Since Dallas drafted Ezekiel Elliot in the first round and Dak Prescott in the fourth of the 2016 NFL draft, things have been pretty one-sided in the Cowboys-Redskins matchups.
Dallas has won every game since then, with an average margin of victory of almost 12 points.
The Redskins didn’t only struggle against Dallas last year, they had a tough time with the entire NFC East. Sunday marks their first divisional matchup of the year, and a chance for the team to write a new story, which head coach Jay Gruden is well aware of.
“We were 1-5 last year in the division, we got swept by the Cowboys last year. We know how important division games are [and] we know how important the Cowboys game is to a lot of people in this area,” Gruden said. “Players all know, they all know what the rivalry means. We haven’t fared too well the last couple of times we played them, so it's going to be important for us to come out of the gate, come out of the tunnel, and play fast."
Getting a fast start certainly helped in last week’s win over Carolina, as Washington turned an early special teams fumble by the Panthers into a touchdown.
But there’s another key that jumps to mind when thinking about a matchup with Dallas: doing anything to limit Elliot’s impact on the game.
The young running back’s career against Washington has included over 100 yards on the ground in each matchup and five touchdowns over three games. Elliott ran all over Washington last year, when the Redskins boasted the worst run defense in the league (134.1 rush yards allowed per game).
This year should be different, as Washington has made a concerted effort to bolster their run defense by using a first-round pick in last year’s draft to get the best run-stopper on the board.
“Defensively, we've got to stop the run. I think that is an Achilles heel, that’s part of the reason we drafted Daron Payne, for games like this, for Zeke Elliott and the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Giants, Saquon [Barkley],” Gruden told reporters Wednesday. “I think stopping the run; we have had marginal success but not good enough against the Cowboys.”
Payne has been exactly what Washington needed in the run defense department. He, along with second-year defensive end Jonathan Allen, has aided Washington in allowing the sixth-fewest rushing yards per game in the league this season, averaging almost 40 fewer allowed per game.
To be fair, last year’s squad was so injured it’s almost unfair to compare it side by side with this year’s. Allen missed both matchups with the Cowboys his rookie year due to injury. Now he's healthy and thriving, and none of the defensive starters have missed a game this season. It's a big reason why the Redskins have a top-10 defense in 2018.
And it’s not like they’ve only faced teams ill-equipped at running the ball. Coming into last week’s game, Carolina had averaged 154 yards per game on the ground, the most in the league. Washington held them to a little over half that, and running back Christian McCaffrey only managed 2.5 yards per carry.
In Dallas' favor, Prescott is coming off his best game running the ball in his career after rushing for 84 yards and a score against Jacksonville.
Gruden told reporters that facing a running back and quarterback combo like McCaffrey and Cam Newton last week was good preparation for Dallas’ tandem at those positions.
“Yeah, I think it's very similar actually. They are very effective in what they do,” Gruden said. “They can hit you in the pocket and they can get outside the pocket and they have all the zone reads. They are both very good, so it's good we had some experience with that.”
Check out these photos of the Redskins' preparing for their Week 7 game against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
Gruden wasn’t the only one singing Elliott and Prescott’s praise, as many of the Redskins players are all too familiar with the Cowboys’ offensive success. Safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. emphasized how important it is to have a plan when tackling Elliott.
“You’ve gotta know if you wanna hit him high to get the ball or hit him low to chop him down, but whatever you’ve gotta do you’ve gotta wrap with Ezekiel Elliott,” Swearinger Sr. said. “He’s not a guy you can just go down and dive at his ankles. Even if you hit him, you know you’ve gotta wrap him.”
Linebacker Mason Foster agreed with Swearinger Sr. about the need to stay disciplined in the run game.
"...At the end of the day it’s going to come down to us playing them and being physical in the run game because as soon as you’re undisciplined and you don’t execute Zeke will pop one, he’s that good of a back he has that good of vision," he said.
But it’s not just the defenders who had something to say about Elliot. Washington’s featured backs Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson recognized the talent they’ll be watching from the sidelines this Sunday.
“The patience he runs with. He’s a strong runner, great vision, but the patience is what I really like,” Peterson said when asked what about what makes Elliot stand out.
Thompson, when asked the same question, elaborated on the Pro Bowl back’s ability.
“Everything. I mean, he was drafted in the first round for one so that says enough in itself. But I think he’s one of the top-five runners in my opinion in this league,” Thompson said. “I mean he’s a guy who falls forward for two or three yards after contact almost every single time. He’s crazy athletic, able to hurdle defenders. A fast guy as well, he’s one of those backs that pretty much just has the total package.”
The Redskins will try to make it hard for him to deliver.