The Redskins on Monday take on the Dallas Cowboys in a 'Monday Night Football' matchup at AT&T Stadium. DallasCowboys.com staff writer writer David Helman (@HelmanDC on Twitter) gives us an insider's look at the major storylines for the opposing team heading into the matchup.
Redskins.com: The Cowboys are obviously off to a tremendous start. Some might point to an improved defense, while others might point to an improved offensive line as the main reason behind the Dallas surge so far this season. What do you think is the primary reason? And is it something else?
Helman: "I think those two things you mentioned go hand-in-hand. The offensive line and DeMarco Murray are running the ball extremely well, and it's keeping the Dallas defense off the field. The Cowboys have won the time of possession battle in six of their seven games – on a few occasions they've controlled the ball for as many as 37 to 41 minutes.
The Cowboys have also been absurdly good on third downs this season. They're converting 57 percent of their third downs in the season – best in the league by a wide margin. Last weekend against New York, they converted on 64 percent.
With the offense dictating the tempo like that, there hasn't been nearly as much pressure on the defense. That's not to say they haven't improved, though. This year the Cowboys are about average in every major statistic, but that's a tremendous improvement from last year, when they were dead-last.
So it's a little bit of both. The defense has improved, but a lot of that has to do with the Dallas offense being able to control games from the get-go."
Redskins.com:DeMarco Murray has just been lights out for the Cowboys this season, leading the league in rushing by a wide margin through seven weeks. He's obviously displayed flashes of his skills throughout his career, but where exactly is this coming from? Helman:"I don't want to take anything away from Murray. He's been tremendously talented his entire career, if you'll remember back to his 253-yard game as a rookie, or even the last seven games of 2013 when he averaged 95 yards per game down the stretch.
That said, you can't deny the impact this offensive line has made. The Cowboys have famously drafted offensive linemen in three of their past four drafts, and all three of them – Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin – are playing like first-round picks. On top of that, guys like Jason Witten and even Dez Bryant have bought into this run-first mentality, and you can see them springing Murray on the outside with blocks of their own.
It's all led to a commitment to the run game that hasn't been seen here in a while. In the past, Murray might have 12 carries for 50 yards at halftime, and then hardly be heard from again. This year, the Cowboys are dedicated to feeding him in any situation, and it's paying off for them."
Redskins.com:What do you attribute to the Cowboys' improvements on the defensive side of the ball? Was last season just an outlier for Dallas defensively?
Helman: "The place I'd probably start is the linebackers. The entire position looked bleak in May, when Sean Lee tore his ACL and was moved to injured reserve. The Cowboys were looking at Bruce Carter, who was underwhelming in 2013, and Justin Durant, who had been hampered by injuries throughout last season, as their top two linebackers. The decision to trade for Rolando McClain seemed like a desperation move, at best.
Fast forward five months, and the linebackers are arguably the best unit on the defense. McClain is playing himself into consideration for Comeback Player of the Year, and Durant is playing more like the 100-tackle linebacker Dallas signed from Detroit.
A look back at some of the top sacks in games between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
The secondary has also improved tremendously after a second year in Rod Marinelli's scheme. Orlando Scandrick has been the team's best corner since returning from suspension, and you don't see Cowboys defensive backs getting burned for many long gains – which was a common sight in 2013.
The pass rush is the weak link, as the Cowboys are tied for 30th in the league with a mere six sacks. But the defense has been able to mask that problem to this point."
Redskins.com:The Redskins are going to be without Brian Orakpo for the rest of the year, but still have some quality pass rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and former Cowboy Jason Hatcher. Tony Romo is being kept clean much more often this season so far – how important will it be for the Dallas offensive line to keep guys like Kerrigan and Hatcher in check so that Romo can be comfortable in and out of the pocket?
Helman: "Over the last few weeks, Dallas has seen a couple of very encouraging signs when it comes to Tony Romo and how he can deal with pressure. Firstly, after having season-ending back surgery and recovering throughout the past year, Romo has finally started to show the maneuverability and escapability that helped make him famous.
The fear was that Romo would be slowed and hampered by that injury, but that hasn't been the case, as he's made several highlight plays this season after dodging oncoming pressure.
Secondly, he's proven that he can take hits and be OK. Seattle's Bobby Wagner delivered what looked like a season-ending knockout blow on Romo two weeks ago. After spending several minutes on the turf, Romo got up and proceeded to play a fantastic game in the 30-23 win against the Seahawks. The Cowboys obviously don't want their quarterback taking shots like that, but it made a statement about where Romo is in his recovery from that injury."
Redskins.com:Cowboys fans have, of recent, seen this story before, where the team looks great during the regular season, but can't find a way to get it done in the postseason. With postseason play obviously still more than eight weeks away, how excited are the Dallas fans for the start this team has gotten off to? Do you think they're being cautiously optimistic at all?
Helman:"The buzz around this team has obviously built considerably from Week 1, when it was about as low as it could get following an ugly loss to San Francisco.
The evidence is undeniable, whether you're looking at Twitter activity, ESPN coverage – what have you. There's a marked difference between last year and this year when you're talking about the attention being paid to the Cowboys.
That said, I think a lot of fans are still holding their collective breaths, so to speak. With a few exceptions, it's been a pretty lean decade for the Cowboys – punctuated by three consecutive 8-8 seasons. Right now, I think fans are just appreciating the success, and they're waiting patiently for the Cowboys to cross that eight-game barrier. If this team crosses the .500 mark and is looking at double-digit wins on the season, I think you'll see the hype kick up even more than it already is."