After blowing out the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6, the Dallas Cowboys travel to FedEx Field to face the 3-2 Washington Redskins. Like the Cowboys, Washington has yet to win two straight games. Both teams will seek to start a winning streak as well as earn the top spot in the NFC East.
Jay Gruden and his staff traded for former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the off-season. They also signed Adrian Peterson in free agency after their second-round pick, Derrius Guice, tore his ACL in the pre-season.
Washington has used a versatile running scheme and an abundance of misdirection to carve out the divisions’ only winning record. Here’s a look at their offense and how they’ll attack Dallas:
Trap Run with Jet Sweep Motion
Bill Callahan is one of the most highly regarded offensive line coaches throughout the league. Under his guidance, the Redskins have used a blend of both zone and gap/power blocking in their ground game. From the outside zone to the single-back power, they boast a varied rushing scheme.
The most prominent tendency in their run game revolves around whoever’s in the backfield. Although the Redskins offense uses both zone and gap/power runs with Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson, Washington tends to dial up more power-and gap-based plays with Peterson. With Thompson, they lean more towards zone blocking.
One particular gap-scheme play they’ve used is the trap run. Last week against the Panthers, Gruden called a trap or wham no less than five times.
In essence, the trap’s design is to have one or more offensive linemen bypass the defensive line on the first level and get to the linebackers on the second level immediately. At the same time, another offensive lineman traps the initially unblocked defensive tackle or end. When a tight end or halfback executes this block, the concept is called a wham block.
By getting one or more offensive linemen to the second level at the snap, the linebackers are caught off-guard and put in a physical mismatch. Because the trap or wham blocks strike the first-level defenders from the side, less force is needed to seal them from the play.
Most of the time, the Redskins combine jet sweep motion with this run to affect the linebackers and give the line better angles to the second level. Below is a video example of the play from my Week 3 Guess the Gameplan article.
Washington will execute this run on 1st-and-10 to 2nd-and-short. Last Sunday, Peterson averaged more than six yards per carry on trap runs against a normally stout Carolina run defense.
The Cowboys have defended these plays much better in 2018, but they can’t assume success will continue without preparation. They must be ready for this concept.
Another run Washington frequently calls is the power/counter sweep. Dallas fans should be familiar with this play as it’s been the team’s most productive one this year.
This particular play calls for two linemen to pull to the perimeter while the front side of the line down-blocks to keep the defensive end out of the way. The pullers take on smaller linebackers and defensive backs and mow a path for the runner to follow.
What makes Washington so dangerous on the sweeps and outside zones, is they build off them by interweaving these runs with read-options and run-pass options (RPOs).
From his days in college and since being drafted in 2005, Alex Smith has been proficient on option plays. These are concepts like the read-option where he’ll look at a specific defender and based off that man’s movement, will hand-off to the running back or keep the ball himself for a quarterback run.
He’s also adept at executing run-pass options or RPOs. RPOs are similar to read-options, but instead of the quarterback choosing between a give and keep, he decides whether to hand-off or throw depending on a pre-snap or post-snap look.
In Kansas City, Andy Reid combined the read-option with the RPO. Smith had three choices on these plays. He could hand-off to the running back, keep the ball and run it himself, or throw a quick pass to the perimeter.
Jay Gruden has continued that concept for Smith in 2018. In Week 5 at New Orleans, Chris Thompson ran for 10 yards on 1st-and-10 in the second quarter.
Gruden’s weekly gameplan is littered with these RPO and read-option plays. In the above video, Smith handed the ball off. The following week against Carolina, he threw to Jordan Reed on a 10-yard bubble screen.
A few plays later on that same drive, they dialed up a power sweep with an option to pass to a double slant concept.
Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s defenders will have to stay alert and play fast all 60 minutes, or they could get gashed. The vast majority of these option plays occurred on 1st down, so watch for Washington to use them as drive starters or after converting on 2nd-and 3rd downs.
Attacking The Cowboys’ Cover-3
Since Dallas is a predominantly single-high safety defense, that means they employ a lot of Cover-3 zone. One way teams attack this coverage is with deep crossing routes by at least two receivers or running a single receiver on an over route across the field.
The intent is to get behind the second-level defenders and beneath the deep safety. And running over the middle can confuse zone assignments. The Redskins often utilize play action to help draw the linebackers to the line of scrimmage.
Against the Packers in Week 3, Alex Smith made an aggressive throw to Paul Richardson on a deep post for a 46-yard touchdown. Green Bay was in quarters or Cover-4 on the play.
Smith has often been criticized for his conservative decision-making and seldomly targeting receivers downfield. But since last season, he’s been more willing to take deep shots, even against tighter coverage.
Last game, he hit Vernon Davis on the over for 21 yards.
Notice how the cornerback doesn’t follow Davis across the field. Depending on the team’s coverage rules, if the corner stays on his side, then the deep safety or one of the underneath linebackers must cover the crosser. Here’s another video that highlights this potential weakness in Cover-3.
For Dallas, Leighton Vander Esch or Sean Lee will typically carry over routes. With Lee out the past three games, the rookie from Boise State has had to pick up the slack and has done an outstanding job thus far.
The Jaguars were regularly sending their receivers over the deep middle of the field, and he was in position on all but one. Unfortunately, that one play turned into a 34-yard touchdown.
For the Cowboys to prevail this Sunday, Vander Esch’s performance will be a critical factor.
Another tactic offenses use to exploit single-high zone coverage is with the post-wheel concept.
The post routes occupy the deep third defenders on the outside. This creates space for the wheel or out-and-up routes. If the flat defender is late or doesn’t carry the wheel up the sideline, then those receivers will be wide open.
Fortunately for the Panthers, their defense covered the post-wheel well in the example above.
The wheel route is also lethal against man coverage. On 4th-and-2 at the Saints, Washington had three receivers to one side close to each other. Gruden had the two outside receivers run inside curls to pick or rub the defender covering Jamison Crowder. This helped him create separation for a 24-yard gain.
The Dallas Cowboys defense has been a top-10 unit in the first half of 2018. However, they were exposed by the ground attack, and option plays at Seattle, and on crossing routes and down the sidelines at Houston and against Detroit.
Despite the offense’s stellar outing against Jacksonville, they’ve been horrible on the road this year. If Dak Prescott and Scott Linehan can’t keep Mr. Hyde from making an appearance this weekend, then everything will ride on the defense. Whether they can carry that much weight on their own remains to be seen.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.