With the Seahawks headed to Dallas this weekend to face the Cowboys in a matchup of 8-6 playoff hopefuls, we reached out to DallasCowboys.com staff writer David Helman to learn more about Seattle's Week 16 opponent.
Q: What kind of spark will the return of Ezekiel Elliott give to the offense? And what's realistic to expect out of him after a six-game absence?
Helman: I honestly don't know if "spark" even does justice to Ezekiel Elliott's role in this offense. He is the engine that makes the whole thing work. He is an incredibly tough, talented runner. He is an above average receiver, and he is a gifted blocker. He forces defenses to account for him, and it makes life so much easier on Dak Prescott. But it will be interesting to see just how quickly he re-acclimates after such a long layoff. In both of his pro seasons so far, he has taken a week or two to really get going. But all the talk coming from his camp is that he has been training diligently during his suspension—on top of that, he had eight weeks' worth of games to get into a groove. I think the Cowboys are going to plug him right into the starting spot and expect him to pick up right where he left off.
Q: Dak Prescott was a sensation as a rookie. How has he handled the hype that created heading into his second season, and overall what kind of season is he having?
Helman: I imagine that most people would tell you Dak Prescott has had a bit of a disappointing sophomore season—but that's really more about how good he was in 2016 than how bad he's been in 2017. His numbers have dipped a bit, as has his win-loss record, and he had to fight through a tough six-game stretch where he didn't have an All-Pro running back at his side. Despite all of that, he never lost his confidence or the calm, cool the demeanor that wowed so many people last fall. He's also managed to keep the Cowboys in the playoff hunt despite a litany of setbacks that have worked against him. It's fair to say that 2017 hasn't lived up to the hype for Dak, for a variety of reasons. But I think the Cowboys are even more confident now that they found the right guy to be their quarterback of the future than they were last year.
Q: Things looked bleak a few weeks ago when the Cowboys were 5-6 and being held to single-digit point totals in three straight. Now they've won three straight averaging nearly 30 points per game and are back in the playoff hunt. What changed?
Helman: This is going to sound like a cheap excuse, but it's one I'm sure a lot of Seahawks fans can understand—but a lot of it was about health and availability. In my opinion, the best three players on this roster are Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith and Sean Lee — and the Cowboys were without all of those guys at times during that stretch. In Atlanta, where they surrendered eight sacks and scored just seven points in a 27-7 loss, they were without all three. Smith and Lee gradually made their way back to the lineup, and you saw things begin to swing back. The offense played well enough to win games these last three weeks, but it never really found its mojo without Elliott. With Zeke back in the lineup, the hope around Dallas is that the Cowboys can play at the level they reached in October, when they were winning games and averaging 34 points in the process.
Q: The difference in defensive numbers with and without Sean Lee are pretty staggering. Is he really that big of a difference maker or did other factors contribute to those differences?
Helman: It sounds a bit silly—but he really does appear to be that big of a difference maker. The Cowboys have other good players on their defense. The pass rush has been surprisingly good this season, with DeMarcus Lawrence posting 13.5 sacks on the year. But Lee is the heartbeat of the entire unit. He makes every single tackle, he sniffs plays out before they happen, he gets all of his teammates into the correct alignments, and on top of that he raises the confidence level of everyone around him. In the nine weeks that Lee has finished the game on the field, the Cowboys are surrendering an average of 17 points. In the five weeks that Lee has either missed the game or left early, they're surrendering an average of 35 points. He's on pace to finish with well over 100 tackles, despite missing 30 percent of the season. To say he's important would be a massive understatement.
Q: Does Jason Witten age? OK, more seriously, how much does Witten meant to that Cowboys offense even 15 years into his career, and how does he remain so effective at 35?
Helman: It's funny, because there are definitely times where Witten has looked his age this season. The 35-year-old tight end sometimes takes a back seat to the 22-year-old All-Pro running back, as Witten has posted just one catch in five different games this season—which is a staggeringly low number, by his standards. And yet, when the chips are down, Dak Prescott still knows where to turn. Witten had just one catch on Dec. 10 in New York, but it was a 20-yard touchdown reception to take a fourth quarter lead. Last week, Witten's crucial, 9-yard reception on third down set the stage for Prescott's quarterback sneak—which resulted in the infamous note card measurement. So it's fair to say that Witten's impact has decreased a bit while his age has increased, but he's still a guy that defenses would be wise to account for.
Bonus question: Should Edgar Martinez be in the Hall of Fame?
Note: Despite being from New Orleans and living in Texas, Helman is a longtime Mariners fans. He credits it with growing up during the Ken Griffey Jr. era while living in a city with no Major League team—"he wore his hat backward and hit dingers and made crazy catches at the wall"—as well as the Mariners' "awesome shade of green."
Helman: Edgar Martinez should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame, because anyone who is in the "best-ever" conversation at their position should be in the Hall of Fame. I feel like Edgar doesn't get a ton of credit because he didn't hit homers, but he's certainly one of the best DH's to ever do it—if not the best. Leaving him out of the Hall of Fame would be like leaving Adam Vinatieri out of the Hall of Fame (which would be super stupid, in my opinion).