The Redskins.com crew breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday's Redskins-Cowboys 2015 Week 17 matchup in Arlington, Texas.
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This is, far and away, the Redskins' No. 1 goal heading into Sunday's game against the Cowboys.
In the grand scheme of things, this Week 17 matchup means nothing to either team. Washington, thanks to its victory last Saturday over the Philadelphia Eagles, has already clinched the NFC East title and the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs (as well as a first-round home game). Dallas, meanwhile, is simply looking to put an end to what has been a gravely disappointing 2015 season, one that, yes, has seen their Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo go down to injury, but has featured major slip-ups in other areas, leading to their 4-11 record heading into the regular-season finale.
So, if you're Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, you have the extremely tall task of determining which starters play on Sunday and, if they do get out on the field, how long do you leave them out there? As we all know, and without intending to sound grim, the more reps a player has, the greater chance they have at getting injured.
Gruden has said in the week leading up to the game that if you're a starter and you're healthy, you will play Sunday against the Cowboys, though he won't say how much. There is something major to be said about continuing the momentum of the team's hottest play of the season, as the Redskins enter AT&T Stadium on Sunday riding a three-game winning streak. They also would love to finish the season with an above-.500 record (9-7 as opposed to losing and moving to 8-8), as well as a 4-2 record in the division — and, really, the team would not like to be swept by a Dallas squad that has had nothing to celebrate in 2015.
Looking at the injury report, we already know rookie cornerback Quinton Dunbar and veteran safety Dashon Goldson will be out after not practicing all week due to injuries. Running back Rob Kelley and linebacker Perry Riley Jr. are also listed as doubtful, meaning there's a 75 percent chance they won't play.
The Redskins list five players as questionable: defensive back DeAngelo Hall, defensive end Jason Hatcher, tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Pierre Thomas. Now, the team has to dress 46 players for the game one way or another, so many of these players, in particular, might suit up, go through warmups and either play only a series or two or not play at all, unless called upon in some sort of emergency role.
Of those marked questionable, however, Williams, the four-time Pro Bowler, is the biggest question mark. Gruden said there's "probably not a lot" of benefit that comes with playing Williams if he's available, but not at top strength, in a game that means little.
"We'll have to wait and see how he does in pre-game warmup if we dress him, but there's a chance he won't dress," Gruden said. (By Andrew Walker)
The buzz word around Redskins Park this week has been momentum — as in keeping it for the playoffs.
That might prove to be difficult depending on how long Gruden decides to keep his starters in against the Cowboys on Sunday. He hasn't hinted too much this week about that decision, but keeping his offense's rhythm, even for just a quarter, will be a priority.
Last week in their victory over the Eagles, the Redskins found a lot of success spreading the ball around — first tight end Jordan Reed, then wide receiver Rob Kelley, then running back Pierre Thomas — and taking significant chunks of yardage before third down.
"Even if it's a three-yard gain as opposed to a minus-two-yard gain is very important," Gruden said. "Keeping us in positive down and distance was very beneficial, but guys making plays, the protection was sound, Kirk getting the ball out of his hands to the right people and the people getting open and making catches and runs after the catch. It's a combination of things."
The run game has still struggled to consistently impose its will and become a major threat in the offense. Last week Trent Williams rushed for just 49 yards and Thomas added 22. But, as had been the case for the second half of the season, keeping the play-calling balanced has worked just as effectively.
Cousins has thrown for four touchdowns in two consecutive games and needs just 10 yards to eclipse 4,000 for the season. It's likely he'll get that opportunity Sunday, to continue his record-breaking season and stay sharp for next week.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' offense preparing for their Week 17 match up against the Dallas Cowboys Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
While this particular Cowboys matchup might not have the same implications as previous regular season games, offensive line coach Bill Callahan should prove to be another reliable source – thanks to his time in Dallas — when it comes to preparing and protecting Cousins and Co. for the road ahead.
"He's gone against all these coaches and all these opponents at some point in his career — the defensive style, whether it's 3-4 or 4-3, so he knows how to adjust to each scheme, blitz schemes and all that stuff," Gruden said. "He's an excellent football coach been around and seen just about everything. He does have a little bit more insight this week knowing the personnel that we're going against."
Health, of course, is a primary concern for Gruden and will dictate who sees time on the field. Regardless, Cousins knows this is the last tune-up before the playoffs, a final chance to continue so much of the success they've had in the last three games – scoring 97 points in that span – to keep them confident as they return home.
"I think it's our job as football players to focus on the task at hand, which is the Dallas Cowboys. If we can't do that, then we probably shouldn't be playing at this level," Cousins said. "We've got a chance to go 4-2 in our division, get to 9-7, win our third straight road game…We've got a lot of good opportunities here in front of us. There is plenty to get excited about and to feel like we've got something to prove." (By Jake Kring-Schreifels)
The Cowboys' offense, just like the Redskins' defense, has had to overcome some serious injuries in 2015.
The headliner, of course, is Romo, who never really got into a groove this season after breaking his collarbone in Week 2 and then re-injuring it again on Thanksgiving night, ending his season.
In his place, the Cowboys have used Matt Cassell, Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore, the latter of which got his first career action against the New York Jets on Dec. 20 and made his first NFL start last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Moore has struggled so far, as he has just one touchdown to four interceptions in two games. But the Boise State product had one of the more prolific college careers in recent memory, aided by one of the most accurate arms in the game, so the Redskins' defenders know he's not some pushover under center.
"Kellen is a timing quarterback," said Redskins safety Jeron Johnson, who was a college teammate of Moore's. "He's going to put the ball on the money where it's supposed to be at the time it's supposed to be. We've just got to try and give him different looks out there. Our game plan doesn't change. He's not a scrambling or running quarterback, so we just have to be on our keys and don't give up the deep ball."
At running back, Darren McFadden has had a bounce-back campaign in his first season with the Cowboys, as the former first-round pick of the Oakland Raiders is just three yards shy of surpassing 1,000 yards.
Others running the ball for the Cowboys offense, like Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Christine Michael, are either no longer on the team or on Injured Reserve.
Dallas' top wide receiver – two-time Pro Bowler Dez Bryant – was placed on Injured Reserve this week as he's battled an ankle issue all season long.
In nine games, the Oklahoma State had 31 receptions for 401 yards and three touchdowns — all career lows.
But Terrance Williams (667 yards), Jason Witten (655) and Cole Beasley have each stepped up at times this season, and remain threats for the Washington secondary.
"This is the National Football League. You've got to be ready every week," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said in December. "Just like us, we've got to be ready no matter who that 11 is that breaks the huddle for us. Every play, we've got to be ready to play." (By Stephen Czarda)
Last season, Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy entered AT&T Stadium with the opportunity to make the start for the Redskins against the heavily-favored Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
The Texas product did a tremendous job managing the game in front of numerous family and friends — and millions watching at home — and the Redskins got on their team plane that night victorious with a 20-17 overtime win over their rivals.
McCoy that night completed 25-of-30 passes for 299 yards, and also added a 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. His clutch, on-target passing in overtime gave kicker Kai Forbath a very makeable 40-yard field goal attempt that would be the eventual game-winner, as the Redskins' defense would hold off Romo and Bryant on their only possession of overtime.
Why bring this up? Well, McCoy will likely get a chance to shine once again in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday, though the circumstances are drastically different.
While Gruden has maintained that Cousins will get the start on Sunday, mostly in an effort to keep up the momentum of a red-hot quarterback, it's likely that McCoy will get all the reps in at least the second half, if not more.
For McCoy — whose had three snaps all season, running out the clock in a blowout victory over the Saints — the game is a major opportunity for him to showcase how he's progressed as a quarterback in Gruden's system, as well as show the rest of the league what he can do. With major injuries to starting quarterbacks this year across the NFL, having a competent backup, we've seen, is a huge asset to any roster. Quality backups on the free agent market are few and far between.
McCoy certainly fills that mold, and he'll likely be called upon to run the offense on Sunday with some players around him who haven't had many chances to fully show what they can do throughout the year, either. With the potential for some new linemen up front, as well as some young receivers out wide, Sunday's game looks more like a preseason setting, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Redskins.
After all, McCoy thrived in similar conditions during the 2015 preseason, completing 41-of-57 passes (71.9 percent) for 416 yards with four touchdowns to no interceptions, for a team-best 115.8 quarterback rating.
"It definitely is a unique situation," McCoy said. "If I do get in, we'll be playing with guys that haven't played a whole lot all year: some new offensive linemen, new receivers, new tight ends. So I think the bottom line is to just go out there and execute what's called, regardless of who's out there with you, what you're playing with, or what the score is. I treat it as an opportunity to go compete and that's certainly what I'd like to do." (By Andrew Walker)