Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys: Breaking Down Washington's Game Plan

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured Columnist IVApril 6, 2017

When the Washington Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys on the road in 2012, they used select big plays off play-action passes, set up by a relentless ground game.

The same formula can work for Mike Shanahan's team this Sunday. When his offense does air it out, they must target the Cowboys safeties who are routinely failing to make plays.


Exposing a Weak Pass Defense by Targeting Safeties

Since Monte Kiffin took over as defensive coordinator this offseason, the Cowboys have mixed in elements of his famed Tampa 2 scheme.

The problem is the safeties, the crucial part of the system, are failing to make plays. An example from the Cowboys' shootout loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 5 clearly shows the problem.

Late in the second quarter, the Broncos had moved inside the Dallas 10-yard line and split out tight end Julius Thomas as a wide receiver.

The Cowboys actually had cornerback Brandon Carr covering Thomas, with safety help behind him from Barry Church.

Thomas would attack the seam between the cornerback and the deep safety, the obvious weak point in a Cover 2 scheme. But again the Cowboys had it covered with a linebacker underneath and the safety over the top.

When Thomas received the pass, the three defenders closed in to bracket him. Thomas should have been stopped for a minimal gain.

But both Carr and Church (42) missed their tackles and Thomas scored. The play had been funneled to the safety, in keeping with Kiffin's system, but the safety failed to make the tackle.

Thomas was a nightmare for the Dallas defense in Week 5. The Redskins can use rookie tight end Jordan Reed in similar ways to create matchup problems for Cowboys defensive backs.

The Redskins can do more than just expose communication issues between defensive backs. One of the main weaknesses of the Cowboys pass defense has been an inability to cover running backs out of the backfield.

The main problem is how deep the linebackers drop into zone coverage. There is major space between the defensive line and the secondary level.

The Broncos consistently attacked this area with Knowshon Moreno. The fifth-year runner caught five passes for 57 yards. Ronnie Hillman added four receptions for 42 yards, including this 19-yarder.

Hillman would escape through the middle of the Dallas defensive front, offering quarterback Peyton Manning an outlet.

In typical fashion, the Cowboys' underneath coverage all quickly took deep zone drops.

That created a huge void in the middle of the field.

When Hillman caught the pass, notice how far away the nearest would-be tackler was.

Hillman had plenty of open space to attack down the middle.

The Cowboys allowed Denver running backs to amass 99 receiving yards. Running backs for the San Diego Chargers tallied 95 receiving yards against Dallas in Week 4.

Washington can use both third-down back Roy Helu Jr. and fullback Darrel Young to manufacture big pass plays underneath.

The kind of coverage breakdowns shown here have been plaguing Kiffin's secondary so far this season. According to Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, the Cowboys have become the fourth team in league history to surrender 400 yards or more to three different quarterbacks.

Of course, an equal amount of pressure will be on Washington's own struggling secondary.


Show Wide Receiver Dez Bryant Different Coverage Looks

Corralling temperamental wideout Dez Bryant is a major challenge for any defense facing the Cowboys. The Redskins will have to mix up how they cover the ultra-talented pass-catcher.

Given Bryant's stunning form since the midpoint of last season, it was necessary to go back to Week 2 of 2012 to find a good template for slowing him down.

On this occasion, the Seattle Seahawks took a varied approach to knocking Bryant out of his stride. In the first quarter, Seattle matched up towering cornerback Brandon Browner over Bryant.

The 6'4", 221-pounder was aligned in press coverage. The Seahawks would support Browner's efforts with hybrid rush end Chris Clemons dropping underneath and safety Earl Thomas rotating over the top.

At the snap, Browner quickly got his hands on Bryant and pressed him.

Then Clemons and Thomas made their drops. This put a bracket around Bryant on the inside as Browner pressed him to the outside.

The result was Bryant being unable to come off the sideline, giving quarterback Tony Romo very little room to aim for. An incomplete pass was the inevitable outcome.

Redskins rookie corner David Amerson has the frame to play press and bump Bryant at the line. Any one of outside linebackers Brian Orakpo or Ryan Kerrigan could drop in front to cover underneath.

But Washington's coverage scheme should not be limited to simply roughing Bryant up. The Seahawks also showed how off-coverage can take away Bryant's talent for attacking vertically.

In the second quarter against the Seahawks, Bryant was on the other side matched up against Richard Sherman. This time the Seahawks gave Bryant a cushion on the outside.

Sherman would rotate deep, taking away the vertical routes on the outside. An inside linebacker would also cut across Bryant to take away the underneath crossing pattern.

This created another bracket around Bryant, giving Romo little room to get him the ball.

Thomas was again lurking behind, but his role would be more aggressive this time. He would attack Bryant in the middle zone behind the linebacker and in front of Sherman's drop.

That is precisely what happened. Romo forced his pass into the tiny void in the zone, but Thomas broke quickly on the ball and hit Bryant, forcing another incomplete pass.

For all the criticism he attracts, Redskins veteran DeAngelo Hall tends to thrive in off-coverage. The motor-mouthed defensive back has already endorsed the need to show different looks to Bryant, according to The Washington Post's Mike Jones:

As a coordinator, as a player, you try to do a lot of things, Hall said before going with a basketball analogy. You try to give him a hard foul, try to hit him, you try to do things to change the look. You can’t just sit back there and play a zone, you can’t just sit back and play man.

The Dallas offense features a lot of weapons, but Bryant is the main threat. Tight end Jason Witten and youngster Terrance Williams are productive, but letting Bryant run riot will quickly take the game away from Washington.

Coordinator Jim Haslett has to make stifling the prolific receiver the main focus of his defensive game plan. His secondary certainly does not possess the talent the Seahawks boast.

But if they can play disciplined, assignment defense, the way they did against the Oakland Raiders in Week 4, Washington's defensive backs can win their battles.

Of course, any efforts to stop Bryant have to be complemented by applying consistent pressure on the pocket. In fact, the Redskins need to shrink the pocket around Romo and force him to hurry throws.

This is something the Redskins pass rush is already planning for, according to The Washington Times' Brian McNally:

Romo himself is responsible for a lot of that, of course. Even at age 33, his legs help him escape trouble. Kerrigan, more than most, says he must be aware of that given Romo likes to escape pressure to his right. That’s Kerrigan’s side of the field as the left outside linebacker. Keeping Romo in the pocket while generating pressure is a delicate, if necessary balance. The Cowboys are well aware of what they will see.

That formula contributed to Romo's decisive interception against the Broncos. Pressure from one side and a strong push up the middle meant Romo could not step up or plant his feet.

Washington's defensive front features the pass-rushers to box Romo in and force him into his nasty habit for key mistakes in critical moments.

Orakpo and Kerrigan can collapse the edges from the outside. Inside, Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen can run twists and games to push the middle of the line back into Romo's face.

Washington's coaching staff has had a lot to cover during the bye week, getting ready for their arch rival. They had the edge over the Cowboys last season.

The key was the combination of play-action passing on offense and consistent pressure in front of an opportunistic secondary.

If the coverage takes care of Bryant and the front seven harasses Romo, the Redskins will force the Cowboys into mistakes. It will then be up to the running game to set up opportunities for big plays through the air.


All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.

All statistics via NFL.com.


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