In the three seasons I worked with Bill Parcells for the Cowboys, I was always impressed with his ability to not allow injuries to become an excuse for how well our team was going to play that week.
Parcells fought daily to prepare, practice and play with those players that were healthy enough to go, including those players that were able to play despite not being 100 percent. Watching Tony Romo play last week against the 49ers in the condition he was in reminded me of the message that Parcells was trying to drill into our teams.
I get that same feeling listening to and watching Jason Garrett. It’s on the players that are on that 46-man game day roster to step up and continue to play regardless of who is taking the snaps, running the routes or carrying the football that day.
The Cowboys have had their share of injuries to key players through the first two weeks of the season, but to the credit of the staff and players in that locker room, no one is making excuses. In the NFL, no one feels sorry for the condition your team is in and the last time I checked the league is not going to cancel the season because you have several starters that will not be able to line up.
With that being said, the Redskins present an interesting challenge to the Cowboys.
In the second season under Mike Shanahan, this Redskins offense is really a collection of veteran players that Shanahan has been able to piece together and develop into a productive unit.
The Shanahan scheme is about running the football first to set up other opportunities off play-action, using boots and throwing to tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. When the Redskins run the ball, they like to run the zone stretch with all the blockers stepping hard play side either to the right or left, thus allowing the back to press the ball hard front side, find the soft spot, make a cut, then head up field.
When Shanahan was with the Broncos, there was more violence in the way his offensive line was able to block the backside with cut-off blocks diving into the legs of the defensive linemen. This blocking style was a nightmare for defensive linemen having to fight blockers with their hands to protect their knees and then try to tackle a ball carrier going through the hole. This offensive line will play low on the backside, but it’s now more about trying to stay on their feet and run with the defenders.
In the Shanahan scheme, he has always been able to plug in what seemed like any back and have a 1,000-yard rusher. However, when I studied the Giants and Cardinals games, the one area I noticed improvement over last season was at running back.
Last season, the majority of the work went to a broken down Clinton Portis, who just couldn’t stay healthy enough to help the Redskins sustain any type of rushing attack. In the offseason, the Redskins went out and made two improvements at running back, adding Tim Hightower from the Cardinals and drafting Roy Helu from Nebraska. I have really been impressed with both of these runners.
Hightower has a real feel for how to run the ball in this scheme. He is a patient runner but also a powerful one. He can get the ball on the edge and around the corner.
Helu doesn’t look like he is moving quickly, but once he gets through the hole, he has some shiftiness in the open field. Helu is also an outstanding receiver out of the backfield. There are designed plays where they use wide receiver picks for him to quickly work him into the flat to pick up first downs.
At wide receiver, veterans Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney are the starters. Moss has always been a difficult player for the Cowboys to deal with no matter who the coach was for the Redskins. It will still once again be that way in that Shanahan will line Moss up all over the formation. The place that he is the most dangerous is when they line him up in the slot and use him to attack the secondary on third down. Moss has always been fearless taking his routes inside and catching the ball on the move.
Gaffney has become a sneaky receiver. Had a nice out-and-up route against the Giants that was a huge play in the game. Like Moss, he is not afraid to take his route anywhere on the field. Will run the slant in the red zone and show no fear for the safety sitting inside.
Earlier in the report, I mentioned the play of tight ends Cooley and Davis. This will be the third week in a row that Rob Ryan’s defense will face a tight end that can be a difference maker in the game. Cooley or Davis are not trained killers as run blockers but what they can do is line up flexed or in the slot and get down the field quickly. Both have outstanding hands and can adjust to any type of pass that is thrown from Rex Grossman. Both tight ends are problems for defenses in the red zone because of their ability to use their size to separate.
The Cowboys have to be careful if the Redskins get their running game going on the stretch play, then they try to take advantage of the play-action game using Cooley and Davis.
At quarterback, I have never been a Rex Grossman fan. But to his credit, he has managed to lead his team to a 2-0 start. There is a side of me that truly believes that Shanahan wanted John Beck to start, but Grossman did enough to win the job.
When you study Grossman, you still see the same mistakes that ended his career in Chicago: red zone interceptions, fumbles in the pocket when sacked and tipped passes at the line. Grossman will still struggle with his decision making and his reckless way that he will throw the ball into coverage, thinking that his arm strength can get the job done.
What Grossman does well, is that he can show accuracy hitting the receiver on the move. In the Giants game, he was able to work the ball on the fade to Anthony Armstrong, who made a pretty play.
The Cowboys have to try to affect Grossman in the middle of the pocket. He will move if flushed but the majority of the snaps he likes to stand in the middle of the pocket and throw the ball. The problem with that is that he is not that tall and he will struggle to get power on the pass when he feels the rush in his face.
Last week against the 49ers, Jay Ratliff and the blitzing linebackers were able to cause problems for Alex Smith. I look for Rob Ryan to try and do the same thing to Grossman.
When I broke down the Redskins offense, I spoke of the new additions at running back and what a difference they have made. But in my view where the Redskins have improved the most is on defense.
I like what the Redskins did with the additions of defensive end Stephen Bowen, nose tackle Barry Cofield from the Giants and the drafting of outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. If you are a fan of the Cowboys, you grew to appreciate the fine work of Bowen but Cofield and Kerrigan are really nice players.
Cofield is a strong point-of-attack player that knows how to fight blocks and keep himself square to stop the run. Cofield is also strong in his ability to get push in the middle over the guards on pass rush.
Kerrigan was the Redskins first-round selection out of Purdue this year and opposite Brian Orakpo has been a force not only against the run but as a pass rusher. Kerrigan at Purdue was a hand-in-the-dirt player, but he has made the transition to the outside linebacker spot. Kerrigan is strong against the run and can cover down the field, but he is most effective as a relentless, effort pass rusher.
Kerrigan will see the majority of his plays against Tyron Smith, who I thought was the best offensive linemen for the Cowboys last week against the 49ers. Smith will once again need to match the effort and intensity of Kerrigan and not allow him to get off the rock with any consistency or pace.
In the secondary, Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall are the corners with Kevin Barnes the nickel. Hall has always been a gambler in coverage. Wilson is good in tight coverage and can really close on the ball. Wilson can also run well enough to hang with any of the Cowboys receivers. Have seen Wilson be a bit of a hit or miss tackler.
At safety, O.J. Atogwe from the Rams plays as the free safety with Reed Doughty in the lineup for the injured LaRon Landry, who is trying to work his way back from a hamstring injury. Atogwe plays well in the box and is a willing tackler. Doughty will also fill in the running game but doesn’t have catch-up speed in coverage. If the Cowboys are to try and take advantage of one of these safeties, it will be Doughty.
There is a ton of movement in this front. The Redskins will slant the line one way then bring the linebackers back the other way. On the blitz, they like to bring the inside linebackers on games.
The Cowboys can’t make the mistake that the Cardinals did and that’s block Orakpo or Kerrigan with backs. Both play with way too much power and quickness. The way to successfully handle these rushers is try to keep them wide in their rush. Orakpo and Kerrigan like to take a direct path to the quarterback, but they have struggled the most when tackles forced them up the field.
If the Cowboys are going to win this game, Doug Free and Tyron Smith are going to have to handle Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.