Cowboys relying on D to keep Redskins close

DALLAS, Texas –- Of all the things you worry about in preparing for a win-or-go-home game against the Washington Redskins, the mouth of Brady “Batman” Poppinga probably wasn’t on Jason Garrett’s list. But in addition to missing Wednesday’s practice for a “non-injury reason,” the linebacker decided to appoint himself spokesman for Rob Ryan’s defense in regards to slowing down Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

“I think one thing you have to do with him, especially when you have an option quarterback who’s exposed, is you have to inflict him with pain,” Poppinga told reporters at Valley Ranch on Wednesday. “Not that you’re trying to knock the guy out or anything, but you have to tackle him, and you have to make it to where the coach says, ‘Look, we need to protect our guy a little more,’ and then they implement certain other kinds of running plays and things of that nature.”

And you can bet that RGIII will have his head on a swivel for Poppinga, if he’s even heard that name before. The truth is that Griffin will likely be relying mostly on his arm against the Cowboys on Sunday at FedEx Stadium. He only ran the ball twice last Sunday in a 27-20 win over the Eagles, and the fact that he’s wearing a knee brace following a recent injury probably dictated that approach.

If the Cowboys give Griffin as much time in the pocket as they did Drew Brees, they won’t stand much of a chance. He lit up the Cowboys’ secondary so bad on Thanksgiving that owner Jerry Jones said he was “in awe” of the rookie quarterback. And Jones repeated those words last Sunday after the Cowboys’ overtime loss to the Saints.

The Cowboys hoped that signing free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and then moving up to select cornerback Morris Claiborne in the draft would have a direct impact on the pass-rush. But though Carr and Claiborne have played well for the most part, they can’t perform miracles on a weekly basis. The Cowboys rarely applied pressure to Brees, who was 37-of-53 for 446 yards and three touchdowns. And it doesn’t help that newly named Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware is fighting an assortment of injuries that caused him to miss most of the second half and overtime against the Saints.

My humble suggestion is to turn Ware into a third-down pass-rusher against the Redskins in order to keep him fresh. The Cowboys tried this approach with great success when Ware had a neck injury leading up to the Saints game in ’09. The problem with this approach is that Ware’s backup, Victor Butler, missed practice Wednesday with a groin injury. And another outside linebacker Alex Albright was limited with a knee injury. This is the time of year when everyone seems to have a nagging injury, although the Cowboys have been hit harder than most teams.

They certainly won’t get any sympathy from the Redskins because they are playing without arguably their two best defensive starters in outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker. The Redskins also have a secondary that gives up huge chunks of yards, much like the Cowboys.

Both quarterbacks in this game have played at a Pro Bowl level, although only Griffin was voted onto to the team. You would normally believe that the quarterback who’s played in these types of winner-take-all games would have the advantage. But Tony Romo’s 1-5 in games of that nature, and his career has largely been defined by those outcomes. There’s a thought Griffin might have an advantage because he carries a lot less baggage.

But given the way these two quarterbacks have played since Thanksgiving, it’s fair to expect a shootout. It might come down to which offense flinches first. And unfortunately for the Cowboys, that often happens in the first quarter.

If the Cowboys can keep it close heading into the fourth quarter, they have to like their chances. They’ve been prolific in that quarter this season, in part because they’ve often trailed by so many points.

The Saints put the Cowboys in a fourth-quarter hole because they controlled the ball for 65 percent of the game. The Cowboys would be wise to stick with DeMarco Murray and the running game early in order to limit Griffin’s opportunities.

But with all that’s on the line, it’s safe to say this is the most meaningful Redskins-Cowboys matchup of the past decade. Now, let’s see if the game live up to the buildup.

Who knows what Poppinga might say next?