After a Week 11 win over the Minnesota Vikings, “America’s Team” gets to celebrate its traditional Thanksgiving Day game with a renewed playoff outlook. Despite the 3-7 record, the Cowboys find themselves a half-game out of first place in the mediocre (to be kind) NFC East. Of course, the same can be said for the Washington Football Team, which also improved to 3-7 following Week 11 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals — Alex Smith’s first win as a starter since 2018. In a wide-open division, the winner of this game could potentially have a leg up on the competition going forward. Here are the keys to success for these storied franchises:
Keys to the game for the Washington Football Team:
1. Continue to utilize Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic
Although Washington may not have many name-brand playmakers on offense, this team has clearly been at its best when Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic have been huge playmakers out of the backfield. Outside of star receiver Terry McLaurin, Gibson and McKissic have easily been two of the biggest contributors on Washington’s offense this season. Not only are the two of them good options in the run game, they are also good options out of the backfield in the passing game. This was evident in the Week 10 loss to the Detroit Lions, when McKissic led the team in targets with 15 while Gibson had an additional four targets. McKissic also had a team-high in receptions with seven and Gibson had four. With Smith as the starting quarterback, the running backs have seen an uptick in targets. It won’t be surprising if this is the case again. When Washington defeated the Cowboys in Week 7, Gibson and McKissic played more of a factor in the run game as the two backs combined for 163 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries. With the Cowboys giving up the second-most rushing yards per game in the league at 153.8, the use of running backs should be a point of emphasis for Washington in order to secure a season sweep of Dallas.
2. Get Logan Thomas involved in the passing game
One thing that Washington has lacked this season is a reliable receiving option next to McLaurin. Even though McKissic and Gibson have been factors in the passing game, Washington’s passing offense has been very easy to defend when McLaurin is taken out of the equation. Dallas’ pass defense has steadily improved this season as it ranks 14th in passing yards allowed (232.6). This makes finding tight end Logan Thomas the second time important for Washington to win this game. In the first matchup between these two teams, Thomas had a solid day as he caught all four of his targets for 60 yards and a touchdown. Smith and Thomas haven’t had quite the same rapport with each other as Thomas did with Kyle Allen and Dwayne Haskins, but Thomas proved in that Week 10 loss to Detroit that he was still a viable option. As Dallas currently gives up 43.7 yards per game to tight ends, Washington should attempt to raise this number by making Thomas a focal point along with McLaurin. Furthermore, if Dallas gears up for the Football Team’s run game, Thomas becomes a viable option due to his 6-6 frame if he is in one-on-one coverage against a smaller safety. This should especially help him in the red zone if Dallas sells out on the run. Also, with the Football Team adding in a wrinkle with Thomas in the run game, this could also help Washington to get him going. Washington can’t be solely dependent on McLaurin in the passing game, especially in a game of this magnitude.
3. Contain Ezekiel Elliott once again
It is clear that Dallas’ offense is not the same when Ezekiel Elliott isn’t productive in the run game. Per Fox, Elliott had not scored a rushing touchdown in the Cowboys’ past five games which was a big reason why Dallas has been getting off to slow starts. This was very much the case in the first matchup between these two teams as Elliott only had 12 rushes for 45 yards. In Dallas’ five-game losing streak following the devastating injury to star quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott only averaged 41.6 yards per game. Meanwhile, Dallas’ offense only scored more than 10 points once during this skid, which was a Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even with the plethora of receivers that Dallas has, Dallas’ offense goes through the former Buckeye. This is why the Washington Football Team needs to ensure he does not have another game similar to the one he had against Minnesota last week that saw him rush for 103 yards and a touchdown while also being a factor in the passing game. Dallas scored 31 points in this game, the most points since Prescott got injured, and Zeke’s rushing abilities, along with Tony Pollard, created a lot of problems for a decent Minnesota rush defense. This also opened up the passing game as Ceedee Lamb and Amari Cooper were able to get involved along with Michael Gallup. The key to stopping Dallas is to stop Elliott. This offense gets complacent when he is not able to open things up on the ground.
Keys to the game for the Dallas Cowboys:
1. O-line needs to replicate strong Week 11 performance
The Dallas offensive front has shown almost no semblance of the top 5 unit that it was just one year ago. Their struggles are a result of injuries, leaving the front five with little to no continuity each week. In their first eight games, the Cowboys tried five different OL configurations. The offensive line’s performance in Week 11, however, might have shed some hope for Mike McCarthy and his offense. The switch between All-Pro right guard Zack Martin and second-year guard Connor McGovern seemed to work in the Cowboy’s favor. Against the Vikings, they only gave up one sack for 7 yards, tying their lowest sack total on the year. In the previous meeting between these two teams in Week 7, the Dallas offensive front surrendered 6 sacks for 55 yards. The Washington defensive line continues to be a handful for all teams across the NFL – they’re second in the league in total sacks with 28, averaging 3.1 sacks/game. Washington enters the game sixth in QB pressure percentage at 25.2%. Keeping Andy Dalton on his feet and giving him enough time to get the ball into the hands of the Dallas play makers will be key to a Cowboys win.
2. Continue to possess balance on offense
The deep talent on the offensive side of the ball finally came alive in unison for the Cowboys in their win over the Vikings. Dalton completed passes to eight different receivers; veteran Cooper and rookie Lamb led the way with 81 and 34 yards, respectively. The run game finally got going as well; Elliot tallied his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, averaging a season-high 4.9 yards/carry. RB Tony Pollard added a nice change of pace out of the backfield, carrying the ball 5 times for 60 yards. This was the most balanced Dallas has looked all season on the offensive side of the ball. When Dallas squared off against Washington in Week 7, Lamb was held to 0 receptions on 5 targets. Cooper was the only WR that caught a reception; he accounted for 70% of the team’s passing yardage. Elliott was held 45 yards on 12 carries, his second lowest total on the season thus far. Dallas was unable to muster more than 3 points against the Washington defense earlier this year. In order to come out victorious, Dallas must spread the ball around and try to keep Washington guessing.
3. Winning in the Red Zone
Dallas has to win the red-zone battle on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball on Thursday to go home with a win. Red-zone trips may be hard to come by for the Cowboys, which is why they will need to capitalize on these opportunities. Washington is only allowing 2.8 red-zone attempts/game, good for fourth in the NFL. Not only has the Football Team kept teams out of the red zone, they have made it difficult for their opponents to score once they are there. Opponents possess a 53.57% red-zone scoring percentage (TDs only) against the Washington defense, fifth in the NFL. The Cowboys offense has struggled in the red-zone this season, ranked 26th in both red-zone attempts/game (3.1) and red-zone scoring percentage (54.84%). Dallas enters the game allowing the most points/game (31.8 ppg). However, over the last three games Dallas is allowing 2.7 red-zone attempts/game, tied for fourth-fewest. Forcing Washington to kick field goals instead of scoring TDs is an area Dallas must focus on. In their last three games, the Cowboys are allowing the second-highest opponent red-zone TD percentage in the league at 87.5%. In their Week 7 matchup, Dallas was only able to muster one red-zone opportunity, while Washington had four. This game could very well come down to who wins in the red zone.
Stats from: TeamRankings, Pro-Football-Reference, ESPN