8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Dallas -10
Bitter rivals face off at AT&T Stadium as the red-hot Dallas Cowboys host the stumbling Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. After a dismal 3-13 campaign that began with such high expectations yet ended with the dismissal of the majority of the Coaching Staff, the Redskins (2-5) once again entered this season with high hopes, but even with a new skipper it’s just the same ol’ story in the Nation’s Capital. Washington hired Jay Gruden to unlock the untapped potential of third-year Quarterback Robert Griffin III, but saw the franchise’s crown jewel succumb to a dislocated ankle early in Week Two, a season after the former Offensive Rookie of the Year struggled after returning from a gruesome knee injury sustained in the 2012 Playoffs. Kirk Cousins supplanted him under Center and had his moments, but poor play marred by interceptions and lost fumbles led to his benching during last week’s 19-17 victory over the Titans. So in comes Colt McCoy, who efficiently managed the game down the stretch, and now looks like starter moving forward while RG3 continues to rehab from his ankle injury.
So what are the chances that Colt McCoy becomes the savior of this franchise? Um… we’re talking about the Colt McCoy that has thrown a total of eighteen passes over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, correct? We’re speaking of the Colt McCoy that has a record of 6-15 (.285) from starting 21 games for the Cleveland Browns, right? We can’t be talking about the Colt McCoy with a career 22/20 Touchdown/Interception Ratio and 5.4 Net Yards per Attempt, can we? Afraid so, folks, as the fifth-year veteran gets his crack at the starting job on a flailing team. But before you say we’re being too hard on the guy, McCoy did play well after relieving Cousins of his duties against Tennessee, completing 11-of-12 passes for 128 yards, including a game-deciding 70-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the Third Quarter. It’s not like he doesn’t have talent around him; Garcon coupled with DeSean Jackson give him arguably the fastest tandem of receivers in the league, while Alfred Morris has been one of the most productive Tailbacks over the last two seasons. In his first season in Washington, Jackson has hauled in 26 passes for 528 yards (20.3 yards/catch), and three touchdowns, while Garcon has reeled in 35 balls for 396 yards (11.3 yards/attempt) and three more scores of his own. Morris on the other hand, has rushed for 440 yards, but has seen his average per carry drop from 4.6 in 2013 to 3.8 this season. Granted, a lingering ankle injury has slowed him thus far, but the whispers that he was simply a product of the previous regime’s system are starting to get louder. The point we’re trying to make is that this offense is clearly talented, but they’ve been habitually mistake-prone; Gruden’s charges rank sixth in total offense (405.5), but just twenty-third in points scored (21.6), courtesy of fifteen turnovers, the fourth-highest total in the league, a dozen of which have come over the last four outings.
Ah, but the Quarterback Carousel is far from the only reason why this team is struggling, for the defense has not made the requisite strides of improvement from last year’s debacle. In 2013 Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett’s unit was abysmal, allowing 29.9 points per game (30th overall) on 354.1 total yards (18th overall), leading many to believe that he would face the same fate as the rest of the Coaching Staff in the offseason. However, it was mildly surprising that Haslett was one of the lone assistants to retain his post, but given how his charges have played to this point, he may have a earned just a brief stay of execution. In all honesty, the Redskins haven’t been terrible on defense. In fact, they’re only allowing 321.9 yards per game, good for seventh-best in the NFL, but have unfortunately yielded 26.1 points, the seventh-worst figure in the league. The offense’s turnover-prone ways have put these guys in some truly unenviable positions, forcing them to defend a short field on many occasions. With that in mind, Washington checks in at sixth against the pass (218.6), thirteenth in net yards per pass allowed (6.4), eleventh against the rush (103.3) and ninth in yards per carry allowed (3.8), while also amassing sixteen sacks. And the fact that they’ve managed to do so in the face of a mounting number of injuries makes their performance all the more remarkable; Barry Cofield (ankle), DeAngelo Hall (Achilles), and Brian Orakpo (prectorial) have all landed on Injured Reserve, robbing this unit of arguably it’s best Defensive Lineman, Pass-Rusher, and Cover Corner, while other starters such Perry Riley (knee), Ryan Clark (ankle/shoulder), and Tracy Porter (hamstring) are each listed as Questionable for tonight’s contest. But in the end though, as it has with the offense, it all comes down to turnovers, as the defense has only managed to force six this season, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
Meanwhile, there is a renaissance going on down in North Texas, as the Dallas Cowboys (6-1) have now won six consecutive games after dropping the Season Opener, climbing to the top of the NFC in the process. While their opponent tonight entered the season with a fair degree of optimism, the mood was of stark contrast in Dallas; after missing the postseason for the fourth straight year, the Cowboys entered 2014 with a Head Coach on the hot seat, statistically the worst defense in the proud history of the franchise, and a star Quarterback rehabbing from back surgery, leading many to believe this would be a very long season for Jerry Jones and Co. But that’s why they play the games, people, as seemingly all of those aforementioned weaknesses have turned into strengths for arguably the most surprising team in the league. Tony Romo has been deadly efficient under Center, completing 69.2% of his passes for an average of 255.6 yards per game on 7.51 net yards per attempt, tossing fourteen touchdowns to six interceptions, all the while posting a Total QBR of 84.95, a career-high for the eleventh-year veteran. Interestingly, the two-time Pro Bowler has thrived in a scaled-back offense; Romo has attempted 30 or more passes on just three occasions this season, choosing instead to build the passing game off of the exploits of the sensational DeMarco Murray, who is making a serious case for MVP honors.
Over the past three years, it’s been a running joke in Dallas; they can run the ball, they just choose not to do so, but when they run the ball, they oftentimes win, and win big. Since 2011, the Cowboys have ranked eighteenth (112.9), thirty-first (79.7), and twenty-fourth (94.0) in rushing offense, despite ranking ninth (4.4), thirtieth (3.6), and eighth (4.5) in yards per carry in those same seasons. The problem is that Jason Garrett, the Head Coach and defacto play-caller simply didn’t want to run the ball, leading to a prolific, yet unbalanced attack that struggled in the Red Zone. How else can you explain the fact that in each of the last two campaigns this team has ranked next-to-last rushing attempts? Now this is where Murray comes into the equation; since entering the league in 2011, the explosive Tailback has missed eleven games due to injury, but when healthy has averaged 81.7 yards per game on 4.9 yards per attempt. Furthermore, between 2011 and 2013 when Murray has received at least 20 carries the Cowboys were a perfect 10-0, and when he had rushed for at least 100 yards they were 5-2. With the last three Drafts netting a bevy of quality Offensive Linemen, Garrett changed his approach, creating a ripple effect that has improved the entire team. Through seven games, the Cowboys now lead the NFL in rushing offense (159.7), averaging a league-best 33.6 rushing attempts on 4.8 yards per carry (4th overall), en route to 28.0 points per game (6th overall). Murray, in turn has now rushed for 913 yards (4.9 yards/attempt) thus far, with seven touchdowns, and his 187 attempts are the second-most in NFL History through the first seven games of the season.
The success on the ground has not only streamlined the offense for the better, but has really benefited the defense, which has been far better than expected in 2014. Given last year’s performance, and the exodus of star players such as DeMarcus Ware coupled with the season-ending injury of Sean Lee, pundits feared the worst for a unit that was torched on the regular for 415.3 yards per game in 2013. In fact, Dallas relinquished 400 or more yards on eight occasions last season, with four of those showing a total north of 500 yards, including a pair of 600+ yard debacles. Fast-forward to the present and the defense has allowed 400 or more yards just twice in seven games, thanks to the offense’s time-consuming ways and the guidance of new Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli. The longtime assistant has had a long and fruitful history with former Coordinator Monte Kiffin, serving as his Defensive Line Coach in Tampa Bay, and has continued to employ his mentor’s famed Tampa Two scheme that has become antiquated in recent years. However, Marinelli has done a tremendous job of modernizing it with more disguises and multiplicity, even blitzing more frequently in a scheme that rarely does so. As a result of his inventiveness, his charges are allowing 21.0 points (9th overall) on 343.8 yards (13th overall), including 230.4 against the pass (11th overall) on 6.8 net yards per attempt (24th overall), and another 113.4 versus the run (18th overall) on 4.9 yards per carry (31st overall). But perhaps the biggest change is in simply how often these guys are on the field; at 56.7 plays per game, no defense has been on the field less than the Cowboys, leaving them rested for each series.