Monday Night Football often produces some of the greatest games in the history of the NFL, and there is a chance for it to provide yet another very good game next week when the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins meet for the 103rd time. The Redskins – Cowboys rivalry is one of the best in NFL history because of the bad blood between the two franchises dating back decades. Both have a rich history, but neither has done much recently. This game will feature an undefeated Redskins squad going up against the often inconsistent and dramatic Cowboys.

What is the formula for Washington’s success? 

The Redskins are led into Arlington, Texas by starting quarterback Rex Grossman. Grossman has had surprising success early into the 2011 season, leading his team to a 2-0 record and making some quality decisions in the passing game. He comes into Cowboys stadium leading an eleventh-ranked passing game to go along with a tenth-ranked running game. The Redskins offense is one of the more intriguing ones in the NFL because of its simplicity, and because Mike Shanahan runs the show.

Shanahan’s offensive philosophy is to rely on the running game to go along with West Coast Offense principles in the passing game. The running game is mostly based off of a zone blocking scheme that has two main run concepts: inside and outside zone. These two run concepts are by far the most popular in today’s NFL and have been a staple of Shanahan’s offense since his early years with the Denver Broncos. Shanahan does not have many other runs in his playbook, but mainly relies on the inside and outside zone concepts. The Redskins use these runs to help set up play action passes, which is very important in the 2011 Redskins offense.

The Redskins passing game is not one that is overly complex, with Shanahan stating in the past that he features 36 pass plays in his offense even though this year it seems less than that. He relies on a few main concepts in his offense out of various formations and multiple screen passes that serve as an extension of the running game. He also relies on a lot of three- and five-step drops to get the ball out of Rex Grossman’s hands as well as to rely less on his offensive line to hold up in protection. These drops used by Shanahan allow Grossman to make simpler reads and reduces the chances of his quarterback making a bad decision. A lot of these throws are grass reads, which is two receivers sent in a defender’s zone with quarterback throwing it where the defender isn’t present.

One of the important things to discuss is the Redskins offensive line. As noted, I am led to believe that the Redskins use of three- and five-step drops is because of the offensive line’s issues in pass protection. They use a lot of six-man protections (5 offensive lineman + 1 tailback) and often use zone protection, which is similar to zone blocking in the running game. Zone protection is used often by NFL teams because of its easy teaching and its adaptability to any front thrown at the offensive line by defenses. The two main questions about the Redskins offensive line are the bookends, left tackle Trent Williams and right tackle Jamaal Brown. Both linemen have had issues with fundamentals and overall consistency in play, which I’ll touch on later.

Moving on, the Redskins defense has been one of the most impressive ones this year, with it ranking sixth in scoring and fifth in sacks. These two statistics are the most important for defenses because they relate to points and pressuring the quarterback, which are the two things defensive coordinators look for. The Redskins have based out of an Okie front quite a bit this season. An Okie front is one that has both guards of the offense uncovered, while the center and offensive tackles are covered up.

The Okie front is one that the Redskins go to quite a bit, but it is not the only one they use. They are a multiple defense, using various fronts such as 2-4-5 and 4-3 Under. Along with these fronts, the Redskins like to dial up a lot of blitzes, such as cross dogs which is two linebackers crossing and attacking each A gap. The defense also likes to go to a lot of Fire Zone blitzes, which is a five man rush with 3 underneath defenders along with 3 defenders deep.

(h/t BrophyFootball.blogspot.com)

As seen, the backside defensive end drops off into coverage into a Hook zone and is in zone coverage. The Redskins use both Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan as a fire zone dropper from the three point end spot as well as a two point stand-up rusher. The backside end is accompanied the WILL linebacker or one of the inside linebackers in the 3-4 along with the strong safety. The MIKE linebacker is often used as a blitzer, which is what the Redskins do with London Fletcher.  In the deep levels of the field, it is divided into thirds among the two cornerbacks and the free safety.

Two of the players that have helped the defense become so good early into the season are pass rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Kerrigan is a rookie, but  has good strength and is versatile. Kerrigan likes to use his bulrush often because of his quality strength and will also turn to the rip.  He is a very aggressive end and this can be taken advantage of at times, with a play action roll out. He crashes hard down the line of scrimmage so there is no backside contain. Meanwhile, Orakpo has become an exceptional pass rusher and versatile player. He has superior strength to Kerrigan and to most offensive tackles, so he uses the bulrush frequently. He has good snap anticipation and is heady, as he’ll get his hands up to deflect passes.

A coverage that the Redskins like to go to is Man-Free, which is man coverage with the cornerbacks and linebackers while the free safety in the middle of the field is a robber. He is patrolling the deep middle of the field and is to maintain leverage by keeping his shoulders square whilst backpedaling then committing to the pass once it is thrown by the quarterback. The free safety has over the top responsibility of all routes while the strong safety is assigned to cover the tight end or slot of the offense’s formation.

(h/t Smartfootball.com)

Are The Cowboys Still ‘America’s Team’ ?

The Tony Romo-led Cowboys are sitting with a record of .500 through two weeks of the regular season, but the games have not been impressive for Jerry Jones’ team. Despite a plethora of weapons, the Cowboys have struggled offensively, ranking second to last in rushing yards per game and dealing with turnovers from the quarterback position.

The passing game of Dallas is more complex than the one that the Redskins feature on Sundays, with a lot more five-step drops and attacking the defense in the intermediate level of the field. The offensive line and backs help protect Romo by using five- and six-man protections, which the running back has a built in check-release option. A check-release option is the responsibility of the running back to pick up any extra blitzers if they are presented. If there are none presented, the running back releases into the open field and serves as a checkdown option to the quarterback.

Head coach and play caller Jason Garrett relies on pre-snap motions and trades of the tight ends, slants, digs, outs, seam-read, shallow crosses, Hi-Lo concepts and screen passes in his offense. He relies on screen passes to his wide receivers, such as flanker screen, as well as to his running backs, such as swing screens. These screens are important to his offense because they get the quarterback in a rhythm as well as slow down the aggressiveness of the defense ,which will play a role in this game. One of the concepts that he called against the 49ers was the Double Slants concept.

The Double Slants concept is often used as a zone beater, such as against Cover 2. The inside receiver (to the left) runs a slant to occupy the outside and MIKE linebacker, which frees up the outside receiver (to the right) for a catch and potential damage against the run. The Cowboys run this concept very well, and it is a simple read for the quarterback, which is always beneficial to the offense.

In the running game, the Cowboys also run the aforementioned inside and outside zone concepts. As stated, these two concepts are the most popular in the NFL at the moment. Garrett will also call for Power and Counter Trey in his playbook, which has been good to running back Felix Jones. The Cowboys like to use a lot of 12 (1 running back, 2 tight ends) personnel and with quality blocking from Jason Witten, who lines up as an H-Back at times, it clears the way for Jones to have big gains. However, through two weeks of the regular season, the Cowboys have struggled to get a running game going, as they rank 31st in the NFL. The Cowboys must find a way to get their offensive linemen to move the line of scrimmage in the running game to help ease pressure on their quarterback.

Moreover, the defense of the Cowboys has gotten a lot of publicity this season because of the multiple looks that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has presented to offenses.

The Cowboys, like the Redskins, operate out of various fronts, such as the Okie, 2-4-5, 1-4-6, reduced 3-man fronts and RADAR (also known as Amoeba). The 1-4-6 is something that Rob Ryan goes to at times, as he did against the San Francisco 49ers in week 2. What this front does to the opposition is disguise which players are rushers, and which are dropping into coverage. With centers calling the protections most of the time for quarterbacks, this causes problems for protection calls because of the uncertainty of rushers. Meanwhile, the quarterback must decipher the rushers post-snap, which can be a problem. This particular play against the 49ers ended up post-snap being 2 high shell with 5 pass defenders and 4 rushers.

The Cowboys will use these multiple fronts to move around DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to create matchup advantages. Ware in particular is a problem because he is such an exceptional pass rusher that can do everything. He will be used up the middle as well as outside, his natural rushing spot. Rushing on the interior could be something that becomes an advantage for the Cowboys because of the Redskins’ issues with blitzes up the middle.

Spencer is a very strong player who is a good pass rusher and can hold up against the run. In Week 2 against the 49ers, Spencer did a very good job against the run, setting the edge and holding up blocks. Both of these pass rushers are very talented, but one thing that the Cowboys do is walk them out to match up against slot receivers at times, and this can be a problem for the Cowboys because getting a guy like Fred Davis covered by Anthony Spencer is not a matchup advantage for them.

In the defensive backfield, the Cowboys use multiple coverages to match up with wide receivers. These coverages include Man-Free (Cover 1), which is the primary coverage in the NFL, Quarters (Cover 4) as well as man-zone combinations. The Cowboys will play these coverages out of their base set as well as their nickel packages.

Matchups to Watch

There are several key matchups in this Monday night game to watch:

  • WR Anthony Armstrong vs. CB Alan Ball – This matchup could read as Ball versus any slot receiver of the Redskins, but Armstrong is one of the players that I saw used in the slot last week, so he fits. Armstrong is a deep ball threat and has been used on out routes as well as slants. Ball has become the nickel corner because of injuries. He is not quick out of his breaks at all times and can be beaten on sideline routes. Out routes in particular have caused problems for Ball because of his limitations.
  • WR Santana Moss vs. Cowboys Secondary – Moss has been a headache for the Cowboys for years now, racking up 40 receptions over the last three years against America’s team. He’s often had big plays against the Cowboys, recording a catch of 17 yards or more in five of the six games between the arch rivals in the last three years. The Cowboys are banged up in the secondary and Moss is having yet another solid start to the season. This will be interesting to watch.
  • QB Rex Grossman vs. Cowboys Pressure – Grossman’s completion percentage under pressure is 35.7 percent. That’s not good, and his struggles are evident in games when he does not have a natural pocket. Against the Cardinals, Grossman had some issues with a disrupted pocket and forced some throws, which led to two interceptions.
  • Redskins Bookends vs. Cowboys OLBs – The Redskins’ bookends, Trent Williams and Jamaal Brown, have had a lot of fundamental issues over the last two years. Williams does not get his hands off his hips quick enough at times and can be beaten on an inside move because of a wide kickslide. Meanwhile, Brown is often beaten at the point of attack and leaves his chest open to bulrushes.
  • Redskins Interior OL vs. Blitzes – Simply put, the Redskins have a lot of problems with pressure up the middle. They have to figure this out by Monday because the Cowboys do employ A Gap blitzes frequently, and the Redskins have to protect their quarterback if they want any chance of winning.
  • TE Jason Witten vs. Redskins OLBs – The Redskins sometimes leave their outside linebackers, such as Ryan Kerrigan, in coverage and this could be exploited by throwing to Witten. Kerrigan is not fleet of foot and is very tight in the hips, so this could be a mismatch in favor of the Cowboys.
  • LT Doug Free vs. OLB Brian Orakpo – Free had a very poor game against the 49ers in Week 2, allowing multiple pressures on Romo. He didn’t get his hands off his hips and often left his chest open for a bulrush. 49ers DE Justin Smith also took advantage of the gap left inside by Free on his kickslide. Brian Orakpo, who has great snap anticipation and a bulrush, will look to take advantage of this.

As always, I expect Monday Night Football to produce a quality game and a very interesting one. The Cowboys and Redskins meet for the 103rd time in their rivalry, and this one could have a significant impact on the division standings early into the season. If the Cowboys lose, they fall behind in the division, while the Redskins would be leading the division with an undefeated record.

One thing’s for sure, whenever the ‘boys are playing, there is always a dramatic finish.

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