Week 1 Preview: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins Game Day Manifesto
During the preseason, I formulated two separate articles called “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas” as game previews for the upcoming contests. During the regular season, I will combine these two features into a single, more all-inclusive article known (solely to me) as a “Game Day Manifesto.” You’ll be able to find the “Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.
Also check back later in the week for a new feature called “Game Plan.” While the weekly “Manifesto” will contain some Xs and Os, the “Game Plan” will feature in-depth game strategy detailing how Dallas can win that week’s game and how they should go about doing it. There, you’ll find a lot of analysis of formations, personnel, play-calling, and so on.
Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .
What to Watch for Dallas vs. Washington
How will Dallas use Dez Bryant and what sort of impact will he have?
This is what every Cowboys fan in America wants to see. Will the Cowboys use Bryant as they would have implemented Patrick Crayton? Will Bryant play primarily in the slot, or will Miles Austin move inside when the Cowboys use three receivers?
Last season, Dallas utilized three receivers on 42 percent of all plays–good for just 25th-most in the league. That number will increase this year, but by how much? Will Bryant play 50 percent of snaps Sunday night?
Hopefully Jason Garrett runs the ball out of three receiver sets so that Bryant’s presence doesn’t key the defense on a pass. I’ve already explained why Dallas should run the ball out of spread formations more often in general this season.
Who will return kicks and punts?
The Cowboys probably had punt returns in mind for Bryant when they drafted him, but that was before his high ankle sprain. Now, the favorite is probably fellow rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. Owusu-Ansah looked explosive on returns in the preseason and has at least gotten some reps at both return spots.
At the very least, AOA will probably be back deep for kick returns. But will Dallas risk Bryant on punt returns? We’ll find out.
Will Redskins offensive tackles Jamaal Brown and Trent Williams be able to slow down DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer at all? Will Washington leave Chris Cooley or Fred Davis in on some passes to help them in protection?
A rookie left tackle and a right tackle who under-performed so much the New Orleans basically let him walk. . .to me, this is by far Dallas’ biggest advantage Sunday night. How in the world will Washington possibly slow down Ware and Spencer?
They could keep a tight end to help block, but their starter (Cooley) is probably one of the worst blocking tight ends in the NFL. I think it is more likely that Washington lines up in double-tight formations quite often so that they can let Cooley out in a route while Davis helps chip one of the Cowboys’ pass-rushers.
Will Doug Free be able to contain Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo?
I listed Orakpo as No. 39 (already) in my list of the NFL’s top 105 players. That may have been a little generous, but I do think he has that sort of talent. He had 11 sacks in his rookie season, including a club-record four in one game.
He’s going to be a handful for Doug Free and big-time test for the new left tackle. If the Cowboys can win at the point-of-attack, they will win the football game. That starts with Free on Orakpo.
Will Albert Haynesworth play?
There are reports that Haynesworth could be traded before Sunday, deactivated if he’s still on the Redskins, and just benched even if he’s active. No matter what happens, it is advantageous for Dallas that he doesn’t play.
Yeah, he whines a lot and hasn’t really showed much effort this season, but he can still play. If he decides to turn it on (which he could very well do in an attempt to increase his trade-ability), he’s still one of the toughest men in the league to block.
How much will we see the dreaded “Double Tight Strong“?
The Cowboys lined up in the formation (below) 15 times this preseason, running a strong side dive out of it 13 of those plays (86.7 percent). Hopefully Garrett is just setting teams up for the regular season, but I have a bad feeling that’s not the case.
Last year, the Cowboys lined up in the formation 116 times, running a strong side dive out 83 of the plays (71.6 percent), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7 percent) when motioning into it.
This will be the biggest determiner of the future of Garrett’s play-calling. If we continue to see the same formation with the same strong side dive, we know nothing is going to change.
How will Jason Garrett distribute touches among the running backs?
Marion Barber is going to start, but Felix Jones should receive the most touches. He’s the most explosive running back on the team and is the best option for Dallas in regular first and second down scenarios. I’d also love to see Tashard Choice in short-yardage situations, particularly out of Wildcat, but I think you’ll still see Barber in the short-yardage role.
No matter how Garrett disperses the touches on Sunday night, though, let’s be sure not to judge him based solely on this game (as it relates to running back touches). Game-to-game run-to-pass ratio is very dependent on game situations, meaning we won’t really get a good sense of how Garrett plans to employ each running back until, say, the fourth game.
With either Marc Colombo or Kyle Kosier suit up?
Neither player has practiced this week and, at this point, I’d call both unlikely. Kosier is certainly doubtful, while Colombo, who was supposed to be back by now, will probably be a true game-time decision.
The absence of both players hurts Dallas, particularly because their backups played so poorly in the preseason. Montrae Holland really struggled at guard, frequently getting called for false starts due to his slow feet–he needs to get off of the ball as quickly as possible to compensate for a lack of athleticism.
Meanwhile, newly-acquired swing tackle Alex Barron looked horrendous at right tackle. Second-year player Robert Brewster actually looked decent in his limited action on the right side, but it appears Barron will get the start if Colombo can’t go.
Will Andre Gurode be okay at guard if Dallas needs him?
The Cowboys have no problem making a double-switch on the offensive line if one of their starting guards goes down. In that scenario, Gurode would move to guard (where he played in the beginning of his career), and undrafted rookie free agent Phil Costa would play at center.
Costa played really well at center during the preseason, but I think I might take my chances with him at guard. Gurode will probably make the line calls even if he moves over to guard, but I’d feel more comfortable if Dallas didn’t have a starter out of position.
DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas
DO run right at linebacker London Fletcher.
I’ll talk about this more in my upcoming Game Plan article, but Dallas would be smart to run right at Fletcher. I like Feltcher a lot, but he’s very undersized (just 5’10”), meaning Gurode and Leonard Davis should be able to manhandle him.
DON’T blitz too frequently.
I talked about how Ware and Spencer should be able to get a ton of pressure on McNabb. Getting pressure with just four rushers is a huge advantage for a defense because it means they can sit back in zone and force the quarterback to make good reads and accurate throws–again and again and again. There aren’t very many quick scores to be had versus a cover 2 defense.
In fact, the reason the Cowboys were able to dominate the Eagles last season was because they rarely had to blitz. They made McNabb beat them with his arm–and he couldn’t do it.
Even at age 33, McNabb can still beat you with his legs. He can also beat you deep with his arm. But can he consistently beat you underneath with his arm? I’m not so sure.
DO play Jason Williams at nickel linebacker.
The options here are Williams, Keith Brooking, Michael Hamlin, and Danny McCray. Hamlin and McCray have very little experience at the position (like, a few game reps), so they aren’t realistic options to me.
Contrary to popular opinion, Williams wasn’t that bad during the preseason. Behind Brooking, he was the team’s best nickel linebacker, and the old guy needs a break at some point.
DON’T game-plan at all for any quarterback other than Donovan McNabb.
It looks like McNabb will play now, but the Redskins may still play it coy up until kickoff. For Dallas, there’s no reason to game-plan for anyone other than McNabb. If by some miracle he doesn’t play, you should be able to beat a Rex Grossman-led team whether you prepared for him or not.
DO throw the ball early and often.
Not what you expected to hear? I actually support a pass/run ratio of about 65:35 (yes, you read that correctly). Of course every game is different and plays should be called accordingly, but over the long haul, passing has shown to be the most important aspect of a football game and the one that is most closely linked to winning (by far).
I think Sunday night in particular is a good game for the Cowboys to come out passing. Washington was eighth last season in passing yards yielded per game, but a lot of that was due to the fact that they were losing in most ballgames. In terms of yards-per-attempt, the Redskins ranked in the middle of the pack–16th.
Further, their rush defense was actually better than advertised. They allowed only 4.9 yards-per-carry last season–good for eighth-best in the NFL.
The most important reason to come out passing, though, is that it could help jump start a stagnant Cowboys running game. We’ve all heard the familiar saying that “throwing sets up the run.” Perhaps that is true, but it goes both ways. Passing can certainly set up the run as well, and when the Redskins are forced to move back into cover 2 because Miles Austin & Co. are beating their blitz, the big guys up front for Dallas should be able to maul the undersized Washington linebackers in the run game.
DON’T phase Dez Bryant into the game.
Now is not the time to be conservative with Bryant. If a player is healthy enough to play, then they are healthy enough to play a lot. He’s either ready to go or he isn’t.
This isn’t the preseason anymore. This is an extremely difficult match-up, on the road, at night, in a nationally televised game, against a division opponent, on opening day. That’s a lot of commas.
DO spell DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer with Victor Butler.
There’s no way Dallas can get away with playing Ware and Spencer as much as they did last season. Nearly 1,100 snaps for both players is ridiculous, but last season it was a necessity. Victor Butler was a promising rookie, but he wasn’t consistent enough, particularly against the run, for the ‘Boys to take one of their stud starting outside linebackers off of the field.
This year, Butler has proven he’s ready for the big show. He’s been absolutely sensational against both the run and the pass. Plus, he should have no problem getting past Washington’s offensive tackles.
When you combine Butler’s presence with that of Brandon Williams’, there’s no reasons either Ware or Spencer should play more than 1,000 snaps this season, and closer to 900 would be ideal.
DON’T try anything too risky.
Regular readers know I’m generally in favor of “risky” calls such as going for it on 4th down (a lot) and surprise onside kicks. There’s a right time and a wrong time for everything, though, and I actually think being a bit more conservative on Sunday night is the right move.
Now, I don’t mean they should call predictable plays or punt on 4th and 1 in opponent territory, but taking the steps to ensure nothing “fluky” happens, i.e. quick scores, sudden changes in momentum, and so on, would do the Cowboys well. The reason is simple–they are the better team. If they have, let’s say, a 70 percent chance of winning this game, attempting a surprise onside kick would hold a negative level of return for Dallas. It could really only hurt, as opposed to the same scenario in a game where they are the clear underdog.