The Seattle Seahawks are headed to the postseason, so please do not come after me for writing a “jinx” post when there’s still a game between now and then. It shouldn’t really matter all that much what happens against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, but most scenarios have the Seahawks going to Dallas in the wild card round of the playoffs: The Cowboys are locked in as the four seed, while Seattle is 94.8% to be the five seed. A win or tie vs the Cards guarantees them the spot, or a loss or tie by the Minnesota Vikings to the Chicago Bears.
And if it so happens that the Seahawks do become the six seed and face the Bears instead of the Cowboys, oh well. I previewed a team that they aren’t facing in 10 days, I can live with that.
But Seattle played both Dallas and Chicago early in the season. Those teams have changed a bit since then and I want to detail some of those changes for the Cowboys since the Seahawks beat them 24-13.
Left Guard - Connor Williams to Xavier Su’a-Filo
When Dallas and Seattle were rumored to be discussing an Earl Thomas trade, the Cowboys second round pick (50th overall) was oft discussed as the biggest chip to use to acquire 29. The trade didn’t happen and the Cowboys used the pick to select offensive lineman Connor Williams out of Texas. (ET’s alma mater, as a matter of fact.) Dallas was said to be so high on Williams that his availability was one of the reasons they didn’t make the deal. Williams started the year out as the Cowboys starting left guard, playing between All-Pro left tackle and center Joe Looney, who’s filled in for All-Pro Travis Frederick as he deals with a serious illness this year.
Williams started the first eight games as Dallas sputtered to 3-5 with a bad offense, then a knee injury forced him out of the following two contests. Jason Garrett replaced him with Xaiver Su’a-Filo, a second round pick of the Houston Texans in 2014, and the team rushed for 303 yards in the next two games after rushing for 145 in the previous two. Su’a-Filo has remained the starter even though Williams is healthy.
In fact, Williams has started one game since: he filled in for Zack Martin at right guard in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts. The Cowboys were shutout that day.
So is Williams a bust? Did Dallas find their next great lineman in Su’a-Filo and is their offense, specifically their rushing offense, unstoppable again in a way that it wasn’t in Week 3? Not according to one Cowboys writer, who says that Williams should have the job back and that correlation is not causation.
John Owning of SportsDay DallasNews says that Garrett is making a mistake starting Su’a-Filo, who is a lesser pass blocker than Williams:
On Williams’ last 309 pass blocking snaps, he has allowed three sacks and 19 total pressures, meaning, on average, Williams allows a sack every 103 pass blocking snaps and one pressure per 16.3 pass blocking snaps.
On Su’a-Filo’s last 155 pass blocking snaps, he has allowed four sacks and 11 total pressures, meaning, on average, Sua’-Filo allows a sack every 38.75 pass blocking snaps and one pressure per 14.1 pass blocking snaps.
While Ezekiel Elliott approaches his second rushing title in three years (and would’ve had the third one if not for suspension), Dak Prescott has been sacked 52 times in 15 game; Prescott had been sacked 57 times in his first 32 career starts. In a shocking 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, Prescott was sacked seven times. The guy on the other side that day, Drew Brees, has been sacked 17 times all year. The Seahawks got to Prescott five times in Week 3, tied for their second-highest total in any game this season after the six they got against the Oakland Raiders.
And that was with Connor Williams, not Su’a-Filo. That day, Seattle gave Quinton Jefferson 64% of the snaps, while Dion Jordan got 32%. In their most recent game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jefferson and Jordan both played 56% of the snaps. Also, Shamar Stephen played 66% of the snaps against Dallas while Poona Ford was inactive, and they basically split snaps against the Chiefs. There’s no telling what the defensive line rotation will be in two weeks, but we can assume that it is more likely that Ford will play and that Jefferson’s playing time could come close to matching Jordan’s.
Owning goes onto say that Williams is also a more well-rounded run blocker than Su’a-Filo despite the team’s success on the ground.
Now, as stated before, Su’a-Filo is much stronger than Williams, and his hulking 6-foot-4 and 310-pound frame allows him to smother defenders at the point-of-attack, especially on double teams and combination blocks.
Nevertheless, Su’a-Filo struggles in a lot of the other areas of run blocking. Su’a-Filo struggles with his aiming points in space, making him one of Dallas’ least effective linemen when asked to pull block.
He also says that Su’a-Filo is playing through an ankle injury, while Williams is healthy. We’ll see if Garrett makes a change at guard, but for now it seems that despite the Cowboys’ recent winning ways, the current offensive line rotation might not be their best.
Amari Cooper as the number one receiver
Of course, a lot of Dallas’s success is being attributed to the acquisition of Cooper from the Raiders for a first round pick. The team was 3-4 without him and they’re 6-2 with him, as Cooper has put up 48 catches for 694 and six touchdowns in those eight games. That’s a full season pace over 1,300 yards, which is kind of remarkable given how inept the passing offense looked in the first two months, including against the Seahawks.
(Don’t tell anyone, but actually Oakland was 1-5 with Cooper and have won three of their last six games as the offense sort of seems to not miss him all that much in that span, yet I’d hate to be the one to ruin a narrative. Points scored in the last six games: Seahawks, 182. Raiders, 140. Cowboys, 122. Jets ... 132.)
Back to the differences in Week 3 and today with Cooper. Check the snap count at receiver in Week 3, which was a big traffic jam of mostly players you’re not likely to see much of in the playoffs, if at all:
Allen Hurns, who was supposed to take over as the new number one, played four snaps in their most recent game. He had four targets, two catches, and 22 yards against the Seahawks. In the last six games, he has four targets, three catches, and 25 yards.
Deonte Thompson had two targets, two catches, and 23 yards vs Seattle. In 10 games since, he has 18 targets, eight catches, and 78 yards.
Tavon Austin scored a touchdown against the Seahawks despite having two yards on three catches. He was pretty much Tavon Austin and hasn’t played since Week 6 due to a groin injury.
Terrance Williams was placed on injured reserve.
The rotation now is clear: Cooper, Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup. Beasley is a known product and he’s a decent receiver but both of his touchdowns this season (and his only 100-yard game) came against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had three catches for 46 yards in Seattle, which is line with expectations. Gallup started getting more playing time around the acquisition of Cooper and he’s good for roughly 35 yards with a season-high of 81 against Washington. He had 76 yards in that win over the Saints, but followed it with four catches on nine targets and 24 yards vs the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cooper is certainly the biggest change to the offense and a major upgrade over...well, not having anyone like Cooper, but they’ve also settled into a more clear 1-2-3, with Gallup and Beasley filling those roles. (Sometimes you’ll see a dash of Noah Brown, but he’s more like their “Malik Turner” if anything.) But while Cooper had 473 yards in a three-game stretch, he’s also had eight catches for 52 yards in the two games since.
Also, Cooper did face the Seahawks this year: They held him to zero catches on one target in his final game for the Raiders.
Starting tight end: Dalton Schultz
A fourth round pick on a blocking tight end? You don’t say. The Cowboys selected Schultz 17 picks after Seattle plucked Will Dissly from Washington. While the Seahawks unfortunately won’t have Dissly, who had one catch and four yards in Week 3, Dallas has added Schultz to their rotation since then and he became the starter five weeks ago.
Schultz is a Y-tight end with the ability as a run blocker to help bolster a team’s rushing attack very quickly. While his frame could still use more mass, he plays with good technique and play strength at the point of attack and shows an ability to impose his will upon edge defenders if they half-step into the rep. Schultz is a capable and reliable target underneath, but his living will depend on how he impacts the running game. Schultz’s limited catch production could drop him a round, but he should be a solid, early starter.
In the last five games, Schultz has 10 targets, five catches, and 66 yards. We can assume though that Garrett loves him as a blocker and that’s why he’s in there. He played 33 snaps last week, while Blake Jarwin had 27. The starter in Week 3 was Geoff Swaim, who went on injured reserve in Week 12, opening the door for Schultz. Jarwin is more likely to receive a target, and he has 16 catches for 146 yards in the last five games.
No more holding back Leighton Vander Esch
If the Seahawks were holding out for a first round pick to give up Thomas, then the Cowboys are probably very happy with their decision to hold onto it for Vander Esch. Of course, Seattle could have also just drafted Vander Esch if they wanted to pair him with Bobby Wagner and call it the best linebacking duo in the NFL, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Dallas took him 19th overall and he’s come on as a legit Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
In Week 3, Vander Esch played in 33 snaps, or 48% of the time. He still had 10 tackles that day. He doesn’t come off the field anymore: in the last game he played in all 80 snaps. He’s a force to be reckoned with and perhaps a bigger concern than the addition of Cooper on offense.
CB3: Jourdan Lewis or Anthony Brown?
Dallas starts Byron Jones (Pro Bowler now under Kris Richard) and Chidobe Awuzie at cornerback, with Anthony Brown as the usual guy to get the third-most snaps on the team. That’s in large part because Jourdan Lewis, a third rounder in 2017, has been a disappointment and was essentially benched and didn’t play against the Seahawks. However, Brown missed the last game, forcing Lewis into action for 65 snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While Lewis got a game-sealing interception against the Saints, he’s clearly viewed as a depth-only guy by coaches. However, what I’ve seen from fans is that they’re not pleased with any of the corners save for Jones. We’ll see what the health situation is for Brown in the coming weeks, but it seems as though the corners in general are a potential liability on a defense that ranks ninth in DVOA, and 14th against the pass.
That being said, FootballOutsiders ranks that defense 7th against a number one receiver and 5th against a number two.
Two other changes: defensive tackle Caraun Reid has been added to the defensive line rotation, while cornerback/special teamer C.J. Goodwin looks to be activated from injured reserve after breaking his arm earlier this season.
There are of course differences for the Seahawks too, and perhaps the biggest change in this game, should it happen, will be the location. However, this piece is already too long and there’s plenty more time to get to those differences ... should we need to.