The Seattle Seahawks will make their return to the NFL playoffs on Saturday night following a year-long absence, taking on the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys—who are also returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
There are a handful of similarities between these two playoff teams, but the most central one is their commitment to the rushing attack. The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing, while Ezekiel Elliott was the NFL’s leading rusher. Seattle ran 534 running plays during the regular season, second most in the league, while Dallas ran the 10th most. Both the Seahawks and Cowboys will try to be the last one standing in an intense game that promises to be a four-quarter slugfest.
You can find a primer on Dallas’s scheme on both sides of the ball here, and we’ll jump into the numbers that matter.
Numbers that Matter
27.8: The 2018 season brought about several truly feel-good storylines. James Connor, having beat cancer, starred for his hometown team. J.J. Watt and Andrew Luck both made their returns from long-term injuries and played terrifically. And, Jaylon Smith broke out into an All-Pro caliber star for the Cowboys, just a couple of years removed from a career-threatening knee injury. Smith started all 16 games for Dallas, collecting 122 tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and four sacks while forming what will be an outstanding duo for many years with Leighton Vander Esch.
While playing at Notre Dame, Smith was lauded for his elite range, athleticism and IQ. However, in a strictly off-ball role, Smith rarely got after the quarterback. As a full-time starter in 2018 in an aggressive defense, that changed. Smith led all off-ball linebackers in pass rushing win percentage, at 27.8%. In his snaps as a pass rusher, Smith created pressure 22% of the time, which ranked eighth among linebackers.
The budding star on the Cowboys’ defense got to the quarterback by rushing with great anticipation, or on delayed blitzes. (Or, on occasion, cleaning up as a QB spy.) The majority of the time, Smith’s pressure came through the A-gap, between the left tackle and guard. This is bad news for a Seattle offense that’s been without J.R. Sweezy for several weeks, receiving dreadful play from Ethan Pocic in his absence.
Sweezy is officially questionable for Saturday night, and it remains to be seen how the Seahawks would manage the line without him. With D.J. Fluker, Germain Ifedi and George Fant all available, the line could switch to Duane Brown-Fluker-Justin Britt-Ifedi-Fant. Or, Pocic could keep his place at left guard. Regardless of how Seattle lines up against Dallas, Smith’s presence as a pass rusher must be accounted for. His burst, a great thing to see returned after his injury, makes him a highly dangerous blitzer, even if he doesn’t come immediately.
I do think Jaylon Smith has a really good feel as to how to blitz. It may be his best quality right now. pic.twitter.com/d6Z4NfnmK1— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 1, 2017
15: In what should’ve been Dak Prescott’s defining season as it related to his second contract—Jerry Jones has pledged to give him an extension regardless—he wasn’t entirely inspiring. No doubt, Amari Cooper’s arrival was a huge boost to Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense, but Prescott’s play didn’t improve as much as you would like in year three.
At his best, Prescott is a physical and dangerous runner, a passer who can shrug off contact inside and outside of the pocket, and push the ball downfield or into tight windows with outstanding velocity. However, since his rookie season, there’s been a steady downturn in that final trait. His percent of aggressive throws, per Next Gen Stats, has dropped every season since 2016. His average air yards dropped from 2017 to 2018, as well. Prescott simply hasn’t progressed as a passer as one would’ve hoped.
One of Prescott’s biggest issues, dating back to his time as a star at Mississippi State, is his lack of awareness as a passer in the backfield. While the Cowboys’ offensive line is a shell of its former self, Prescott did them no favors this season. Of the 56 sacks given up by Dallas in 2018, 15 were attributed to Prescott rather than the line—the most among all quarterbacks.
Pete Carroll has long preached the importance of affecting the quarterback. Against Prescott and the Cowboys, the Seahawks ability to affect Prescott and move him off his spot should lead to pass rush productivity.
48: In comparing Dallas and Seattle’s rosters, you get the sense it should be a very even game. Both quarterbacks have similar strengths (though Wilson is of course light years ahead of Prescott as a passer). Both offenses are run heavy, while leaning on production after the catch from their wide receivers. Both have budding stars at defensive end, with dominant linebacker duos behind them. And both secondaries feature young, athletic and long defenders, who though promising, are raw. The Cowboys may have peaked too soon, but Saturday night should be hotly contested.
However, for all the similarities between the two ball clubs, there is an area where the Seahawks can really separate themselves from Dallas, and escape Jerry World with a win. Despite Elliott’s excellence as a runner (and Prescott’s, for that matter), the Cowboys were one of the league’s worst red zone offenses in 2018. Dallas converted 48% of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns, which placed them at 28th in the NFL. Seattle, on the other hand, was one of the league’s best at preventing touchdowns inside the red zone, with their opponent’s scoring 49% of the time—good for fourth.
Much has been made about the Seahawks’ red zone offense all season long. If they continue to execute in their opportunities, while continuing to make their opponent settle for field goals, they should be able to create a gap between themselves and Dallas.
Matchups to Watch
Shaquill Griffin versus Amari Cooper: Griffin’s precautionary exit from Week 17 evolved into a legitimate concern over the week, as the sophomore cornerback missed practice with an ankle injury. Thankfully, by the time the final injury report was delivered on Thursday, Griffin was listed as good to go for Saturday. Now, he’ll turn his attention to slowing down the receiver who reinvigorated a fluttering offense. In nine games with the Cowboys, Cooper caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns, while playing at a level we hadn’t seen from him in several seasons.
Since arriving in Dallas, Cooper has reminded the entire league why he was selected with the fourth overall pick. Cooper is a technician, running his patterns as clean as any receiver not named Antonio Brown. Of Cooper’s 107 targets, 41 came when he was open, per Pro Football Focus’ charting—a testament to the precise route runner he is.
The second key reason for Cooper’s explosive production as a Cowboy has been his play after the catch. He separates with elite route running, then punishes the already beat defensive back by creating with the ball in his hands. Cooper averaged 5.6 yards after the catch this season, 11th among all WRs/TEs with 40+ receptions.
Cooper’s ability both before and after the catch make him a particularly worrying matchup for Griffin, especially if Griffin is hobbled at all by injury. A receiver like Cooper can take advantage of Griffin’s weaknesses as a corner, mainly, his inability to locate the football at the catch point. If his ankle injury slows him down, he won’t be able to depend on superior athleticism to negate Cooper’s ability after the catch, either.
Tyler Lockett versus Byron Jones: Among the many surprises on Dallas’s defense this year was Jones, who took to his new position at cornerback with ease. In his first full season playing the position, Jones played at an All-Pro level. The defining performance in his best season to date was the Cowboys’ shock win over the Saints, where he locked down the impossible Michael Thomas outside and in the slot, limiting him to five catches for 40 yards. Though Dallas seems comfortable with Anthony Brown as their nickel defender, it’s fair to wonder if Lockett will get the same treatment that Thomas got.
Lockett, a wonderfully explosive playmaker in 2018, wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Jones, a 99th percentile athlete, to stick with in coverage. Jones forced a tight window throw on 39.5% of his targets in 2018, the best among all cornerbacks who faced 30+ targets this season. His 14 pass breakups was tied for the 11th most in the NFL, while allowing a catch rate of just 53.6.
A matchup between Jones and Lockett would be a fantastic battle between two breakout players who move with ease in the open field. Whoever Jones is tasked with covering on Saturday night will find it difficult to produce, whether they have a perfect passer rating when targeted or not.
Opponent to Know
Connor Williams, LG: It appears as though both Seattle and the Cowboys will be missing their starters at left guard when they play on Saturday. Xavier Su’a-Filo is doubtful for Dallas, meaning the rookie Williams will likely return to the starting lineup for the first time since November.
Williams’ presence on the line could be key to the Seahawks getting pressure on Prescott. Frank Clark, one half of Seattle’s two-headed monster on the defensive line, won’t find much joy when lined up on the right. Tyron Smith is healthy and as dominant as ever—he didn’t allow a pressure in nearly half his games this season—and will lock Clark down when matched up against him.
The other half of the Seahawks’ duo, Jarran Reed, could end up being their most important player up front on Saturday. Williams is much more of a technician than a mauler, and is still adjusting to life on the interior. Reed is playing the best football of his career and has developed into a complete player in 2018. He should be able to win against Williams with power and superior hand usage, affecting the quarterback and helping Seattle to make critical stops.
Though the Seahawks and Dallas are evenly matched across each team’s depth chart, Seattle should find themselves in good position to win if they can prevent the Cowboys from finishing drives and affect Prescott as a passer. Not only are the Seahawks back in the NFL playoffs, they have a great opportunity to advance.