The Seahawks are back in the playoffs for the seventh time in nine years under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, and they head to Dallas this weekend looking to also make it seven trips to at least the Divisional Round of the playoffs in the past nine years.
Getting past Dallas in the Wild Card round won’t be an easy task, however, not while facing a team that won seven of its final eight games to wrap up the NFC East title. To learn more about the Cowboys and how they turned things around, we reached out to DallasCowboys.com staff writer David Helman:
Q: OK, let’s just start with the big-picture question: how did a team that started the year 3-5 end up winning seven of eight down the stretch to win the division?
Helman: Honestly, those of us that cover this team are still trying to figure that out. I think it’s a combination of improving the offensive personnel, as well as young guys stepping up. The Cowboys obviously traded for Amari Cooper, and that has been a big boost for the passing game. But it’s not as if Cooper is doing all the lifting. Cooper’s presence opened things up for Ezekiel Elliott—who not only finished with the NFL rushing title, but quietly caught 77 passes for 567 yards this year. Elliott and Cooper playing like Pro Bowlers has made life easier on Dak Prescott, who played far better in the second half of the season. Throw in some big contributions from youngsters like Michael Gallup and Blake Jarwin, and it’s been enough to lift the offense. The defense was already good before all of this happened, so needless to say, giving them better offensive production to work with has paid dividends.
Q: Does the lack of playoff success in recent years put extra pressure on this team, or does the pressure pretty much always stay the same, this being the Dallas Cowboys and all?
Helman: There’s always going to be pressure on a franchise with such a storied history, but make no mistake: there is even more than usual right now. Keep in mind, it was only two years ago that the Cowboys won 11 games in a row, finished the season 13-3—and then went one-and-done in the playoffs. Every single member of this fanbase remembers that. I think it’s fair to say they’re haunted by it, to be honest. For all their regular season success in recent seasons, the Cowboys have just two playoff wins in the last decade. They haven’t played in an NFC Championship Game since 1996. It doesn’t matter how young this team is, or what injuries they’re dealing with. Making the playoffs simply isn’t good enough.
Q: Amari Cooper wasn’t on the Cowboys roster the last time these teams faced off, how big of a difference has he made for that offense?
Helman: I don’t think you can underscore just how much he has done, and it reflects in more ways than just his statistical performance. Obviously, he has played well. In just nine appearances, he has caught 53 balls for 725 yards and six touchdowns—including a 217-yard, three-touchdown performance that almost single-handedly beat Philadelphia. But on top of that, he has opened things up for Elliott. Before, opponents could crowd the box to slow down the run, confident that the Cowboys’ receivers couldn’t make them pay. Cooper has changed that, demanding double coverage and safety help. It’s been a real shot in the arm for the passing game, but the trickle-down effect on the run game has been just as big.
Q: The Cowboys have one of the league’s best run defenses this season, how big a factor are those young linebackers in that success, and how big a test will Seattle’s running game be for them?
Helman: There are two main components I look at. The play of the Cowboys’ defensive tackles has been instrumental. Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods have been great at penetrating the pocket and affecting the quarterback, but they’ve also been great at eating up blocks. That’s crucial, because as athletic as Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are, they haven’t completely mastered the art of shedding blocks. Fortunately for them, they’ve got solid line play in front of them, and when they’re uncovered they are scary. With all due respect to Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, among others, I’m not sure there’s a more athletic duo of linebackers in the NFL than these two guys. Seattle’s success is going to hinge on the ability of their offensive line to get to the second level, in my opinion. Because if Smith and Vander Esch are free to roam, rushing yards will likely be hard to come by.
Q: Now that he has a full season under his belt, what has former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard brought to the Cowboys defense?
Helman: If you want proof of Kris Richard’s impact on this team, look no further than Byron Jones’ spot in the Pro Bowl. One year ago at this time, Jones was riding the bench as a rotational safety. Today, he’s one of the best cover corners in the NFL. Richard clearly has an eye for the type of talent that fits his scheme, and he has also brought intensity to this group. I probably don’t need to tell anyone who follows the Seahawks how much fire Richard brings to the sideline, and I think that has rubbed off on this young roster. There’s not a ton of playoff experience on this defense, but Richard has these guys playing with confidence beyond their years.
Q: Did you get your picture taken with the Ken Griffey Jr. statue when you were here in September?
(Note: As his Twitter followers already know, Helman is a pretty diehard Mariners fan despite being a New Orleans native currently living in Texas Rangers country).
Helman: Unfortunately, I didn’t. The team stayed way out in Renton, so I didn’t make it over to Safeco … er, T-Mobile. Whatever, I’m still gonna call it Safeco. I did make it up to Husky Stadium for a Washington game, though. So that was cool. The plan is definitely to make a trip up there for a series in the spring.
The Seahawks and Cowboys will meet for the second time in the postseason this Saturday in Dallas. Take a look back at photos from past games played between the two teams.