At the rate the Cowboys had been scoring points and the Redskins had been yielding them, it might surprise some that special teams play was the difference.
But Dallas return man Dwayne Harris stole the show, with 222 combined return yards in the Cowboys’ 31-16 win over the Redskins.
Harris had an 86-yard punt return touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return which set up a short-field score, and was the most dynamic player on the field for most of the night.
Given his surroundings, that’s saying something.
The Redskins helped him by continuing to play unstable special teams, as they have all year.
From letting core players such as Lorenzo Alexander walk, to injuries (including losing long snapper Nick Sundberg to a knee injury in the second half and cornerback David Amerson suffering a concussion on the big kickoff return), the Redskins continued to struggle. Part of that goes back to salary cap penalties that forced them to go young and cheap, but there are institutional problems there.
This is the same unit that had a punt blocked for a touchdown against the Raiders, and allowed a fake punt to be converted the same game. Throw in a missed field goal by Kai Forbath, and the Redskins continue to give away points they can ill afford.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said he felt “rejuvenated” after the bye week.
It’s a good thing, because they obviously feel like they weren’t using him enough before.
He hadn’t rushed more than six times in a game all season, but had nine at the end of three quarters. It’s hardly an accident that’s when the Redskins got back into the game (his 77 yards at that point exceeded the 72 he had on the season).
He also drew a couple of unnecessary roughness penalties, buying even more yards with his feet. His throws weren’t as sharp as they’ve been in the past (which could point to footwork issues more than physical health), but he clearly feels a little better about getting out of the pocket.
2. If you’re going to shift from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, especially Monte Kiffin’s 4-3, it helps to have defensive linemen.
While the Cowboys are running short, they’re getting better-than-advertised play from defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. He’s always been solid, but has been far better than that this season.
He better be.
No one knows if Jay Ratliff’s ever going to turn up again (he’s on the PUP list), and they’ve already lost Anthony Spencer for the season. When DeMarcus Ware left in the second quarter with a right quad injury, a thin group was left threadbare.
Hatcher’s filled in well, and is far more than just a guy to take on blocks, getting the kind of push up the middle Kiffin’s defense is built upon.
3. It’s hard to find much to brag about for the Redskins defense, but credit cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
He (and some friends) kept Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant from being much of a factor at all.
Bryant had four catches for 19 yards in the first half, with a long reception of a whopping 7 yards. He finished with five catches for 36 yards.
With rookie Terrance Williams making the highlight catch in the third quarter and the other two phases playing so well, it took a bit of pressure off Bryant. But the Cowboys aren’t going to win many games without their star wideout being so quiet.
4. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan’s credentials are well-established, or they were.
But it was difficult to suggest that he had control of things in the second quarter.
From assistant Keith Burns penalized for being in the way of an official (Sal Alosi sees nothing wrong with it) to Shanahan’s offense fiddling away precious seconds at the end of the half (settling for a field goal), it was hard to describe them as well-organized.
5. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw an interception. Funny how it didn’t get as much attention as the last one.