The Dallas Cowboys have been swept by the Washington Redskins in their season series only once in 17 years. If that changes this time and Dallas loses again to Washington Sunday night, it'll mean three consecutive non-playoff seasons for the Cowboys.
How can Dallas prevent that from happening? My advice...
When the Cowboys are on offense...
While the Redskins defense has performed slightly better lately, Dallas still has a clear advantage when in possession of the football. So a key will of course be to do exactly that. The Redskins have 12 takeaways during their current six-game winning streak, and they forced three Dallas turnovers when these teams met in Week 12.
Aside from that matchup, the Cowboys haven't had a multi-turnover game since a Week 8 debacle against the Giants. But this is a team that has become infamous for fumbling games away at very bad times.
Tony Romo has thrown 20 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in the last two Decembers. But with Romo at quarterback, the Cowboys are just 1-5 in win-or-go-home games and have made some big mistakes in those spots.
That's a huge reason why DeMarco Murray has to remain a significant part of the offensive game plan. As tempting as it might be to spread them out and swing for the fences against a mediocre Washington secondary, the Cowboys don't want to become vulnerable against Jim Haslett's pass rush. They have to keep the 'Skins guessing.
The Redskins have been getting much better play from their corners lately, so there's no obvious guy to pick on. DeAngelo Hall has really stepped his game up, though, so matchups between Dez Bryant and Josh Wilson should be exploited when possible.
But Witten could be the key to success for this Dallas offense. He's a safer option than either Bryant or Miles Austin, and Austin's presence opposite Witten in the slot could make it very difficult on the Washington secondary. With Bryant such a concern, the Redskins defense will be forced to use linebackers against Witten, just as it did in Week 12 with him and in Week 5 with Tony Gonzalez.
In those games, Witten and Gonzalez combined for 22 catches on 27 targets.
So the Cowboys have to be patient. Lots of reps for Murray and lots of first-read opportunities for Witten. Force them to cool off their blitzes and begin to bite inside the box, and then take your shots.
When the Cowboys are on defense...
The Cowboys can't afford to blitz unless those blitzes are incredibly well-timed. Disguising blitzes will do nothing more for the 'Boys on defense than the goggles did for Radioactive Man. That's the beautiful thing about the Redskins' option-oriented attack: They haven't decided if they're running or passing until the defense has already tipped its hand because the ball's been snapped.
That's the primary reason why Robert Griffin III has a 141.8 passer rating against the blitz this season. If Dallas tries to fluster the hobbled RG3 by throwing exotic blitzes his way, he'll make the rest of that depleted defense pay on screens and short timing routes.
Griffin goes deep way less often than people realize. He just happens to hit on a huge percentage of the shots he takes. When you're a threat on the ground and you have Alfred Morris as your running back, that's natural. In the first matchup, the 'Skins ran it more than they threw it and only took three shots down the field. But two of those 20-plus-yard pass attempts from RG3 resulted in touchdowns.
That's something the Cowboys have to prevent this week, and I believe they have to sell out to stop Morris while lending a helping hand to the secondary. Because they're picking their poison, that means they'll have to call Washington's bluff and let Griffin have opportunities to take off if he's healthy enough to do so. They can't sacrifice defenders for the purpose of spying or blitzing.
That means Rob Ryan will have to place a lot of faith in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to get lots of natural pressure. But that's why those guys are paid so handsomely. Ware's not healthy right now and Spencer is coming off a quiet performance against the Saints, yet the Cowboys just can't afford to give them help.
Dallas should make sure there's always safety help available over the top while keying on Morris up front. It's not a fun approach, but the Cowboys have to be in survival mode defensively against an offense like Washington's.