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The League - Cowboys/Redskins Monday Night Preview

Dear Kevin Ogletree – if Jerry Jones asks you to descend via zipline from the JerryVision screen down to field level during player introductions, politely decline.

Attention, Jesse Holley – should Marketing request that you leap into a ring full of pit bulls at the 50 yard line during an NFL Anti-Dog Fighting Awareness presentation at halftime, tell them you really need to see the trainer to get an IV.

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Cowboys have seemed intent on injuring their primary receiving options by asking them to perform actions well removed from their primary area of value add. Dez Bryant got a thigh contusion while working as a punt returner, and Miles Austin re-aggravated his hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of a stellar Week Two receiving performance when he took part in a complete clownball fiasco cunningly designed play wherein he took a toss from the RB position which got him annihilated because his alignment made him the sole focus of the defense was shockingly sniffed out by the canny 49ers. The upshot of all this is that the Cowboys are facing their division rival Redskins sans Austin, with a possibly hobbled Bryant and a flak-jacket-swaddled Romo, thus transforming an eminently winnable game into a likely 60-minute dogfight.

Let’s check out a few of the key matchups for the JerryWorld home opener and try to foretell some of what we’ll see in tonight’s action.

When the Cowboys Run

The Cowboy ground game can be politely described as ‘sputtering like a waterboarded Gitmo detainee’ two games into the season, with primary runner/porcelain figurine Felix Jones managing a paltry 2.7 yards per carry through two games. These games did come against a stout Jets run defense (Sunday’s Darren McFadden evisceration notwithstanding) and a 49ers unit that seems to be weathering the losses of Aubrayo Franklin and Takeo Spikes pretty well thusfar, but 2.7 a pop isn’t going to cut it. You could expect some early season growing pains with a young and reshuffled line, and their unit cohesion has been further damaged by a rotating cast of interior OL due to injuries. Tonight’s lineup looks to start out with:

LT – Doug Free (Flawless against the Jets, horrid against the 49ers)

LG – Bill Nagy (Rookie 7th rounder coming off a neck injury, in for an injured Derrick Dockery)

C – Phil Costa (back after missing a game with a balky knee)

RG – Kyle Kosier (healthy, mobile and, as always, lacking in power)

RT – Tyron Smith (pretty much the sole bright spot to date)

With both Nagy and Costa playing hobbled, don’t be shocked to see 4th round rookie David Arkin and/or undrafted rookie center Kevin Kowalski log some time in this one. Fortunately, this rag-tag bunch can expect stout edge blocking from TE’s Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett – I would expect the Cowboys to run as much of a 2 tight end, run-heavy gameplan as their ground success allows them tonight.

They should enjoy more success than in their first two skull-cracking matchups, as they face a Redskins front seven that’s allowing 4.8 yards per carry through its first two contests. Former Cowboy Stephen Bowen has been the only plus run defender thusfar, with Giants import Barry Cofield struggling to adapt to his new noseguard responsibilities and DE Adam Carriker continuing the fecal play that has defined his NFL career to date. ILB Julia Louis-Dreyfus London Fletcher-Baker hasn’t let age or a questionable hyphenation decision impact his solid work against the run, but Rocky McIntosh is easily handled if the Cowboys can get blockers to the second level. The return of SS Lawan Landry should help the Redskins out in the alley, and he teams with capable FS O.J. Atogwe to put a damper on the Cowboys’ chances of breaking too many long runs.

Stats Prediction: 25 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD

When the Cowboys Throw

When Romo has been upright and not aspirating his own blood the Cowboys’ passing attack has been stout in 2011. His twin fourth-quarter TIMMAH!s against the Jets obscure an otherwise stellar effort, and after his return in Candlestick he absolutely eviscerated the 49ers. It’s one step forward, one step back in the weapons department as Dez Bryant returns just as the Cowboys lose Mile Austin, but Witten has been unstoppable and slot options Kevin Ogletree and Jesse Holley have each shown promising signs thusfar. The Cowboys looked like a fantastic screen team in the preseason, and hopefully this is the game that Felix or DeMarco Murray can pop a long gainer – the screen game will come in handy as the Cowboys look to protect Tony’s ribs and counter-act DC Jim Haslett’s fire zone blitzes. The big question is Romo’s pain tolerance and durability, but if he’s on the Cowboys have the weapons to move the ball consistently.

None of the Redskins’ front three has mounted much of a pass rush threat to date (although Cofield and Bowen were capable in their former stops), so most of the responsibility for applying heat falls to OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Both have identical 1-sack, 1-hit, 5-pressure lines through two games this season, and their matchups with the Cowboys’ OTs will go a long way towards determining both the outcome on the scoreboard and the structural integrity of Romo’s rib cage. I think the Cowboys win this blocking matchup, but Free will need to avoid moments like the bitch-slapping on a simple inside rip move that he took from 49ers rookie Aldon Smith last week. The Skins’ ILBs have had each had a positive impact on their pass defense efforts so far, with Courtney Thorne-Smith London Fletcher-Baker proving effective as a blitzer and Rocky McIntosh looking good in coverage. I don’t think any ILB in the league can slow down the Romo-Witten connection right now, so I’m more concerned with LFB’s blitzes – especially with the Cowboys’ interior OL experiencing enough flux to transport a DeLorean back in time. The Redskins’ corners are beatable, with Josh Wilson playing somewhat below 2010’s high standard so far and DeAngelo Hall continuing to profile as a gambling trash-talker who is consistently torched by on-target throws.

Stats Prediction: 37 throws, 270 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

When the Redskins Run

While the Redskins’ run game hasn’t called to mind Mike Shanahan’s elite ground attack from his Denver days, it’s been steady and effective thusfar. LT Trent Williams has done a strong job setting the edge in the run game thusfar, and DE Kenyon Coleman will have to work hard to get a stalemate here. Undersized G Corey Lichtensteiger (whose name appears to be German for Lick Her, Then Stick Her) has played far better in 2011 than he did last year, and Ravens import Chris Chester has been solid as well while C Will Montgomery has been a huge upgrade over Casey Rabach. All in all it’s a much better run-blocking bunch than the Redskins employed last year. Featured halfback Tim Hightower hasn’t taken full advantage of this bunch yet – likely due in part to the adjustment to Shanahan’s blocking schemes after his time in Arizona – but he’s capable of doing damage with good blocking as his league-leading 9.3 yards per ‘well blocked’ play in 2010 can attest. Nebraska rookie Roy Helu has hardly seen the field thusfar, but he could serve as a speedy change of pace for a series or two.

The Cowboys have acquitted themselves admirably in run defense thusfar in 2010, and their biggest challenge tonight will be staying disciplined in their run fits (despite their dizzying array of pre-snap alignments and blitzes) to avoid allowing the punishing cutbacks that are the staple of a Mike Shanahan run game. NT Jay Ratliff’s play against the run has looked much more sound than it did during much of 2010, but he’ll face a tough test in Montgomery and will be punished in the run game if he tears upfield too quickly. DE’s Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears will be challenged but should be able to hold their ground, and if Sean Lee continues anything approaching his stellar play thusfar you’ll see a lot of Redskins runs snuffed out for 1-yard gains with a small white ball of hate wrapped around the RB’s ankles.

Stats Prediction: 22 carries, 77 yards, 1 TD

When the Redskins Throw

Sexy Rexy Grossman has defied some dire preseason predictions to helm an effective Washington pass attack so far. I’m convinced, however, that his turnover-prone ways can be uncovered should the Cowboys continue their high-pressure ways. Jamaal Brown isn’t as poor as the turnstile RT’s the Cowboys have whipped on the first two weeks, but he’ll provide an attractive opportunity for the Ware/Spencer/Butler edge rush troika and can get confused by stunts and delayed blitzes. Trent Williams has held up well in pass pro thusfar, and the Redskins interior OL has looked good as well. I still like Ryan’s blitz schemes to generate enough free runs and one on one matchups to generate solid pressure. He may have to dial back the overpressure a bit, however, as Shanahan loves to run screens for his backs (Hightower is very capable as a receiver) as well as hitting a number of WR screens to Moss.

Speaking of Moss, I would rather moisturize with bear mace than watch him truss up and ritually slaughter Terence Newman yet again, but the opportunity will be there as Newman figures to draw Moss as he operates out of his customary home in the slot. This is the scariest matchup on the field for the Cowboys as I see it, with the Redskins TEs (Fred Davis in particular) also capable of doing damage should the Cowboys’ safeties bite on play action.

Stats Prediction: 41 throws, 283 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INT

Overall Prediction

Something tells me the Cowboys pull this one out despite some obstacles as I think they’re the better team overall, but the uncertainty around Romo’s health and the likelihood of a key special teams breakdown or two along the way mean that I’d probably stay away from the -3.5 line. I’m calling it Cowboys 27, Redskins 21 and pulling hard for a ‘Boys victory in advance of what looks to be a legitimately scary Lions matchup next week.

How do you see it?