The Redskins.com crew breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Thursday's Redskins-Cowboys 2016 Week 12 showdown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
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SHOW UP YOUR RIVALS
It really doesn't get much better than this. The Redskins and Cowboys will face off on Thursday afternoon in front of the entire nation.
Regardless of records, Redskins-Cowboys games are always hearted and always close. But for this matchup, the records not only matter, the victor could reap the riches of the NFC East.
Dallas enters the game with a 9-1 record and winners of nine straight. Their first victory of the season came in Week 2 when they marched down the field for a late comeback victory.
While the loss pushed the Redskins to 0-2 on the season, Washington has since charged back into the playoff picture with a 6-3-1 record.
"Whenever we're up against the Cowboys, it's a battle," tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's full-go, and everyone's coming to play. I think they have a great team offensively and defensively. It's up to us to be able to go out and execute our assignments and do it at a high level."
This will mark the first Thanksgiving matchup between the teams since Washington down Dallas 38-31 in 2012.
A lot has changed for both teams since then, but the distaste for Dallas will forever remain. In fact, in the waning minutes of Sunday's blowout victory over the Packers at FedExField, Redskins fans started a loud "We Want Dallas!"chant.
It caught Josh Norman's attention.
"I was in the NFC South for a long time and now coming over here, the NFC East is big," Norman said. "It's like football is a higher step up. It's kind of like, 'Jeez, these guys have the rivalry for ages. Since I was born, my grandfather and all that, back in the day.' It's like, 'Jeez, the history of that, just so old and you want to live in that moment, because your children's children are going to talk about the game.'"
KEEP IT UP, KIRK
According to a tweet posted by NFL Research on Tuesday afternoon, no quarterback has a higher passer rating in his last 20 starts than Redskins quarterback Trent Williams. During that stretch, which began with the infamous "You Like That!" and a huge comeback win over Tampa Bay last season, the Redskins quarterback has thrown 40 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions while posting a 107.9 passer rating.
Somehow, Cousins has turned up his heat even further. The fifth-year quarterback is completing more than 70 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns while averaging 349 passing yards per game over his last four games. Throughout 2015 and for much of this season. national opinions of Cousins have been divisive, but not of late. The praise of his play has been almost universal. However, remaining level-headed is one of Cousins' best talents.
"It's a positive thing that they would say that, but at the same time, I know people are itching to say the opposite if I don't play well on Thursday," Cousins said. "So that's why we ignore it because it just doesn't matter in the sense that we've got to go out and play well the next game, and the next game, and the next game. We're just focused on the here and now and we'll see where we are at the end of the season."
After losing his first two career starts against Dallas, Cousins was a ridiculous 12-of-15 for 176 yards and three touchdowns despite playing just 24 snaps in a Week 17 win over the Cowboys last season. Although Washington fell to Dallas in Week 2 of this season, Cousins passed for 364 yards – his most against the Cowboys in his career.
Entering Thursday's matchup, Dallas ranks third in the NFL in run defense, allowing just 84.4 rush yards per game, but 21st in pass defense. For a third straight week, the Cowboys will be without starting cornerback Morris Claiborne and starting safety Barry Church, potentially opening up more holes in an already suspect secondary. Dallas, which is tied for fifth in points allowed, certainly has benefited from an offense that dominates time of possession.
And don't expect Dallas to get much pressure on Cousins either. The Cowboys are tied for 19th in sacks with 20 on the season. Meanwhile, the Redskins have surrendered 14 sacks all season – tied for the third-fewest in the NFL – and have not missed a beat despite the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams.
"Just overall, I don't really think there is a weakness in their game," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said of his offensive line. "They're good pass-protectors, they're good run players. They're smart. They can pull. So I don't really see anything that is hurting them. And we have got good depth. Obviously you lose a left tackle that's the best left tackle in football and you replace him with another guy who is playing at a very high level – that says a lot about the depth of this football team."
The protection of Cousins was vital Sunday as he completed six passes of 25 yards or more. If the Redskins can replicate the explosiveness of the pass game from Sunday night's win in Green Bay, there should be no problem matching up with Dallas' high-powered offense on Thanksgiving Day.
TAKE DOWN THE ROOKIES
Usually facing a rookie quarterback and running back combination is a treat for defenses. But the opposite couldn't be more accurate for the duo that the Redskins are preparing to take on Thursday afternoon.
A look back at some of the top images in games between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
Cowboys rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot have taken the league by storm with their performances, leading the Cowboys to a 9-1 record and igniting debates about which should be Rookie of the Year and whispers of MVP consideration. While the two might be competing for those accolades at the end of the year, this Thursday the Redskins will be battling to make both look like the rookies that they are and not the veteran presence they have shown on the field.
"Dak and Zeke, they've done a great job," Gruden said. "You know, Zeke is a powerful runner. He's been bottled up from time-to-time in first quarter, but as the game goes on, that offensive line can wear you down and he gets chunks of yardage. And Dak has just done a great job. He's just been very poised under pressure. He doesn't make many mistakes, if any, and he gets the ball to the right people. So they've both been very impressive for young football players and they're getting better as the season's going on, as their nine-game winning streak proves it."
The pair have been lighting up the league with the improvements they have shown since defeating the Redskins in Week 2.
Prescott has completed 67.7 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,640 yards, 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. He is ranked only behind Tom Brady in terms of total quarterback rating so far this season. Over the course of the year what he has been able to do has only increased with time.
"I think they've opened up the playbook for Dak," fellow rookie Su'a Cravens said. "I think at first it was quick game and check downs, just to keep it simple for him so he can be decisive in his actions, but now that he's gotten the playbook under his belt and that offense flowing, I think he has access to the entire playbook. He's going to put the ball downfield along with the quick game and keeping it simple."
Elliott has also shown significant improvement after the Week 2 game with the Redskins when he fumbled twice and gained only 83 yards. He is now the league's leading rusher with 1,102 yards behind a very strong offensive line that will pose quite a challenge for the Redskins pass rush that has had success in recent weeks.
"What's good about Dallas is their ability to run the football," Gruden said. "So you can try different coverages and different things in the secondary and maybe blitz-wise, but still it comes down to stopping the run and Zeke. So you put too many guys in the box, you've got Dez Bryant and they've got good receivers that can hurt you. Cole Beasley's doing a great job. So they can hurt you a couple of different ways so it's just a matter of A) we have to stop the run, we have to do a much better job against the run, and then B) when we get them in third down, they did a great job of converting their third downs last time we played them, if I recall, and hurt us in that regard. We've got to do a better job on third down. Tighter coverage."
Facing the two weapons will certainly not be an easy task, but the Redskins are ready to show exactly what they can do against the pair with everyone watching.
"It's big, but we know that we've got to continue to be focused offense, defense and special teams, all in this together," Josh Norman said. "We'll see what happens and see if we can come out with a victory on Thursday. But we got to work for it."
FEAST, FAT ROB
The last time the Redskins and Cowboys faced off, Rob Kelley was still an unknown commodity in the NFL.
In fact, with Rob Kelley still the starting running back Kelley only appeared on special teams and just three snaps at that.
Eventually, Kelley would start to appear more frequently before a door opened for him last month with an injury to Jones. Named the starting running back for the game in London against the Bengals, Kelley has absolutely impressed over the last three games and is now the lead back.
Capped by his 137-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Packers, Kelley has run for 321 yards and two touchdowns on 67 carries.
His ability to turn a one-yard gain into something bigger coupled with good ball security (he has yet to fumble on 84 carries), gives the offense more balance than they had earlier in the season.
"We couldn't be more pleased with Robert," Gruden said. "Obviously we've got to throw him better balls out in the flat. He had a couple of tough looks at some flat balls but, you know, we'll keep working on that. But overall his performance was excellent [against the Packers]."
This week, he will once again face a top-flight run defense, as the Cowboys allow just 84.4 yards on the ground per game.
If the offensive line can pave the way for Kelley, the Redskins might crack the thick armor the Cowboys' front seven has covered a depleted secondary in recent weeks.
"Just overall, I don't really think there is a weakness in their game," Gruden said of the offensive line. "They're good pass-protectors, they're good run players. They're smart. They can pull. So I don't really see anything that is hurting them. And we have got good depth."