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Five observations from the Redskins' gutsy 20-17 win over the Cowboys

Five observations from the Redskins' gutsy 20-17 win over the Cowboys

A streak ended Sunday as the Redskins beat the Cowboys 20-17 in thrilling fashion. Late in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys back up near their goal line, Ryan Kerrigan got a sack and strip on Dak Prescott. His battery mate Preston Smith grabbed the ball and walked into the end zone for the touchdown.

The Cowboys had a chance to send the game into overtime, but a 52-yard attempt from Brett Maher bounced off the left upright, giving the Redskins the victory.

Washington had lost their last four contests against Dallas, and the win puts the team securely in first place of the NFC East with a 4-2 record. 

How did it shake out? Here are five observations:

Five Observations from Redskins vs. Cowboys

1. Winning With Defense

The key to beating Dallas is to limit their ground game, and it worked for Washington, Ezekiel Elliott had just 13 rush yards in the first half, the second fewest of his career.

He finished with 35 yards and his lack of success forced the Cowboys to try and win with Prescott throwing the ball. It didn't work. Prescott finished with 273 pass yards, but most of it came on a few big chunk plays, including a 49-yard touchdown pass to end the first half.

2. All day, Seriously

The Redskins offense is entirely reliant on Adrian Peterson. That was not the plan this offseason, but through seven weeks of the NFL season, it's working out fairly well. Peterson finished the game with 99 rush yards and is only a few yards behind ninth-place Tony Dorsett on the NFL's all-time rushing record. Peterson has shown that any suggestion he had lost a step at age 33 is simply naive.

He has the vision and strength to break tackles, almost at will. 

3. Ugly Third

The Redskins defensive front played a tremendous game, and the third quarter was the best example. The Cowboys offense ran six plays in the third quarter and gained only four yards. Kerrigan landed his first Prescott sack near his own end zone, and the interior defensive line of Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis smothered Ezekiel Elliott. 

4. Close But No Paydirt

The Redskins have a real problem, and it's called scoring touchdowns. On Sunday, that did not bite them against the offensively challenged Cowboys, but eventually, it will be a problem. Dustin Hopkins kicked field goals of 21 and 25 yards, which means the offense is sputtering in goal-to-go situations. Think about this way: Preston Smith has more second-half touchdowns this season than Alex Smith.

The Washington QB played fine, but not good, again. He did throw a first-half TD to Kapri Bibbs, and maybe more importantly, had no turnovers.

5. Walk It Like You Talk It

 D.J. Swearinger and Zach Brown talked throughout the week leading up the game that the Redskins must deliver consistent performances to be taking seriously as a contender. Both players delivered. Swearinger forced a fumble, and recovered the ball, in the first half and Brown led the game with nine tackles.

Brown's lateral speed was on display throughout the contest and paired with Mason Foster, the front seven played a stout game. Washington gave up just two big bulk plays, both in the pass game, that accounted for most of the Dallas offensive production. 

Honorable Mention:

  • The Redskins won in Week 6 against the Panthers because they forced three turnovers and played good defense. That formula worked again on Sunday, as the defense forced two turnovers and gave up just 10 points.
     
  • Don't look now but the Redskins special teams are balling, again. Punter Tress Way played a great game, and in a field position battle, he was vital. Often kicking on a short field, Way never kicked a ball into the end zone and repeatedly pinned the Cowboys inside their own 20. Against an offense as incapable as the Cowboys, that kind of performance on special teams goes a long way. 

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The Redskins' offense has been bad all year, but they're atrocious on opening drives

The Redskins' offense has been bad all year, but they're atrocious on opening drives

No matter how you break it down — by quarter, by month, by time of day, by location, by whether the opponent has an animal mascot or a human mascot — the numbers show that the Redskins have a really ineffective offense. Currently, they're last in the NFL in points per game and yards per game.

They're bad all the time, honestly.

However, they're downright atrocious when it comes to their opening drives.

In Week 1 against the Eagles, the Redskins scored a touchdown on their opening possession. It was fun. The players had fun. The fans had fun. Everybody had fun.

But since then, they haven't notched a single TD on a first drive. In fact, they haven't converted a field goal, either.

Overall, in their 13 game-opening possessions on the year, Washington has that single end zone trip to go along with a missed kick, seven punts, two fumbles and two interceptions (one of which was taken back for a score).

What's the opposite of coming out hot? The 2019 Redskins' offense.

"I'm tired of the slow starts, our guys are, too," Bill Callahan said Wednesday. "That's the goal of the first drive of the game — try to jump ahead, get ahead, find a way to get on the board early. We haven't succeeded at that." 

The issue is registering with Dwayne Haskins, too. So, what can they possibly do to try to improve?

"Just trying to figure out a way we can move the ball early, not getting behind the chains, finding lanes and getting the ball out fast," the quarterback said. "It helps our defense when we come off fast and move the ball down the field and not put them in a tough scenario with having a short field."

Many have complained about the offense's run-first approach being too predictable under Callahan, and that's something that could be plaguing them at the beginning of their contests. Since he took over as interim coach, for example, the offense has run the ball on their first snap in six-of-eight matchups, including four-out-of-five with Haskins under center.

Of course, this is an area where Jay Gruden struggled as well, but his tendencies weren't as obvious. Plus, and yes, this is minutiae now, he did call two play-action shots in Weeks 2 and 4 that schemed up wide-open receivers that Case Keenum simply missed. He was also in charge for that lone touchdown in Philly.

The most obvious explanation for the problem, however, is one that can explain a lot of things this season: an overall lack of talent. As mentioned at the start of the story, it's not like the offense gets into a rhythm at any point, so their numbers will be underwhelming in any situation or sample.

That said, even with an inexperienced and undermanned group, there should be more production than one TD in 13 chances. Callahan told the media that "we put a lot of thought, focus and concentration" into the early-game plan. Clearly, it's not paying off.

In many ways, the Redskins have fallen behind the rest of the NFL over the past few months. The stats above show that, at least in one way, that's literally very true.  

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With three NFC East games to go, don't tell Bill Callahan that the rest of the Redskins season is meaningless

With three NFC East games to go, don't tell Bill Callahan that the rest of the Redskins season is meaningless

When December ends and a new decade is upon us, the Redskins will be doing something that's become far too familiar for the franchise over the past several years: watching the NFL playoffs from home. 

For all intents and purposes, since Washington has been officially eliminated from playoff contention following their Week 14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the final three games of their 2019 campaign are meaningless. 

But don't tell that to interim head coach Bill Callahan.

While Callahan is likely on his way out the door after 2019 -- the team will almost certainly hire a new head coach and potentially make changes in the front office -- he still has plenty he wants to prove. And that starts with winning games in the division.

"I want to see us compete in the divisional games. We haven't been good," Callahan said. "I think we're 0-7 in our last divisional games. That hits hard. We're 0-5 against Philly in our last five games. So I'd like to see a competitive effort against the division. This is a chance to redeem ourselves in a lot of ways."

Part of the reason the Redskins have struggled to put together winning seasons over the past few years has been their struggles within the NFC East. Echoing Callahan's comments, the Burgundy and Gold have dropped seven straight divisional contests, including an 0-3 record this season. They finished 2-4 within the division in 2018 and 1-5 in 2017. The last time they finished with a division record above .500 was 2015, which was also the last time they won the division.

That record looks even worse when the NFC East is in the conversation for one of the worst divisions in NFL history. Currently, the 6-7 Dallas Cowboys hold the tiebreaker over the 6-7 Philadelphia Eagles for the top spot. 

During Washington's three divisional losses this season, it's been outscored 87-51, including an embarrassing 24-3 loss in Week 4 to the currently 2-11 New York Giants.

"These three divisional opponents, we didn't do well at the beginning of the year," Callahan said. "We've got a challenge. We have a chance to rectify that and make it right."

In what has turned into a disappointing and lost season for the Redskins, there are still a few bright spots and building blocks for the future. Rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin has emerged as a legit NFL wide receiver. Running back Derrius Guice has struggled to stay on the field but has been a force when playing. Dwayne Haskins has had his fair share of growing pains but also gave few glimpses of what he's capable of down the line.

Callahan wants to use the final three division games as a way to demonstrate to his young core that divisional games are one of the most critical things to succeed in the NFL.

"[I want to] really set the tone for next season. We have a lot of young players, players that are going to be here," Callahan said. "They've got to realize that the divisional games are the most critical games. Just because it does tie into your playoff factor initially. You're going to see these teams twice a year. It gives you a catalyst if you win those games and then begin to compete."

This week poses an opportunity for the Redskins to play the spoiler role. If they beat Philadelphia, the Eagles' playoff chances look bleak. Washington hasn't beaten Philadelphia since 2016.

Many current Redskins remember the image of FedEx Field in Week 17 last year. The stadium was a sea of people sporting Eagles' green and black as they shut out the Redskins, 24-0. While defeating the Eagles would not mean much in terms of the Redskins' 2019 season, a victory over Philadelphia would go a long way moving forward.

"I think our guys are all playing for something: pride," Callahan said. "Division games are always great battles. You never know how those are going to end. They're always tight, close games. This will be a lot of fun, and we're looking forward to the challenge on Sunday."

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