The Seahawks host the Dallas Cowboys to CenturyLink Field this Sunday in their home opener, and will be faced with a very tough challenge in their attempt to get into the win column. The Cowboys, when healthy, are one of the most stacked offensive groups in the NFL - Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and Miles Austin headline the group that also features up-and-comer Kevin Ogletree, steady veteran Felix Jones, and Pro-Bowl caliber fullback Lawrence Vickers. I doubt many people are looking past Dallas at this point, but it might be said that many underestimate what this offense can do when they're clicking (and it showed in Week 1 when they beat the reigning champion New York Giants in their own building).
Tony Romo, despite being 'that guy that fumbled that snap/hold,' has developed into a borderline elite talent at the quarterback position over the past few seasons. Romo was a shade off of 4,000 yards passing last season on a 67% completion percentage, with 31 touchdown passes to just 10 picks. It may be an overlooked fact that Romo has been ranked in the top-10 of passing DVOA every year he's started for the Cowboys, according to Football Outsiders' tracking. Romo has a funny reputation as a guy that can't finish in the playoffs and all that, but guess what -- it's Week 2. Don't underestimate how badly he can shred up a defense, particularly if the Seahawks' cannot get pressure.
And there's the key - pressure. The Seahawks, as I broke down yesterday, managed to make some halftime adjustments last Sunday and were able to consistently pressure John Skelton until he left the game with an ankle injury. That pressure held, at times, even during Kevin Kolb's ultimately game-winning drive, but the key for Seattle will be to force the issue early and often. Jason Jones looked great on the interior and Chris Clemons, honestly, looks better than ever. With what appears to be an energized Brandon Mebane in the middle, the best way the Seahawks can hope to stifle Tony Romo from distributing the ball to his talented corps of pass catchers is to rush him.
Seattle dialed up blitzes on 38% of their defensive snaps in week one, the ninth highest frequency NFL-wide in Week 1. They sent 5+ at Skelton/Kolb on 50% of all 2nd and 3rd down snaps, but only 16% of the time on first downs. Whether this pattern holds in Week 2 remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to see if the Hawks try to assert their dominance in the run defense game first and foremost, forcing the Cowboys to abandon it -- which they did in Arizona, resoundingly (but still trailed at half by two scores, I might add) -- or look to rattle Romo early.
Red Bryant and Alan Branch, along with Chris Clemons, Mebane, and a precocious middle linebacker named Bobby Wagner, held Cardinals running backs to 28 yards rushing on 17 carries for a 1.6 yard average gain. Remember last season, Demarco Murray rushed for 139 yards on an otherwise, until that point in 2011, stingy Seahawks' defense, and this is something that I'm sure Pete Carroll will look to rectify, for better or worse. Murray is a powerful north-south runner that will look to displace defenders from their feet and plant you into the turf. He's a one-cut and go type of player but he also likes to utilize cut-back lanes to find daylight. The Seahawks will need to avoid overpursuit and hold contain on the edges, forcing Murray into the teeth of the defense. Wagner faces a tough test in getting off of blocks on the second level by a veteran group of Cowboys lead blockers.
Tyron Smith and Doug Free have flip-flopped sides now, with the second year stud from USC being asked to protect Tony Romo's blind side. It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys use Jason Witten this week -- he's been a full-go in practices this week, but they still may look to ease him back into full action as he recovers from an injured spleen. However it works out, the Seahawks' edge rushers won't have an easy time. That's where Jones and Mebane could factor heavily, and watch for Clinton McDonald to mix things up on the inside as well.
On the outside, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are tasked with keeping tabs on Austin and Bryant. Austin is an athletic, quick-twitch freak of nature that has been slowed of late by hamstring and knee injuries, but when healthy is almost impossible to effectively guard. I'm sure the Seahawks will look to play him physical at the line to disrupt timing and location of routes, and don't be surprised to see Brandon Browner pick up a flag or two on the outside if the Cowboys send Dez Bryant his way. If Browner can get chippy with Bryant and rob some of his focus, an early flag or two might be worthwhile. This has sort of been Browner's M.O. and if memory serves correctly, that was exactly what transpired last season between the two.
Bryant ended with four catches for 76 yards, but was targeted nine times and fumbled one sure touchdown on the one yardline while taking a hit from Richard Sherman. Jason Witten didn't make any such mistake, and if he's asked to be a big part of the offense, this linebacker group - K.J. Wright, Leroy Hill and Bobby Wagner - plus Kam Chancellor, have their work cut out for them. Witten got the best of Chancellor last year as he collected four catches for 71 yards and a 33-yard touchdown catch and run. Austin caught two passes for 53 yards, but I believe he left early with an injury. These are the big three for Dallas, but as we saw in Week 1, Kevin Ogletree can become the beneficiary of teams' propensity to key in on the Cowboys' main weapons.
The Seahawks used a heavy dose of nickel and dime packages last week to rush the passer and to run with the Cardinals' 3+ WR sets. Marcus Trufant got many of the snaps (32 to be exact, 50% of the Hawks' defensive plays) and typically replaced Wagner in those sets, but Winston Guy came on for 8 snaps and you'll see him moving around behind the line, either rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.
However, the Cowboys have recently been one of the more 2TE/2RB-heavy teams in the NFL, running with at least two tight ends 53% of their snaps in 2011, per Football Outsiders. That ranked third in the NFL last year, and they ran with 3+ receivers only 37% of the time, and that frequency is near the back of the league. It will be interesting to see how the Seahawks play this, as the Cowboys' tight ends aren't really in the 'Jimmy Graham freak athlete' mold -- they're more of the lumbering, old-school type of players, particularly Witten, so it's quite possible the Seahawks will just run in their base personnel a lot of the time if they feel like Wagner/Wright/Hill and Chancellor can cover him downfield. NOTE - rookie James Hanna is a speed TE so if he's used frequently, that will change things up a bit (he saw 9 snaps Week 1). Watch for #84 in the huddle -- will the Seahawks' respond with different defensive looks?
Dallas finished ninth in the league in yards per attempt in their rushing game last year with 4.4 ypc, and are very good at draw plays. The Seahawks will surely be keying in on this.
Overall -- it's going to be a tough test for Seattle's young defense, but the home field advantage and the crowd noise should help immensely. I'll be looking forward to what kinds of scheming the Seahawks do early in the game -- blitzing, zone, etc., and whether they'll look to get Jason Jones more involved early on than they did last week.