First off, let me say that Cowboys-Redskins is my favorite sports rivalry. I hate the Eagles and LA Angels more and all, but this series is the zaniest, least predictable in the storied NFC East, and virtually every big season in the history of these two franchises contains a great story from one or both of the Dallas-Washington games. Dallas swept the pair last season, but the first was a 7-6 heap of gunk that was saved by a late fourth quarter score. Tonight may not be much different.
Cowboys OL Play
The elephant in the room for typically optimistic Cowboys fans is the mess of an offensive line. It's a dicey enough group with Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode all needing comeback seasons in their early 30s and Doug Free - even with a solid half season and a promising camp under his belt - still unproven as a left tackle. But with last season's rock, Kyle Kosier, out, along with Colombo, both sides of the line are further weakened. Washington is solid but unspectacular in the interior - at least when Albert Haynesworth is not steamrolling at 100% - with Adam Carriker, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Kedric Golston, so I have hope that Montrae Holland will hold his own.
I'm less hopeful about Alex Barron. Washington will likely move Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter around to create the most favorable matchups, and either is scary. Both had 11 sacks last season and are powerful rushers. Barron will probably get lots of help, both in the passing game and the running game, so that will chew up personnel. Without real strength on either side, Dallas figures to struggle to run the ball and, without Kosier's line calls, will likely struggle with Jim Haslett's aggressive style.
Snaps For Cowboys Skill Personnel
Jerry Jones paid Marion Barber and Roy Williams a ton of money and then kept both around this summer while he let other expensive, underperforming players go. Both have explosive talents behind them but have held onto starting roles for, well, I'm not quite sure why. Williams did zilch against Washington last year, and Dallas needs guys on the field tonight who can make things happen on their own. Bryant is that kind of player, but this will be his first appearance in any kind of organized pro football game or scrimmage.
After talk during the spring that Felix Jones was ready to take the starting job, camp seemed to convince Jones and his coaches otherwise, at least on the surface. Many fans and observers, me included, think that Dallas would be more successful if Barber has the third most carries among their three backs. Will he have enough in his lighter body to prove us wrong behind a scuffling line, and, if not, will Jason Garrett continue to run him out there for a vast majority of the carries even though he's outperformed by both backups, as he did last year?
Cowboys TEs Versus Redskins Safeties
When the line holds its own in the passing game, the are matchups to be exploited in the middle of the field, as LeRon Landry makes mistakes and Kareem Moore is doubtful for the game. Jason Witten went for 117 yards last year in Washington, and he and Martellus Bennett - or at least whichever of the two can be spared from the blocking scheme - will need to make plays. Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall are solid corners who had success last season against Dallas. Miles Austin didn't reach 100 yards or score in either game, and the rest of Dallas' receivers had negligible impact, outside of Patrick Crayton's one 10-yard TD catch in Dallas. On paper, Dallas needs to win the TE/S matchup to move the ball successfully.
Cowboys Offensive Packages
Early in camp, Dallas seemed destined once again to feature loads of two and even three TE sets. John Phillips' knee injury ruined some of that, as his versatility and high end blocking ability created a lot of the value in those sets. If Barron does need help - and I have to think that he will - Dallas will need to feature a FB or an extra TE. That means fewer 3+ WR sets and generally fewer receivers in routes.
New Redskins OTs Versus Cowboys OLBs
Washington has drastically upgraded their tackles, but Trent Williams is a rookie, and Jammal Brown a) should be a little rusty at RT after missing all of last season and playing the previous three years at LT and b) is a bit overrated to begin with. Still, with the trouble that the Dallas offense figures to have, their defense needs to be fairly dominant. One of their greatest strengths is the OLB pair of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, so these guys need to play large.
Can The Skins Establish The Run Early?
Mike Shanahan brings his running scheme to Washington, and, on paper, the personnel in this offense seems to dictate that the Redskins will be a running and play-action passing offense. Donovan McNabb has been up-and-down against Dallas in recent years, but he has a great ability to find plays down the field when he is given or can create the time to throw. Likewise, Santana Moss has been maybe the Cowboys' biggest down field problem for years now, and Chris Cooley could create issues against Dallas' unproven cover safeties.
This is all of much greater concern if Washington has success running the ball early and sucks Dallas safeties forward. And this, combined with the ugly possibilities if Carter, Orakpo and Haynesworth can pin their ears back and Haslett has the leeway to call exotic blitzes, is why an early lead would be huge for the Cowboys.
David Buehler doesn't strike me as the type who will allow pressure to get the better of him, so I'm not concerned about a choke in his first potential pressure kick. What I do worry a little about is whether his excitement and adrenaline will cause him to rush things, especially if he has an early opportunity. This figures to be a tight, low scoring one, so at the least he needs to hit everything inside of 40 yards.
Will McNabb's Ankle Give Him Problems?
A hobbled Donovan McNabb has been a very good thing for Dallas in the past. If he can't move around much or if his lead ankle affects his throws, the task of holding this offense to two scores or less is much easier.
As with really any Cowboys game in Washington, aesthetics mean nothing. Even the worst Redskins teams have been capable of beating good Cowboys teams with enough emotion and luck. With two offensive linemen out, a star rookie seeing his very first game action, and five pretty poor preseason first halfs under Dallas' belts, these Skins eeeeasily can. Scratch out a win, stay relatively healthy, and it's a great night in the capital.