The Seahawks are headed to Dallas for Wild Card weekend in what will be a battle between two of the NFC’s hottest teams, with Seattle having won six of its last seven, while the Cowboys have won seven of eight.
“This is a really good matchup, I hope we can play worthy of it,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “These guys do all the things that we admire in a team—they run the ball, they’ve got balance, they take care of the football, they play good defense, they’re good on special teams, they’ve got guys that can really step up and make plays. It’s a really good matchup for us.”
The Seahawks are 4-0 on Wild Card weekend under Pete Carroll, and dating back to the 2005 season, they have advanced to at least the Divisional Round and won at least one playoff game in 10 consecutive trips to the postseason. If the Seahawks are going to keep that streak alive and beat the Cowboys on Saturday night, these are three key matchups that could make the difference:
1. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott vs. Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL with 2,001 yards from scrimmage during the regular season, including a league-high 1,434 rushing yards, so slowing him down is going to require a full team effort, not just another big game from Seahawks All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Even so, when a play does come down to Elliott vs. Wagner, it will be a fun battle to watch.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner missed just one tackle all season while recording a team-high 138 tackles, giving him a 0.7 percent missed-tackle percentage. That’s the lowest percentage for a season since 2006 when the website began tracking that stat. Elliott, meanwhile, had an NFL-high 950 rushing yards after contact and forced 37 missed tackles.
“He’s a great player,” Carroll said. “We’re talking 1,400-plus (rushing) yards and 77 catches. The ball is in his hands most of the time. He’s a great player and he runs strong, he’s elusive, he catches the ball well out of the backfield. He can catch the short stuff, he can make you go long and he’s a good blocker too. I don’t know him at all, but I am sure he’s a great competitor, he just plays like it. It all matters to him and there’s an intensity about his play that has made him already a significant player in the league and a pivotal guy on their team for sure.”
While Elliott is once again the NFL’s top rusher, Wagner remains the model of consistency at his position, having recorded more than 100 tackles every year of his career, giving him 914 in his seven-year career.
“Bobby is just a fantastic football player in so many different ways,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said on a conference call. “He’s an outstanding tackler. He’s so good at getting to the play, making plays all over the field, takes great angles, anticipates and then when he gets there, he finishes the play. He’s an outstanding football player, a great tackler and ranks up there with any of the guys certainly playing today.”
Earlier this week Wagner was asked if he has ever been a bad tackler, and he joked, “Maybe when I was an infant and I was barely walking, kind of hard to bring people down. My legs weren’t fully developed yet. When you think of a linebacker, you think of a guy that knows how to tackle, so when I chose to play linebacker, I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to make sure that’s one area of my game that nobody can question my ability to tackle.’ It’s something to focus on, you take pride in, and when you play those guys who talk trash after they make you miss, you don’t want them to talk, so what better way to shut them up than not missing.”
2. Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin and Seattle’s big-play passing game vs Kris Richard’s pass defense.
Like the Cowboys, the Seahawks want to establish a ground game, and in Chris Carson, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for December, Seattle also has a back capable of taking over a game. That being said, running the ball won’t be easy against a talented Cowboys defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 94.6 yards per game. The Cowboys have given up more than 100 yards only six times this season, and lost five of those games, including a Week 3 game in Seattle, so if the Seahawks are able to run the ball well, that would obviously be an encouraging sign. If the Cowboys run defense does prove to be stingy, however, the Seahawks still feel like they can move the ball thanks to a passing offense that has shown the ability to come through with big plays when needed.
So many times this season, the Seahawks have needed a big play out of the passing game, and so often Russell Wilson and his weapons, most notably Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin and David Moore, have come through. Take Seattle’s Week 16 win over Kansas City, for example, when the Seahawks hit two huge passes late in the game, a 45-yarder to Lockett and a 29-yarder to Baldwin that set up a touchdown to give the Seahawks a two-score lead. Or look back to Seattle’s Week 12 win over Carolina when Wilson threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns, including more than 100 yards to both Lockett and Moore. And in Seattle’s Week 3 win over the Cowboys, the Seahawks did go over 100 yards rushing, but averaged only 2.9 yards per carry, and they scored two touchdowns on explosive plays, a 16-yarder to Jaron Brown and a 52-yarder to Lockett.
The combination of a strong running game and an efficient and explosive passing game have allowed the Seahawks to average 30.0 points per game since Week 10, the second most in the league, and pile up 73 explosive plays (runs of 12-plus yards and passes of 16-plus), which is tied with Kansas City for the most over that span.
“The play-pass stuff has been huge for us,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Doug coming back, Tyler doing what he’s been doing. The last four, five, six weeks we’ve been functioning really, really well. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now, so I think that when we’re at our best is when we do that. When we run the ball and play-pass and just kind of get into a rhythm. We’ll need to do that against this team because it’s a good defense, they’re top 10 in almost every category. They’re playing well right now, so we’ll have to hit some explosive plays.”
As good as Dallas’ defense has been this year, they have given up 17 explosive passes in their last three games, tied for the fifth most in the league, including nine to the New York Giants last week. Overall, however, the Cowboys defense has been tough to crack at all three levels, and the Seahawks will recognize the style of Dallas’ defense thanks to the impact of passing game coordinator Kris Richard, who is in his first year with the Cowboys having previously served as Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
“Kris has done a fantastic job for us,” Garrett said. “He really has. We felt like, when we hired him, that so much of what he believes in is what we believe in. He and (defensive coordinator) Rod Marinelli are cut from the same cloth. The DNA of our defense is aligned with the values that Kris has so it’s been a really good fit in that regard. Obviously, he has different experiences and different perspectives on things and some different ways he wants to do things and I think that’s been a positive thing for us. I think it’s helped our entire defense and certainly the back seven of our defense. He’s just a really smart guy. He’s very passionate about football, he’s a fantastic teacher, a great communicator, he’s able to inspire guys and get them to play, and he just does a fantastic job from top to bottom.”
3. Frank Clark, Jarran Reed and the Seahawks pass rush vs. Dallas’ pass protection.
The Seahawks have plenty of things to worry about when it comes to Dallas’ offense, from Elliott’s production to the play of quarterback Dak Prescott to the difference receiver Amari Cooper has made since joining Dallas in a midseason trade. But if the Seahawks can slow the running game and put the Cowboys in obvious passing situations, their pass rush should have a chance to make some plays. The Seahawks sacked Prescott five times in the previous meeting, including two from Jarran Reed, who had a career-best 10.5 this season, and one from Frank Clark, who also established a new career high with 13. Overall this season, the Cowboys allowed 56 sacks, the second most in the NFL.
“We have great respect for them,” Garrett said of Seattle’s pass rush. “They’re really good on their defensive front. (Clark and Reed) have been the most productive at sacking the quarterback, but the other guys who are playing with those guys are awfully good players too and they work well together. They rotate guys in. Those guys have an impact. I’ve always believed that the success of their defense and really any defense starts up front. They’ve done a great job through the years of getting guys around the quarterback and having defensive linemen be disruptive defending the run. This year is no different.”
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.