The Seahawks get a great test this weekend against a 4-1 Cowboys team that's as hot as anyone in the NFL right now. For a scouting report of what to expect from the enemy, I talked to David Halprin, editor and original creator of SB Nation's Cowboys blog, Blogging the Boys.
1. On offense, what are Tony Romo and the Cowboys doing differently this year than they did last season? In your opinion, how has Romo looked thus far?
The simple answer is they have committed to running the ball.
Every offseason, the Cowboys would talk about committing more to the run, then every game they'd abandon it at the first sign of trouble. This year, new coordinator Scott Linehan has been remarkably disciplined in his play-calling, even when we were down by 21 points to the Rams early. I think that game really cemented this team's reputation as a run-first outfit.
Of course, you have to have some success when committing to the run or it's not a very useful plan, and the Cowboys have had that and more. DeMarco Murray is having a huge year and is leading the league in many categories. He is running behind a line that has three first-round draft picks and has two tight ends (Jason Witten and James Hanna) who are excelling at blocking. Even the wide receivers have decided to take their blocking seriously making it a real team effort.
The added benefits are also helping, such as winning time of possession and keeping the Cowboys' defense rested throughout a game, exposing them to fewer opposing offensive plays.
Plus, it has exposed Tony Romo to less danger. Romo has looked better as the season has progressed. His first couple of games he looked pretty stiff and not nearly like the Romo we had known, but lately, he's much more active and mobile in the pocket and is avoiding the pass rush while still making plays. He's not nearly the risk-taker he used to be, so some of the dynamic, crazy plays have been eliminated from his game, but with a new-found reliance on the running game, it's allowed him to not feel like he's got to win it himself.
2. Everyone knows the Cowboys' offense is hot right now, but how has the defense performed this season? Which players and/or groups are the strengths, and what are the weaknesses of that group?
To everyone's surprise, the defense has been good in Dallas. All offseason we heard people say that this might be the worst defense in history, but they are actually getting the job done.
They rank 8th in the league in points allowed, and they do a good job of getting turnovers (6 INTs, 3 Fumbles). The biggest reason has got to be moving Rod Marinelli into the defensive coordinator spot. He's made this defense less predictable, and has moved players around to find their best positions allowing them to play to their strengths.
The Cowboys defensive line is a list of no-names, and guys returning from serious injuries, and cast-off free agents, but they are healthy and there's a deep rotation of them. They aren't racking up sacks, but they are creating pressure and they are not doing dumb things. They are just playing solid.
The linebacker corps can be dynamic when healthy, and middle linebacker Rolando McClain has been a real find. He's committed himself to football again and his athletic talents were never in question. Of course, there are health concerns, there which I'll detail below.
The secondary has been up and down, but getting Orlando Scandrick back has certainly helped. The defense as a whole gives up a lot of yards per game, but they manage to limit the points and with the Cowboys offense eating up the clock, it's been enough to win games.
3. How is Dallas' injury situation looking right now? Anything major to be concerned about?
The only real concern is at linebacker. Bruce Carter won't play, and he's the starter on the strong-side. He's been very good this year until he was hurt a couple of weeks ago. The Cowboys will definitely miss his services because he is fast and athletic and would have helped the Cowboys' efforts to slow down Russell Wilson. Rookie Anthony Hitchens will likely take Carter's snaps when the Cowboys are in their base defense. He'll come off the field in the nickel.
But even that could change if middle linebacker Rolando McClain can't play, which will really hurt because he's probably been Dallas' best player on defense consistently throughout the season. At the time I'm writing this, he hasn't practiced this week and we're waiting to see if he does on Friday. (Note: According to a report in the Dallas Morning News, McClain will play on Sunday).
If McClain is out, too, the Cowboys will be very week at the linebacker spot and that could be a boon for Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. Otherwise, the Cowboys are amazingly healthy.
4. How has the rookie class looked thus far? Any contributors that might play a role this week?
Zack Martin was our first-round pick and he will definitely play a role as he's been starting from day one at right guard. The Cowboys have had remarkable success with their first-round picks used on offensive linemen over the last four years, with left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick both playing well, and now Martin who has been solid in the first five games. He's part of the newly successful run game.
As mentioned above, fourth-round linebacker Anthony Hitchens is likely to see time in the base defense, his play has been pretty good so far. Because the Cowboys have been battling injuries at linebacker all season, Hitchens has gotten significant playing time on the year. He's been improving weekly, he looks to have good instincts and is a solid tackler. Diagnosing plays, proper positioning and judging the speed of the game are things he needs to work on, like many rookies do, but he appears to have potential long-term.
Second-round defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was picked to replace DeMarcus Ware by eventually becoming our big pass-rush threat. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in preseason and won't be back until Week 8. Fifth-round wide receiver Devin Street sees a little bit of time, but is not a real factor at this point.
5. What under-the-radar player or players should Seattle fans have their eyes on?
I profiled Tyrone Crawford earlier this week. He's been with the Cowboys since 2012 but missed all of last season with injury. Dallas had been playing him mainly at defensive end but shifted him to defensive tackle (3-tech) a couple of weeks ago, and it looks like he might have found a home. He's quick and athletic, a bit undersized which is exactly what Rod Marinelli wants from a 3-tech tackle. Keep an eye on him as someone who could be a disruption in the Seahawks' backfield on Sunday.
On offense, if the running game is working, then it's a good bet second tight end James Hanna will have a hand in it. He's also been with Dallas for a few years but really seems to have come into his own as a blocking tight end in tandem with Jason Witten. The Cowboys hired tight ends coach Mike Pope this offseason and it looks like whatever he's down has turned Witten (who has always a good blocker) and Hanna into terrors in the run game.
Huge thanks to Dave from over at Blogging the Boys for hooking us up with the scouting report! Dave's actually the guy that first called me completely out of the blue, wondering if I had interest in taking over at Field Gulls, so it's fun to catch up with him for this upcoming game.