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3 keys to Washington upsetting the Cowboys in Week 18


The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

The Washington Commanders are set to finish up the 2022 season with a home matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. Here are three keys to victory, presented by KIA.

1. How can Washington manage explosive plays from Dallas' offense?

Logan: Dallas' offense is surprisingly conservative. It's a run-first unit that leans on Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. In the first matchup, Washington did an excellent job of keeping this element of Dallas' game in check. However, the area that hurt Washington was Dallas' ability to find big plays like the long catch-and-run CeeDee Lamb had into Jamin Davis’ coverage. 

In the case of Davis, fans were outraged that he was placed into coverage against one of the league's best receivers in Lamb. However, Davis did an excellent job of matching Lamb and taking him away later in the game. On the first rep, Dallas motioned Lamb to a stack look behind tight end Dalton Schultz, getting to a two-by-two formation. Based on how Davis played it, he had to reroute the No. 2 receiver and make that player widen, which gave the safeties and corners time to react to deeper concepts. Dallas understood this and had Lamb work a delayed switch release, making Lamb the new No. 2. Davis was in a bad position and widened with the Schultz, which gave Lamb a window to come underneath and into the middle of the field. Lamb took advantage of the misalignment for a big play.  

On the second rep, Dallas motioned to the exact same formation. This time, Davis recognized the look and was more conservative to get hands on the tight end, waiting for Lamb to break underneath. Davis reacted and was in perfect position to make a play on the ball.

The mistake by Davis on the first explosive play to Lamb is a microcosm of how Dallas finds their big plays on the season. The play described above is not unique or even challenging to cover, but Dallas did an excellent job of confusing Davis's coverage rules with a novel look. The had success with this against Philly as well.

The answer on how to manage explosive plays is simple and boring: practice and reps. This is where the scripted plays for practice and walkthrough during the week become invaluable and are also one of the most challenging things about coaching. There are only a finite number of things the coach can show their players and review during the week. That's where an understanding of what the position does well and how they have attacked similar defense becomes invaluable.

The defensive staff has done a solid job of this. This week, Jack Del Rio and his staff will review the plays that Dallas made on them in the first matchup, but Dallas also knows that they will have new variations of those same plays. Experienced defenders understand this and make decisions on the fly, which is one of the reason's veterans are so valuable. However, there will be a lot of new young faces playing for the Commander's defense.

Zach: It is not a coincidence that Washington's defense had two of its worst defensive performances with Kam Curl and Benjamin St-Juste out. It severely limited what Washington can do in terms of mixing personnel in the secondary, and that will likely be the same on Sunday with St-Juste on Injured Reserve and Curl questionable.

With his best cornerback out and Curl's status in question, Del Rio will need to mix and match with the players he has at his disposal. It will be a challenge, but keeping Dak Prescott guessing on his reads is the best way to limit the Cowboys on offense to me.

The main concern for me is whether Washington can stick to its three safety look, which is what gives the unit the most success. If Curl does not play, this will rest on Percy Butler, who should get more playing time regardless of whether Curl plays or not. Butler was drafted for his physicality and ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which Rivera said when he was drafted played a factor in the Commander taking him in the fourth round.

Logan will get into his evaluation of Butler later, but I'm excited to see how Butler handles being thrown into a game against a difficult offense. If he can hold his own, I like Washington's chances to limit some of the Cowboys' explosive plays.

2. What can Washington do to highlight Sam Howell's strengths?

Logan: The moment fans have been waiting for is here. Sam Howell, the talented fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, is going to get the start. Physically, his talent is undeniable. Prior to the start of the 2021 college season, teams were talking about him being the first pick overall. His arm strength, quick release, movement in the pocket and his competitive nature were on display.

Despite his talent, there are issues. Howell is raw with some of the technical elements. His foot work, timing and anticipation were concerning in college, which is part of the reason for his slide in the draft.

In the preseason, fans were privy to the full Howell experience with his dynamic arm and excellent mobility the next to score a touchdown with his legs. However, his deficiencies were also on display, specifically not keeping to the rhythm of the play, often brought on by poor footwork.

In my opinion, this is the single most significant distinguishing factor between college and starting NFL quarterbacks when it comes to executing an offense. Good starting quarterbacks feel the timing of the play with their footwork and know when the ball must be out of their hands. Howell struggles in this area, relying instead on his arm strength to get the ball where it needs to be on time.

The Washington Commanders wrapped up their week of preparation for the Dallas Cowboys on Friday afternoon. Here are the top photos from the day. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders

I believe this is the main reason the Commanders staff was reluctant for Howell to play this year. While I do have my reservations, especially with Howell going against the vaunted Dallas pass rush, I am excited to see what he can do. He brings a combination of arm talent and quick release that neither Carson Wentz nor Taylor Heinicke has. And while anticipation is a huge factor in being successful, Howell's arm talent counts for a lot.

For him to be successful, Scott Turner must manage the risk Howell sees on a down to down basis. A major component of that is keeping Dallas' pass rush off balance. Schematically, Dallas wants to rush the passer. Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is trying to remove all thinking for his defensive front to let them play fast.

Turner needs to give Dallas' front multiple things to think to keep them quiet. Ron Rivera has said multiple times they are going to try and run the ball to insulate Howell. This is the right call, but I would like to see Turner work on the rhythm of his play calls much like he did against Atlanta on that first drive, starting with a play action pass. If Turner can call that style of game, that should give Howell time in the pocket and the ability to execute the offense. If Turner doesn't do that and gets out of rhythm, not only will it be a long day for Howell, but it would be a long day for any offense.

Zach: Howell was my favorite quarterback during the draft process. I understood the point Logan made about his footwork, but I loved the arm strength, which I thought could be fun to watch when paired with the weapons on the Commanders' offense.

This game does not mean anything for the Commanders with them being eliminated from postseason contention, but this is still Howell's first start against one of the best defenses in the league. Turner will need to work quickly to make sure he is comfortable, and to me, the best way to do that is to highlight what Howell does best.

For Howell, that means using his arm strength to stretch the field. That does not mean Washington is going to turn into Air Raid offense. The unit is still going to run the ball and control the clock. However, I would like to see Howell put some of the arm strength on display with longer developing routes if the pass protection can hold up.

Fortunately, Howell will have plenty of receivers who can make contested catches. His connection with Dyami Brown has already been pointed out, but Jahan Dotson and Terry McLaurin excel at coming down with receptions in tough situations.

With Washington depleted at multiple positions, I have no idea if the team will win. However, seeing Howell play free could be.

3. Who are some younger players you want to see more of this week?

Logan: There are two in the tight end room and one in the secondary. Armani Rogers and Cole Turner have played a lot and performed well as blockers, but I would love to see what these big young athletes can do with more opportunities in the passing game.

Turner flashed elite hands and body control in camp. Seeing him compete for and consistently win 50/50 balls int the red zone got me excited for him as situational pass-catcher in the season. Obviously, that didn't work out, but maybe there is an opportunity to see what his future could look like in this offense.

Rodgers is also an interesting one. Every time he has touched the ball, something special seems to happen. His combination of size and speed puts him in rarified air from an athletic trait's standpoint. Someone on the staff told me they thought he could play wide receiver. After watching him grow at the position, I understand why they said that. I know he is nursing an injury and might not play, but I would love to see him get a couple of targets and see those explosive traits at work.

The third guy I can't wait to see is Butler. He has played a on special teams and is one of the reasons Tress Way made the pro bowl this year. He has had limited snaps on defense, but when he has played, it looks as if it's hard for him to get into a rhythm. I am hoping that he builds some confidence and finds a rhythm, because when he plays decisively, he has the potential to be something special.

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