ARLINGTON, Texas — First, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett stopped to watch. Later, coach Jay Gruden looped back into the locker room after an initial fly-by.
They both paused to check out rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was explaining to the media just how he was able to slow Dallas Cowboys force, wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Haslett and Gruden smiled when they separately took in pieces of the interview. Breeland was not precise in his explanation. In fact, he was unable to break down his success.
“I really can’t tell you what came over me and had me play the way I played tonight,” Breeland said.
The Dallas Cowboys were left to search for explanations along with Breeland. Their glitz-filled home stadium is the perfect spectacle holder for a “Monday Night Football” rivalry game. Unexpectedly, it filled with surprise and disappointment Monday night because of the Redskins’ relentless blitzing and precise coverage. Washington left Dallas with a 20-17 overtime win.
“They came in here, and they took it to us,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
Washington formulated a blitz-heavy plan to close down escape lanes for Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and force his decision-making. Pressure after pressure came at Romo. The Redskins mixed the location of blitzes — at times they overloaded the right side, others they had strong safety Brandon Meriweather coming clean from the left side — and the players leaving coverage in favor of charging at Romo.
Haslett is not shy about blitzing to begin with. But, Monday night, he came at Romo in a way the Dallas quarterback had not seen this season.
“That was the most cover-zero blitzes we have seen in a game,” Romo said. “You don’t necessarily think a team is going to run 10 snaps of it in a game, and I’m not sure how many they did, but it was a lot.”
Romo had to leave the game after linebacker Keenan Robinson came roaring through in the third quarter. Flat on his back, Romo felt like a knee or elbow had hit in a perfect pain-producing spot. The level of scare for Dallas backers was increased since Romo had back surgery last December.
Robinson celebrated on the sideline, unaware that Romo was flat on the ground with an unusual view of AT&T Stadium’s massive video board. Prior, Robinson had one thought when he saw Romo and no blockers in front of him on third-and-11.
“Don’t miss,” Robinson said. “He tried to spin on me and luckily I just kept it going. I didn’t go for the fake. Lower your target, don’t hit him in the head, obviously. That’s what I did.”
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The gambling approach worked for a night because of the Redskins’ two hatchlings at cornerback.
Breeland, 22, was often matched against Bryant. They tussled at the goal line in the third quarter when Breeland broke up a second-and-goal pass from the Redskins’ 3-yard line. Frustrated, Bryant, who has three inches and 20 pounds on Breeland, signaled to the sideline to run the play back.
The Cowboys did just that. Again, Breeland broke the pass up. No penalties, proper timing, no touchdown for Dallas.
In between those two plays, Breeland had words for Bryant.
“I wasn’t really jawing,” Breeland said. “I just showed him that I’m here, too. I’m going to play in this NFL just as well as he is. He’s a good receiver, I know that. I had to buckle down and just do what I had to do to stop him.”
During the week of preparation, Breeland watched film of Bryant from 2013. He saw how patient the big receiver was. That forced Breeland to try to be patient. He was, and finished with six tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble, putting together his best game. Bryant finished with three catches for a season-low 30 yards.
David Amerson, also 22, is in his second year as a pro. He worked the other side effectively enough to keep the blitzes coming.
Though the rematch is not until Dec. 28, Romo was already wondering if such a gambling approach from the Redskins’ defense could be repeated with success.
“They really made a couple calls that were risky but rewarding for them,” Romo said. “They did a good job taking away a couple of the routes we thought we were going to get a good chunk on.”
Much of this comes back to Haslett. The Redskins surprised many, including Haslett, by retaining him after firing Mike Shanahan and much of his coaching staff after last season. Against the Cowboys, he amplified his usual aggressive approach.
“I think [Haslett] mixes it up,” free safety Ryan Clark said. “We saw they weren’t really mixing it up early. Brandon was coming free. I came free. Obviously, Tony is a tough guy to sack. But, if you continue to pressure him and pressure him from different angles, you get opportunities to make plays.
“[Haslett] called an amazing game. So many times coordinators are talked about as not doing their jobs, I think this is one night, we have to acknowledge how well he called this game.”
Romo finished with his lowest completion percentage of the season. Hemmed in — Robinson said he thought back to how Seattle’s Russell Wilson fled and gouged the Redskins earlier in the season — Romo was forced to make rapid decisions. He’s slippery in the pocket and his mobility can shred gameplans.
The Redskins didn’t allow that, even if players like Breeland weren’t quite sure how they did it.