Big game tomorrow. In fact, I'd say it's a huge game. Besides the fact that it's Dallas and it's the last Skins/Girls game at ole' Texas Stadium, this game is litmus test for where the Skins rank amongst the NFL's elite teams. Many of you out there are sold on this offense and believe that the past two weeks indicate the Skins are fore real. I am of a different segment of Skins fans - the cautious optimists. I believe that the last two weeks were a vast improvement from week 1, tell us the Skins offense will have an aggressive, pass-happy offense going forward, and that Jim Zorn is constantly re-working and re-vamping his schemes to maximize point output. Does that mean that the Skins are a playoff team now? Does that mean they can dethrone the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys for one of the three NFC East playoff spots? I just don't know. The Skins did just enough to beat the Saints and the Cards - two months from now will we say that those were impressive wins or will we say that those teams were more glitz than substance? Only time will tell.
Fortunately for those of us who don't have patience for answers, the Skins get to play the Cowboys tomorrow. The Cowboys are, without any shadow of a doubt, the best team in the NFL. Their running game is strong, their passing game is prolific and their defense is speedy and strong. The Cowgirls have looked great in knocking off the Eagles and Packers over the last two weeks and have shown very few flaws (those which they have, I'll discuss) in those games. With that being said, this showdown becomes a benchmark game for the B&G. Remember last year in Foxboro? That game turned out to be a pretty good indicator of where the Skins were relative to the best in the league. And now again, the Skins get to show us how they stack against the league's best. Lets just hope the outcome is slightly less one-sided than against the Pats.
So what should we want out of tomorrow? For me, I want the Skins to hang. This team is a heavy dog (currently 11 points) and history tells us they don't fare well in Texas Stadium. I'd love for the Skins to steal one, but I'd be just as happy with them showing me they can move the ball on an opponent's turf - both by airing it out and getting push off the line of scrimmage - and that they can contain the Cowboys offense.
Recall how Joe Gibbs teams of the four previous years would come into Dallas and stall for the first three quarters - you know, the barrage of three and outs and the embarrassing offensive numbers (like this year's Giants game). If the Skins are an NFC playoff contender, that cannot happen again. If this offense is for real, they'll get first downs and put up TDs. If this defense is for real, they'll contain some of Dallas's threats. Its what good teams would do. So for me, a win's nice, but a good looking football team that gives the Cowboys a great game might be just as nice too.
I pray they're a good football team tomorrow.
1) Housekeeping - I've been getting some complaints that the late Saturday postings aren't cutting it. I apologize for not giving you hooked-on-phonicsers enough time before the game starts. Seriously though, I'll do my best to try to get this out of the drafts folder by Friday morning. Also, because it's Cowboys week and I want to keep this email a football only deal, I have attached a letter I recently wrote to the Washington Post (unpublished) for those who are interested in my opinions on Redskins non-football topics. If you want to read about Vinny/Danny gay ghezunta heid, if not, no worries.
2A) How The Redskins Win - Offense - To Jim Zorn's credit, the offense has really mixed it up nicely over the last two weeks. They've done a lot out of those west-coast spread sets and been effective in those Gibbsian jumbo packages. They've also kept defenses honest by hitting on the quick stuff, while trying to take big shots down the field too. The Skins have also done a nice job running out of passing formations and vice-versa.
Tomorrow I think the Skins need to tweak the offensive plan a little bit for a Cowboys defense that is vulnerable in the secondary. Basically, I think the Skins need to go long - early and often. The Skins have to test the Cowboys corners - Newman and Henry - and attack their very weak safety core of Patrick Watkins and Ken Hamlin. To hit the big play, I'm convinced the Skins are going to have to take shots out of their protection-heavy formations. Show run with I-formations, and go play action. The Cowboys will bring their safeties up early (sniffing out the runs) and it'll leave Moss and Thomas (yes, Thomas) room to run sprints at the Cowboys CBs.
I don't think the Skins have the pass-protection ability to take deep shots in the spread formations, the Cowboys pass rush is just too good. That being said, the Skins will have to move the ball in shorter chunks by utilizing the quick-hitting stuff. Ware and company are going to get to Campbell fast, which means that the dink and dunk must be effective. Only once the Skins can establish a deep play threat and be effective with the under stuff, than they'll then be able to run it. If Campbell can get hot early, CP will find lanes out of the spread formations and he won't face 7 or 8 men fronts in the run formations.
Nice thing about Zorn is that he's not obsessed with establishing the run early - which means that they might actually do this! If Zorn, for some stupid reason, comes out running, even me, the CP fantasy owner, will be angry.
2A, II) That's Right, Devin Thomas - Don't think I'm sold on this guy. In fact, before I tell you he'll be a factor tomorrow, let me get my rips in first. On his first "thrown to's" last week, Thomas picked up two offensive PI's and turned the wrong way on a short pattern, which nearly led to a pick-6. The dude has got to get his S&*% together ASAP or else....yeah, that's right, else.
So what can Devin do tomorrow? He can run straight down the sideline as fast as possible (and hopefully catch the ball). Thomas has shown some speed and can win jump balls over Newman and Henry. The Cowboys will shade their secondary over to Moss, which means Thomas (or ARE) will have man-to-man opportunities down the field. As I said before, the Skins must hit on these if they want a chance.
2A, III) The O-Line v. the Pass Rush - DeMarcus Ware scares the ba-heysus out of me. Unfortunately, he scares the crap out of our AARP o-line too. The Cowboys move Ware all over the line, so he'll test Jansen (he's baaaack) and Samuels throughout the game. What this means for the Skins is max protect (TE chipping) or quick hitters off the spread formations. Jason Campbell cannnot and will not get away with holding onto the ball in the 4-receiver sets - he'll get killed. If the Skins protect with five, the three step drop is all he'll be able to do. Because of the Cowboys over-aggressiveness, the Skins might be able to steal yards with screen plays, so look for them to do some of that early - anything to keep this defense off balance. I also think the Skins will be uber-obsessed with Ware, so beware of Marcus Spears or Greg Ellis coming from the other side. Chris Cooley, who's much loved for his pass-catching and YAC ability, has been a dog in pass protection. Captain Chaos and Yodes will have to hold strong on these Cowboys LB's if Campbell's gonna survive.
2A, IV) Red Zone Offense - Can you get over how well the Skins have looked inside the red zone and more specifically, inside the 10-yard line? For me, it's been the biggest difference in the offense in the Zorny area. Campbell was great at moving the team between the 20's last year - now they're going the full 80. I pin the new success on Zorn's counter-intuitive play calling. For example, two of Clinton Portis's three TD's have been virtual strolls down the middle of opponents defenses. Do you ever remember a time when CP wasn't killing himself for every TD (TB in 04 and SF in 05 being the few exceptions)? Dude's been going in untouched and it's because Zorn has been spreading the defenses out with 4-wr sets and running up the middle.
Or, like on the Todd Yoder TD, Zorn's been going jumbo and then passing out of that. The only worry is that defenses will catch on and assume Zorn's going to do the opposite of what he shows. I think Zorn's too smart for that. He'll keep defenses guessing by passing out of those spread sets and running CP in jumbo - only to change it up when the moment's right. This week, Zorn better get it right. The Skins red zone opportunities will be precious. If they want to win, they'll have to be perfect.
2B) How They Win - Defense - Stop the Cowboys offense. Haha. Sounds so easy when putting it like that. The Cowboys have a three-pronged attack, so lets dissect it that way.
2B II) Stop TO - Based on what I've read and seen, the Skins best shot at containing TO is putting Shawn Springs on him in man-to-man coverage the entire day. If you recall (JLC reminded readers this week), the Skins did a nice job of blanketing TO in the first half of last year's Texas Stadium tilt. TO had no big plays and one short TD. In that first half, Springs shadowed TO all over the field. No cute zones. No embarrassing coverage lapses. The second half was a whole different story. Why? You guessed it - Grilliams got greedy in the locker room and decided to zone-up TO in the second half. TO made em' pay - three TDs (all long bombs) and a ton of catches and receiving yards. So tomorrow the Skins MUST committ to matching Springs up on TO for four quarters. Springs has looked great thus far, knows all of TO's tendencies, and I think is up for the challenge.
What this means is that the Skins can make Dallas's other threats their primary defensive focus. Of course the Skins will have LaRon Landry over the top in case of the big play, but besides Springs and Landry, the Skins 9 other defenders can hone in on Witten and Barber.
2B III) Stop Witten - Because of my confidence in Springs and because of what I've seen of Dallas this year, Witten scares me more than the aforementioned TO. Witten runs great patterns, doesn't drop balls and has deceptive speed off the line and after the catch. The dude is literally a chess piece being moved around flawlessly by Jason Garrett. He'll get you on the sideliness and he'll get you up the seam. Of course Witten is so successful because of the TO threat, but because the Skins will man-up Springs on TO, Witten can become the LB's and other secondary personnel's primary concern.
The Skins willl do a bunch of different things with Witten and I assume stick with the thing that works. The Skins will go with three safeties - Landry back and Horton and Doughty chasing around the #3 WR (Austin?) and Witten. This strategy might work because the safeties will have more speed to keep up with Witten. On the other hand, the Skins will give up lots of size. The Skins might also go to a Rocky McIntosh-shadowing strategy - Rocky's looked great over the last two weeks, but I'm not sold on his coverage skills. Witten could run circles around him, but lets hope not. It'll be a trial-by-error situation.
With TO taken care of and Witten being the D's focus, the Skins will have limited resources to stop Marion Barber. Which gets me to my third point....
2B IV) Make Barber Beat You - I know this sounds crazy, but I think the Skins need to let Marion Barber be the guy that beats them. This really isn't about Barber as it is as much about Jason Garrett. Garrett's obsessed with the big play - watching Cowboys games are like watching kids play Madden 09. Instead of forcing the run early (like Gibbs), Garrett forces the pass early taking shot after shot. Once he's done that, he goes to Barber for the 2nd half slam. So I believe you have to get Garrett flustered - take the pass away early and make him do something out-of-character. If it's running Barber on every down - fine. By that point, the Cowboys will probably be playing from behind and go to the pass anyway.
If you watch the Cowgirls, they don't consistently hand the ball to Barber in the first half - he gets his 8, his 9, and then they start airing it out anyway. So I say give Barber his early chunks because they're going to abandon the run regardless. Once they start passing, the defense will be ready. You overplay the run early, you feed into Garrett's plan and he'll find a way to beat you through the air. One note about Felix Jones (the Cowboys backup RB) - dude is a great change of pace back and can hit the dinger - it always seems like the Skins get killed by these types of guys. If Jones is in the backfield they need to keep a keen eye on him.
One more point - the Skins will have Demetric Evans in there instead of Taylor which will definitely help in stopping the run in nickle and dime situations.
2B V) Pressure on Romo - It goes without saying that in order to stop this offense you gotta force Romo to make mistakes. Usually that means getting pressure on him. With Taylor out and Carter presumably getting the TE chip, the Skins don't have a good shot of getting at him too often. Instead the Skins are going to have to disguise coverages and change looks up on every down in hopes of getting Romo to throw to a bad spot. If they can get a hand on him, great, if not, get him to do something stupid instead.
3) Jason Taylor Won't Play for a Long Time - I still don't have a good handle on this situation, but Jason Taylor sustained a freak injury last Sunday. He got kicked in the calf muscle, which then led to internal bleeding. The condition deteriorated so fast that Taylor nearly lost the ability to ever use his legs again and wasn't far from losing his life. Crazy! I don't understand what happened (I wish I had a Skins Serv Sanjay Gupta) and I can only read through the lines of the Skins prognosis. Here's my gut - he's done for the year and probably never going to wear the B&G again. I hate to be Debbie Downer, but the guys walking around with a cane and he doesn't have any idea how long it will be. So I am expecting the worst. Draw your own conclusion: http://voices.washingtonpost.
4) Other Injuries - Skins are looking pretty good. I think Fred Smoot and Marcus Washington will play. By most reports, it seems like Stephon Heyer isn't fully recovered from some kind of shoulder thing so Jon Jansen gets to redeem himself (good for the running game, bad for pass protection). I think this is the last time I mention Malcolm Kelly on the injury report - just assume he's out until I say otherwise.
5) Prediction - History isn't on our side. Check out Dan Steinberg's blog on what the Skins have done at Texas Stadium over the years (http://voices.washingtonpost.
I'll be looking for signs tomorrow - more reason to believe - and I think I'll get them.
Cowboys 30, Redskins 24.