began right away with a four-play touchdown drive on the first series of the game. The Redskins put up 28 points in two quarters, then settled for a field goal for the entire second half, which was enough to beat the Packers.
Last week, following their loss to the Saints, the Redskins continued to fire back at the start. It took a little longer against the Panthers, but after a forced fumble on special teams, Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis for a touchdown, then followed up the next drive with another score, this time to Paul Richardson Jr. The team scored 17 points in the first half, six in the second half, and squeezed out a victory.
The opposite has been true for the Redskins when they come off a victory. Against the Colts in Week 2, the offense looked out of sync and couldn’t find the end zone. Against the Saints, the Redskins started with a three-and-out, then managed two field goals before punting on the next two drives. It put them behind the eight ball.
So, as the Reskins enter Sunday returning to FedExField after a victory, which team will show up? If you believe the Redskins should win, and you put stock into the way in which they’ve won, starting quickly will be a priority.
That’s especially the case if the offense continues its vacancy in the second half. The Redskins have only scored one touchdown in the second half this year – that one came late against the Saints – and it’s kept their opponents involved late (see: Panthers game). Should that trend continue, scoring early and often becomes a must.
“I think every single one of those is its own unique situation,” quarterback Alex Smith said of the second half struggles. “It kind of goes back to every week is a different challenge, so to lump them all together is unfair. I think they all happen for different reasons. It's not the same thing going on. Certainly something we want to get remedied though. But, like I said, I think there are a ton of different reasons that change from week to week and each week presents a completely different challenge for us to figure out."
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 7 game against the Dallas Cowboys Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
3. Use more play-action
Washington has had success with its ground game this season, in part thanks to the resurgence of running back Adrian Peterson. The Redskins are averaging 116.8 yards rushing per game, and it’s been a common theme in their three wins this season.
The numbers are actually pretty stark. In wins, they’ve averaged 160 yards per game on the ground. In losses, that number drops to 30.5 yards per game. Part of that can be attributed to game script, but regardless Washington has leaned heavily on their run game this season.
So to take the next step forward, they need to pass more. Maybe that’s counter-intuitive, but the best thing a good run game can do for the Redskins is allow them to take kill shots with play-action.
Washington’s passing attack has been lacking without it., but head coach Jay Gruden told reporters Wednesday that he’s expecting their passing game to get better as Alex Smith and the receivers become more familiar.
“When you have a new quarterback working with new receivers and they're not available to practice, it has an effect,” Gruden said. “Any quarterback wants to have that continuity and it’s not always perfect. You are going to be working with young receivers or new receivers year in and year out, but throughout the course of the year, you would like to work with the same guys.”
One thing that could help is calling more play-action plays for Smith, similar to how he ran the offense in Kansas City for the last five years. Washington ranks 16th in the NFL in play-action percentage according to Football Outsiders. Their yards per play on play-action doesn’t stand out at 8.8, a middle of the pack number.
What stands out is the difference in their play-action and non play-action plays. They have the sixth-largest difference between the two in the league with a 3.1-yard differential. That should mean that they’re heavily reliant on play-action, but that hasn’t manifested in play-calling yet.
Smith told reporters Wednesday that there’s a lot to consider when critiquing the passing game.
“There's a lot of things in there, that'd be part of it. I think all those little situations, you know, where you're holding on just a fraction too long or you don't cut it loose,” Smith said. “That's the name of the game in the NFL too. That's playing quarterback. I mean there's always going to be pressure, every front, every week's usually pretty good. Timing and anticipation are critical.”
Another benefit of calling play-action is getting Dallas’ pass rush to slow down. The Cowboys defensive line has been deadly this season, notching one of the highest pressure-rates in the league according to Football Outsiders.
If Washington can use play-action to slow down the Dallas pass rushers and get some explosive plays at the same time, Sunday could be a good day for the offense.