- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2018

ASHBURN — Jay Gruden is now using Twitter as a motivational tactic. 

Chris Thompson revealed the Redskins coach showed his team a tweet this week that revealed the Redskins were 28-28-1 over their last 57 games.

“You see that and it’s embarrassing honestly,” the Redskins running back said. “It’s not something we even think about or notice, but as players, especially I know Jay as a coach, we don’t want to be a team that’s right at .500. We want to be above that.” 

In order to do so, the Redskins can’t afford a loss Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field. Washington leads the Cowboys (3-3) in the NFC East by half a game and is coming off a good win over the Carolina Panthers. 

Here’s what to keep an eye on as the Redskins look to snap a four-game losing streak against the Cowboys: 

Daron Payne was drafted for games like this

The Redskins must stop Ezekiel Elliott and the run. They know this. It’s partially why, Gruden said, Washington drafted Daron Payne 13th overall in the spring.

A 6-foot-2, 320-pound defensive lineman, Payne has done wonders for the Redskins’ defensive line. Along with a healthy Jonathan Allen, the team’s first-rounder in 2017, the two have helped Washington’s run defense massively improve this season. The Redskins rank sixth in run defense — allowing 90.2 rushing yards per game — after finishing dead-last a year ago.

“Daron Payne was what we thought was the best run-stopper … in the draft and we’re lucky to get him,” Gruden said, later adding, “Now if it was just an ordinary guy, we wouldn’t have taken him in the first round. But we felt like he could be a dynamic, not only run player but also help us in the pass rush.”

Over the past four games against the Redskins, the Cowboys have averaged 154 rushing yards per game — and Elliott was suspended for one of those outings. Against Washington, Elliott has rushed for 110 yards per game and 4.46 yards per carry.

Stunts, twists, oh my

Offensive line coach Bill Callahan said the Redskins learned a lot from their Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, Washington struggled with the Colts’ stunts along the defensive line. But while Callahan said the Redskins learned how to adjust to the technique, which involves looping defensive linemen to confuse blockers, Carolina and New Orleans still were able to have success with stunts in Washington’s last two games.

Dallas, meanwhile, loves running stunts. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys leaned on the technique 226 times last season — fifth-most in the NFL.

So how exactly does an offensive line stop a stunt?

“It’s as simple as a lot of times, you need to be able to block a moving target,” center Chase Roullier said. “It’s not just a guy who’s going to be jetting upfield and doing what you expect him to do. He has the ability to move one way or another and you need to adjust to that, whether that’s in the run game or the pass game. You need to be able to recognize that has the potential of happening and that’ll allow you to be ready for it when it does happen.”

Cowboys also inconsistent, but showed signs of life last week

Through their first five games, Dallas was averaging just 16.6 points per game. Then last week, the Cowboys exploded for 40 points against the Jacksonville Jaguars, considered to be one of the league’s best defenses.

What the heck happened?

“Really every week it all starts with the guys up front,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I thought we did a good job blocking a very good front both in the running game and the passing game. We were able to run the ball fairly consistently throughout, and we made some big plays in the passing game. … Really throughout the game, we were able to sustain drives by mixing the run and the pass and then finish the drives the right way.”

The Cowboys came up with points on eight of their 11 drives. Elliott helped control the clock, rushing 24 times for 106 yards. Quarterback Dak Prescott wasn’t required to throw that often, but was efficient when called upon — completing nearly 63 percent of his passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns.

For the Redskins, Sunday’s game will be about holding the Cowboys to their pre-Jaguars averages. In their three wins, Washington’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in a single game this season.

Cole Beasley a familiar face among unfamiliar wideouts

Elliott and Prescott deservedly get the attention when discussing the Cowboys’ offense. Their wide receivers and tight ends, however, get overlooked — admittedly because it’s now an underwhelming group. Gone are Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, two longtime playmakers.

But after the Cowboys had their best offensive outing of the season last week, a familiar face for Dallas remerged: Cole Beasley. The 5-foot-8 wide receiver had nine catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

On Sunday, Beasley will be matched up with Fabian Moreau in the slot. This will be a good test for the second-year cornerback, who described Beasley as shifty with his speed. The Redskins have liked Moreau’s progression after he barely saw the field last year.

“This will be one of the best slots (Moreau will) play all season,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “He’s done some great stuff and he’s just got to stick to it and keep getting better.”

Cowboys offensive line not what it once was

For the past few years, the Cowboys had the best offensive line in football. That’s changed this season. Dallas is without center Travis Frederick (Gullian Barren Syndrome). Left tackle Tyron Smith doesn’t appear to be the same player physically after a lengthy injury history. And left guard Connor Williams has played just okay as a rookie.

As a result, the Cowboys have given up 19 sacks — tied for eighth-most in the NFL.

The drop-off isn’t steep. Pro Football Focus still ranks the unit 11th overall and there’s still talent along the line. But this is an opportunity for the Redskins to get their pass rush going.

The Redskins rank just 25th with just two sacks per game. Washington’s production has come from the interior of the defensive line — Matt Ioannidis leads the team with three sacks, while Payne and Allen each have two.

Linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith have yet to produce high sack totals, but they’ve generated pressure. Kerrigan has just one sack in 2018, while Smith has zero.

“Sacks are a weird thing,” Kerrigan said. “Against the Saints, I felt that was probably my worst pass-rushing game I had so far this year, but I got a sack, and so a lot of people would see that and say I had a good game.

“I still feel like I’m affecting the game,” he added later. “That’s what you want as a pass rusher.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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