The howling started almost immediately. It usually does when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo makes a late-game mistake.
That comes with the territory when you're under center for one of the world's iconic sports franchises. And Romo has a history of underperforming in crucial moments anyway, including playoff games.
But not even a career-best 506 passing yards and five touchdowns could keep the heat off Romo following a 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos last Sunday. A late interception after a questionable throw over the middle set up the game-winning field goal and unleashed torrents of outrage on social and regular media.
None of that will help the Washington Redskins on Sunday night, however, when the two teams meet in a nationally televised game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. They must account for the Romo, who torched the Broncos all evening, and hope to force him into a bad decision or two. No matter his late-game history, that's far easier said than done.
"[Romo] gets such an unjust bad rap. The dude is a hell of a football player," Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "That's why he got paid so much money this offseason. He's really good. If people want to blame him for that interception on Sunday — he threw for 500 yards and five touchdowns. He made one bad throw and it cost them."
Dallas allows its star quarterback to make plays in part because the offensive line has done a decent job protecting him. He's been sacked 13 times, but hit just 19 times. Only six offensive lines have done better through five weeks.
Romo himself is responsible for a lot of that, of course. Even at age 33, his legs help him escape trouble. Kerrigan, more than most, says he must be aware of that given Romo likes to escape pressure to his right. That's Kerrigan's side of the field as the left outside linebacker. Keeping Romo in the pocket while generating pressure is a delicate, if necessary balance. The Cowboys are well aware of what they will see.
"You've got to look at it constantly and, if you love football, it can turn into an enjoyable thing," Romo said of anticipating opponents' blitzes. "I've always loved analyzing the game and figuring out ways to attack certain things and we're doing it a little bit different this year."
Because Romo holds onto the ball so long there will be opportunities for pass rushers to get to him. But if tacklers miss, as Denver's did repeatedly on Sunday, he can make an opponent pay.
This won't be like the Green Bay game on Sept. 15, where the Packers turned to a quick passing attack to neutralize Washington's rush en route to an easy 38-20 victory. For most quarterbacks, the ball is gone within two seconds. This poses a different kind of challenge for the Redskins' defense.
"A lot of quarterbacks want to get rid of the ball," Washington defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "They want to get that pressure off of them, they throw it out of bounds, they feel like they've done their job. But [Romo's] willingness to extend plays, his ability to make those throws from any type of body position, the trust he has in his receivers make him a tough test."
And so the Redskins must be willing to keep up their pass rush for four, five, six seconds and rely on the secondary to keep Dallas' potent weapons — wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten, among others — in check.
Rotating personnel is crucial when chasing a quarterback like Romo for 50 or 60 snaps, according to Cofield. That means the addition of reserve linebacker Rob Jackson and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, both back from four-game drug suspensions, should help even if they see limited snaps.
Dallas has emphasized the running game early this season. Through his first four games Romo didn't hit 300 passing yards. But he is more efficient at 135-for-188 with a 71.8 completion percentage. His quarterback rating is 114.4. Only Denver's Peyton Manning (136.4) is higher through five weeks. Romo has 13 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. But the bad pass late in the loss to Denver dredged up memories of past failures.
"You've got to block some things out," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "[Romo] did a lot of great things in the game last week. At the end of the ballgame, we didn't get it done. He didn't get it done. The team didn't get it done. Denver did and we all have to live with that and learn from it. ... He's been doing this a long time and he understands all that comes with the position and what he has to do to focus on being his best."
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