The Washington Football Team will compete for first place in the NFC East on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys. (Check out a comprehensive preview of the game, HERE.) Here are three keys entering the Week 12 matchup:
Alex Smith stats were exceptional against the New York Giants and Detroit Lions; he completed 71% of his passes for 715 yard and threw back-to-back 300-yard games for the first time in his career. But despite those numbers, Washington still lost both games by a combined six points.
Smith did not have as strong of a day against the Cincinnati Bengals -- 17-of-25 for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception -- but Washington's offense still operated smoothly because it got the running game more involved. Led by Antonio Gibson, Washington rushed for 164 yards on 34 attempts. That balance is exactly what offensive coordinator Scott Turner wants to see.
"If you want to be a good offense in this league, which is what we're working to become, you've got to be able to do both," Turner said Nov. 11. "When you need to run the ball, we've got to be able to run it like we did against Dallas when we had the lead. Then, when you've got to battle back and stay alive and give yourself a chance to throw it, you've got to be able to throw it. Really, ideally, you'd like to be balanced."
Washington ran the ball 30-plus times against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bengals and in the first matchup against the Cowboys. All three of those games ended in wins. History would indicate that if the offense can get the running game going, it has a good chance of leaving AT&T Stadium with a win.
In the first half of the Bengals game, Joe Burrow carved up Washington's secondary. He completed 21 of his 29 pass attempts for 195 yards, which was slightly higher than Washington's average heading into the contest, and helped Cincinnati take a 9-7 halftime lead.
Burrow being carted off the field with a knee injury affected how the Bengals' offense functioned, but there was no denying that Washington's secondary played better. With backup Ryan Finley in the game, the Bengals finished the game with 202 net passing yards, which includes the yardage it lost from Washington's four sacks. Finley only completed 3-of-10 passes for 30 yards and also threw an interception.
It's unlikely Washington can replicate that second-half success, but it will need to bring some of that into Thursday's game against the Cowboys, who average 276.1 passing yards per game. Fortunately, it has players like Kendall Fuller, who is tied for third with four interception this year, and Ronald Darby, who has the sixth-highest Pro Football Focus grade for cornerbacks, leading a secondary that is still No. 1 in passing yards allowed.
Washington limited Dallas to 59 passing yards in Week 7, which was also partly a result of starting quarterback Andy Dalton being replaced by backup Ben DiNucci. The secondary probably won't be able to limit Dallas' receivers like that again, but it can contain the unit enough to make the offense more one-dimensional.
Washington's pass rush hounded Dallas' quarterbacks all afternoon in Week 7 with six sacks -- the second-best outing from the defense this season. That started a stretch of increased production from pressuring quarterbacks, as half of the Washington's 32 sacks have come in the past four games.
Washington added four sacks against the Bengals, and that played a role in team's offense struggling in the second half. The defense had a season-high PFF pass rushing grade of 85.4, and it will need to continue getting similar pressure if it wants to have that success again.
Washington will be facing a healthier offensive line this time, though, with Zack Martin returning and playing right tackle.
"Well, a lot of times guys, they move out and by moving a guy out to one spot and plugging in someone else at that other spot, you might be putting a better football player on the field," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's potentially what might have happened with Dallas."
Dallas only allowed two sacks against the Minnesota Vikings, and the team got its first win in four weeks. As Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan -- the team's top sack leaders -- get ready to face Martin and the Cowboys' offensive line, it will need to find a way of getting past Martin and pressuring Dalton.