Much of the focus this week in Seahawks-Cowboys — in fact, much of the focus for the last six weeks — has been on running back Ezekiel Elliott. But as it is with basically every team in 2017, as goes the quarterback, so goes the team.
Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott should benefit from the presence of Elliott, but really all we’re ever doing in football is trying to benefit and impede that one player who possesses the ball on almost every meaningful snap. Now with my very limited knowledge of Pacific Rim, a movie I saw once and that was back when it first came out like five years ago, here is an analogy:
The quarterback is like the Kaiju (spelling) and the head coach is like Charlie Hunnam’s character. At best, the running back is like the engine — which may or may not be the Kaiju actually? And Earl Thomas is one of those monsters in the sea. Then I guess Blair Walsh is like the long lost brother who mucks up everything in the coach’s head and harms decision making skills. Wait, did that brother die? And did he come back at the end? I can’t remember. This movie got a sequel without Guillermo Del Toro returning?
Basically, the Cowboys are still trying to do everything possible to protect Dak Prescott and to keep him from turning the ball over. That is still, in my opinion, what football is at its core and why pass rush and secondary can be just as important as quarterback play when it comes to the playoffs. That’s why the Jaguars could beat the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints to win the Super Bowl. It’s also why New Orleans, with the strongest run game they’ve ever had and a legit star at cornerback now, can limit their reliance on the quarterback to only the moments when he’ll be taking high percentage shots to his receivers.
That’s what Dallas wants to do against Seattle on Sunday when Elliott returns.
Without Elliott, the Cowboys went 3-3, losing the first three games and winning their last three. That first trio of games produced just 22 points and Dallas was outscored 72-6 in the second half of those contests, turning the ball over eight times. In the next three games, two of which were on the road, the Cowboys outscored their opponents 88-41 and turned it over two, both coming via Prescott interceptions against the Raiders.
Talking to @Michele_Tafoya postgame, Dak Prescott asked about getting Zeke back this week: “I miss my best friend”— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) December 18, 2017
Dak threw two interceptions and was sacked twice in the game against Oakland, making it the first time in his career that he won when throwing multiple picks. And the Raiders only lost by a yard, when Derek Carr’s reach for the game-winning score ended up being fumbled into the end zone for a touchback — and if not for that freakish moment, Oakland could have at least kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime.
Prescott is now 1-4 when he throws multiple picks and 2-2 when he throws exactly one interception. If you include Dallas’s 34-31 loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year when Dak threw one pick, then he’s 3-7 when he throws at least one pick — and Dak even had three touchdowns in that loss to Green Bay. And was sacked twice.
Nick Foles has more 4 passing TD games in 2017 than Dak Prescott has in his entire career.— Conor Myles (@MylesSheet) December 17, 2017
Removing the Cowboys’ Week 17 loss to the Eagles last year (meaningless game, Dak was pulled after eight attempts), and Dallas is 17-3 when he avoids throwing an interception. When Prescott throws at least one touchdown with no interceptions, the Cowboys are 15-0; Dak is the only QB in the last two years (with a notable number of starts) to be undefeated when doing that.
(Tom Brady is 15-1, Russell Wilson is 10-3.)
But is there just as much of a correlation towards Elliott and success? Maybe. Dallas is 18-4 when Elliott rushes for at least 80 yards. He’s only failed to rush for 80 yards twice -- He had 51 yards in his NFL debut against the Giants, and nine carries for eight yards in a blowout loss to the Broncos in in September -- and the Cowboys lost both of those games. They also, however, lost to the Packers in the playoffs last year when Elliott had 125 rushing yards; he’s 7-0 in the regular season when topping 120 yards. Dallas is 13-1 when Elliott rushes for 80 yards and a touchdown, with the lone blemish being a 35-30 loss to the Rams at home in October.
Over his career, Dak Prescott has averaged 26.7 PPG when #Cowboys are at home and favored versus 18.9 PPG in all other contests. DAL -5 over SEA currently.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) December 20, 2017
And that win for Los Angeles may also hold the keys to victory for the Seahawks.
The Rams’ two most important players that day may have been Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, who combined for 14 pressures on Dak. Per PFF, Donald had a season-high nine pressures and Brockers had his most productive day as a pass rusher since 2012. Prescott managed to get three touchdowns — a stat that is only a little more relevant than it is deceptive — but completed just 55.5% of his passes and averaged only 7.0 yards per attempt.
The Dallas Cowboys are 18-0 in the regular season when Dak goes over 7.0 Y/A. They are 0-1 in the postseason. (Prescott had 7.95 Y/A in the loss.)
The Rams literally have allowed the most Y/A to Dak in a game that he hasn’t won, setting a perfect milestone for which to shoot. The news that Seattle must watch most closely is the health of the questionable Tyron Smith; Frank Clark will have a much different day at the office if Smith is in than he will have if the All-Pro left tackle is out. Now let me harken back to Sophie’s Choice for an analogy, even though I have never actually seen Sophie’s Choice.
I think that Sophie’s Choice is about a mom named Sophie who has to choose between her son and her husband, or something. One of those choices is her baby though, I’m almost certain about that. Well, I think your own baby is always the best choice, so think of Tyron Smith as Sophie’s baby. The other thing is not a hard choice at all, so it’s not exactly a 1:1 analogy because nobody in Dallas wants to see the backup in there. The Cowboys are 0-2 without Tyron this season and lost 64-16 in those games. Tyron Smith is like the most important chest plate on a Kaiju.
When Dak Prescott is sacked multiple times, the Cowboys are a beatable 9-7, including playoffs. When Prescott is sacked one or fewer times, Dallas is 12-2. (Again, not including Week 17 game.) When Tyron was out against the Falcons, Dak was sacked eight times. When he was out against the Eagles this year, Dak was sacked four times. Only one other time in his career has he been sacked at least four times. (Week 2 of 2016, Dallas won 27-23.)
When Smith is out, the Cowboys are allowing an average of six sacks on Dak. When his back injury first made him questionable in Week 5 against the Packers, Dallas lost 35-31. Smith exited last week’s win over the Raiders with a knee injury after 41 snaps, meaning he’d miss roughly a third of the offensive plays for Dallas -- On their next drive, Dak lost four yards on the first play and backup left tackle Byron Bell was called for a crucial holding penalty on the next. On their final drive, they gained eight yards on six carries. So Elliott too will be heavily reliant on the presence of Tyron, which in turn makes Elliott’s presence more valuable to Dak.
Conversely, the Seahawks may catch a break in having their offensive line face a weaker Cowboys pass rush than normal.
Star defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (13.5 sacks) was DNP and limited in practice earlier in the week, but got in a full practice on Friday, making him likely to start. But teammate David Irving (7 sacks in only eight games) has already been ruled out.
Good signs for the Cowboys on Friday. Anthony Hitchens & DeMarcus Lawrence both look like they’re good to go. Tyron Smith & Benson Mayowa upgraded to “limited.” Only David Irving has been ruled out going into Week 16. #cowboyswire pic.twitter.com/ykk58mERlV— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 22, 2017
Former Seahawks DE Benson Mayowa (no sacks this year) and starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick are also questionable. But if Seattle can just focus on avoiding Lawrence, who may himself be limited on game day if he starts, it could help Russell Wilson avoid the sacks and bad throws that the Seahawks defense must force on Dak.
The return of Elliott is good for the Cowboys, but mostly because it helps Dak play better. The loss of Smith could be a key to victory for Seattle, but only because it hurts Dak. Ultimately, the Seahawks still need to do the rest of the work. They need to pressure Dak, and facing a lesser left tackle could help them do it (though they lost to Washington without Trent Smith in Week 9, they sacked Kirk Cousins six times and held them to 17 points) but Clark, Michael Bennett, whoever, still needs to finish the job. Pressure Dak, get Dak uncomfortable, force him to make a rare mistake. Hope that Wilson does not make a mistake.
If those two things happen, there’s a good chance that the Seahawks remain alive for the playoffs. If Dak has time to throw and his receivers get open, Seattle will be getting a head start on thinking about the changes needed in 2018.