After beginning their 2018 season with two tough matchups on the road, the Seattle Seahawks finally return home. They will welcome the 1-1 Dallas Cowboys for their home opener. The Cowboys sit atop the NFC East after two weeks, and while there’s certainly reasons for optimism in Dallas, they present an excellent chance for the Seahawks to get off the mark in 2018.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
At the center of the Cowboys and OC Scott Linehan’s offense is a zone blocking scheme. Though they’ve regressed (from being the gold standard) in the past couple years, they remain one of the most well executed running teams in the league.
Dallas’s offense begins with the running game. Despite missing Ezekiel Elliott for six games in 2017, they finished 2nd by DVOA in rushing. The Cowboys’ fantastic running game helps to set up their play-action passing game, an area where Prescott excels. It also happens to mesh perfectly with another key part of Linehan’s offense, the vertical passing game.
In what was largely viewed as a down season for Prescott, he finished second in the NFL in the Deep Ball Project. Despite his number one receiver being little more than a contested-catch specialist, Prescott was the fourth most accurate deep passer under pressure, the most accurate on throws of 40+ yards and the second most on throws of 16-19 yards. Getting back to the importance of play-action for Dallas, he was the most accurate deep passer off play-action, as well.
Oddly, as talk of discontent between Russell Wilson and Seattle’s coaching staff filled Twitter this week—even leading Carroll to clarify the matter in his Wednesday press conference—the Cowboys are going through their own quarterback-coach controversy.
Prescott made a bit of a story last week when he mentioned quarterback coach Kellen Moore (yes, that one) acts as a mediator between himself and Linehan on game days. Perhaps it’s nothing, but it’s just another strange twist for an OC and head coach who have lasted longer than they should’ve.
On defense, after years of Ron Marinelli having to craft competency out of a talent poor group, Dallas finally has an impressive defense. At all three levels, the Cowboys have above-average starters.
They’re deployed in a 4-3 system not dissimilar to Pete Carroll’s, especially with former Seahawks DC Kris Richard as their passing game coordinator on defense now—and calling plays. Marinelli has favored a cover-2 heavy system in the past, however cover-3/single-high looks have been worked in with Richard’s addition.
In the secondary, they deploy several Seahawk-y cornerbacks, headlined by the uber-athletic Byron Jones. Miscast as a safety to begin his career, Jones was finally moved to cornerback full-time in 2018 and has gotten off to a great start.
Though there has been talk about Dallas blitzing more in 2018, traditionally, Marinelli has depended on a four-man rush. In 2017, their blitz percentage (five or more rushers) of 20.7 was 23rd in the NFL. During their win on Sunday Night Football in Week 2, that number was even lower.
Numbers that Matter
115.4: After the first week of the season, Seattle ranked dead last in pressure rate. After two weeks, it isn’t much better. The Seahawks currently sit 29th in the league in pressure rate, at 20.2%.
As Seattle looks to kick start their pass rush in 2018, they’re in a tough spot. Sunday will see them take on one of the league’s best passers against the blitz. Prescott’s passer rating of 115.4 against a five-plus man rush is fifth in the NFL through two games.
The Seahawks will have to rely on a four-man rush to get the job done against Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense, otherwise they risk exposing themselves on the back-end and allowing Prescott to thrive against the blitz, as he has early in the season.
Both Dion Jordan and Frank Clark are continuing to get healthy as the season moves along, and Week 3 should see them take another step forward as they recover from offseason surgeries. Against Prescott, Seattle is going to need their edge rushers to carry the load.
17: An early, worrying trend for the Seahawks after two weeks is the way their linebackers have been picked on in pass coverage. Of course, injuries to both Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright haven’t helped the matter. Against the Broncos in Week 1, Seattle surrendered four catches for 42 yards to running backs, including a 29-yard touchdown that came all too easy. Against the Bears in Week 2, they gave up four catches for 50 yards to Chicago’s backs. Both games have seen an opposition’s back slip a tackle in the flat and scoot up the sideline.
The loss in Denver saw the Seahawks come up against an electrifying UDFA in Philip Lindsay, while the loss on Monday Night Football was to a Bears team happy to target their backs. Against the Cowboys in Week 3, they may not have to worry about the same issue. Dallas’s 17 throws within five yards of the line of scrimmage is the fourth lowest mark in the league. They rarely check down into the flats, and they don’t push Elliott vertically, either.
Sunday should see the return of Wagner, and potentially Wright as well. Their linebacker corps are getting a boost, and a favorable matchup against the pass to get back on track.
3: Though Pro Football Focus has Seattle’s offensive line as the eighth best pass blocking unit in the NFL, pass protection has been less than ideal to begin the season. They have been largely improved from last season, but at least half of the sacks allowed this year can be blamed on them.
Wilson has been hurried and hit all too much again, including a six-sack beating last week. Now, a depleted line which may be missing both Justin Britt and Ethan Pocic on Sunday, will take on a Cowboys defense which boasts the third highest sack rate in the NFL.
Germain Ifedi, knocked for his mental toughness by Cliff Avril previously, will have to switch his mindset from taking on the game’s best power rusher in Khalil Mack to the game’s best speed rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence. On the opposite side, Taco Charlton has made a big step forward in his second season, giving Lawrence a legitimate partner.
Returning home for the first time this season will undoubtedly help the Seahawks’ offensive line with communication, one of their lasting issues. Against a relentless Dallas front, they’re going to need to improve more than just their communication.
Matchups to Watch
A spiraling passing game versus a break out secondary: The Cowboys’ secondary is finally coming together after investing heavily in it through the draft recently. Jones is back on the path to stardom, Chidobe Awuzie has solidified the other side in his sophomore season, and though fellow sophomore Jourdan Lewis has fallen off the map with just one snap in 2018, Anthony Brown has performed well in the slot.
Dallas has given up just one explosive passing play, measured as a completion of 20 yards or more, in their first two games. Additionally, their 30 stops against the pass is the second-most recorded through two games since 2006.
On the opposite side, you have a passing attack led by Wilson that has sputtered out of the gate. Wilson’s ANY/A is over a full yard lower than his career-low, and he has looked skittish in the pocket. Seattle’s receivers have failed to cover for the loss of Doug Baldwin, and through two weeks their best receiving option appears to be a rookie who played on the opposite side of the ball just a few years ago.
A common trend in the lead up to Week 3’s game: The Seahawks need to see improvement from their passing attack to end their dreadful start to the season. If it happens this week, it’ll be coming against a very impressive pass defense.
Seattle’s running backs versus the Cowboys’ linebackers: For all the praise Dallas’s secondary has rightfully received, both the Panthers and Giants have taken advantage of the weak spot in the Cowboys’ pass defense.
Just as the Seahawks have struggled to defend running backs in the passing game, the same goes for Dallas under Richard. Carroll’s system leaves the flats vulnerable and teams take advantage of the short passing game—and have done so against the Cowboys, as well.
Only the Indianapolis Colts have a higher percentage of their passing yards allowed to running backs this season. 30.91% of the yards Dallas has given up through the air have gone to running backs—over 13% above the league average. In Week 1, it was Christian McCaffrey catching six balls for 45 yards; in Week 2, Saquon Barkley helped Eli Manning dink-and-dunk his way through four quarters to the tune of 14 receptions (!) and 80 yards.
Thus far, Brian Schottenheimer’s attempts at getting running backs involved in the passing game have gone horribly wrong. Three times in two games Seattle has ran the exact same play in the exact same formation out of the exact same personnel grouping—even using the same motion to split their back out wide—which culminated in Chicago’s game-sealing pick-six.
After talking up C.J. Prosise’s versatility and ability during training camp, the third year back has played just 25 snaps. Carroll can’t figure out how to correctly split time between Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson. The Seahawks are focused on getting their running game going, but getting their backs involved in the passing game should be the bigger priority. Should they do so against Dallas, it could exploit a weak spot in an up-and-coming defense.
Opponent to Know
Taco Charlton, DE: 2017 saw the Cowboys get the season they’ve been waiting for out of DeMarcus Lawrence. For years—since DeMarcus Ware’s departure, really—Dallas has lacked any sort of pass rush off the edge. Now, the Cowboys may just have two stud edge rushers on their roster.
Taco Charlton was disappointing as a rookie, playing sparingly (38% of snaps) and registering just three sacks. He appears to be a transformed player in 2018 and had back-to-back splash plays on Sunday Night Football to announce himself to the country—before adding a fumble recovery later in the game.
On Sunday, Seattle will take on a toned down version of the team they were, and the team they’re trying to be again in Dallas. A will-imposing, physical running game; a young, talented secondary; a fast and aggressive front-seven; and all led by a dynamic, mobile quarterback who isn’t afraid to push the ball downfield. As it was for the Seahawks’ opponents for years, it will be a 12-round slug-fest that Seattle will have to survive in order to avoid an 0-3 start.