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Three Key Matchups: Seahawks vs Cowboys

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After opening the season with consecutive road games, the Seahawks are eager to return to CenturyLink Field, where they’ll host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon.

“This is really special to come home,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It feels like we have not been home in a long time, and to be playing here in front of the 12s and all that is a big deal to us. It’s obvious that we need to get kick started and this is the best place in the world to do that.”

The Seahawks need to get “kick started,” as Carroll put it, because they lost a pair of close games on the road to start the season, and as linebacker Bobby Wagner bluntly noted this week, “You don’t want to be 0-3.” Standing in the Seahawks’ way are the Dallas Cowboys, who are 1-1 having lost their opener at Carolina before bouncing back with a victory over the New York Giants last weekend.

If the Seahawks are going to earn their first victory of the 2018 season, these are three key matchups that could make the difference on Sunday:

1. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott vs. Seattle’s run defense.

After giving up some big gains on the ground against Denver, Seattle cleaned up its run defense last week, limiting Chicago’s running backs to a 2.4 yards-per-carry average, but Sunday’s game presents the toughest challenge yet for Seattle’s run defense.

Ezekiel Elliott, who was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie two seasons ago, remains the centerpiece of Dallas’ offense, bringing into this game a solid 4.6 yards-per-carry average while rushing for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games.

“The entire offense goes through him,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. “He’s a guy that really runs the ball well, great vision, good speed. He really understands how to play behind his pads, and then the quarterback, Dak (Prescott), has been doing an excellent job of keeping the ball. He’s getting involved in the run game as well, stands in the pocket really well, so those are two guys that we certainly have to stop.”

Prescott and the Dallas passing game have yet to get on track, with Dallas ranking 30th in passing offense, so it’s safe to assume the Cowboys are hoping to lean on the running game, particularly while playing in a hostile environment.

One piece of good news for the Seahawks is that they’ll have All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner back from a one-game absence due to a groin injury, but Wagner knows as well as anyone that slowing Elliott is no easy task.

“It is very difficult,” Wagner said. “He runs really hard. I think they have a great scheme and he’s able to read the linemen very, very well. He’s very physical. I don’t see him running out of bounds too often. He’s a guy you have to put a body on and a guy you have to make sure you hit. I’m excited for the challenge. We’re coming back home, I think it’ll be a fun game.”

2. Seattle’s third-down offense vs. Dallas’ defense, and vice versa.

Both Seattle and Dallas have struggled to get on track offensively this season, and if you ask coaches from either team about the causes, one of the first answers they’ll likely give will reference the teams’ struggles on third down.

The Seahawks are just 7 for 25 on third-down this season, including a 2 for 12 showing in their season opener, but the Cowboys have been even worse, converting just 5 of 21 third-down chances. Whichever team can reverse that trend could very well be the one that gets its offense going and comes out of Sunday’s game with a victory. On the other side of the ball, Seahawks opponents are converting at a 37.5-percent rate, while Cowboys opponents are faring slightly better at 41.1 percent.

“From an offensive standpoint, it’s just so important for us and really for any offense to stay ahead of the chains,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said on a conference call with Seattle-area media. “In the first game against Carolina, we just didn’t do that. We had five drives in the first half, we were behind the chains in a big way on every one of them. We had a lot of second-and-17s and second-and-20s, whether it was due to penalties or we had a sack or this, that or the other thing. It’s very difficult and challenging to be efficient offensively when you’re digging out of those holes.”

By failing to convert often enough on third down, the Seahawks offense has had a hard time staying on the field, one the big reasons the running game hasn’t been as big of a weapon Seattle had hoped, and too many third-and-longs have made Russell Wilson vulnerable to pressure, part of the reason he has been sacked 12 times.

“This week, only having six plays in the third quarter, that was just one of those deals where we’re not converting third downs,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “The cool thing that I said to the guys is this—we know what the issues are, so when you know what the issues are, you can address them, you can fix them, you can emphasize that it’s time of possession or it’s third downs or it’s sacks. If I was standing up there, or we as a staff were looking and saying, ‘hey, you know, we really don’t know what the issues are and we're just struggling,’ that’s not the case. We know what we need to clean up, we’ve been emphasizing that. We started last week with red zone and we did a nice job in the red zone last week. I think we’ll find our rhythm again this week. We know we need to be better. Nobody likes sitting here at 0-2. We’re competing to (improve).”

When Carroll was asked about the lack of running plays, he too brought up third down: “We need to be more efficient. We were better this week than we were last week. We just need more runs. We just need more first downs and more runs. It’s an important part of the way we play. That’s no change, that’s nothing. We just haven’t got it done yet. I’m hoping that it feeds off of third-down conversions and we get our chances, and then we can keep the ball running.”

3. Turnover battle

When the Seahawks played at Dallas late last season, they were outgained by the Cowboys 282-136, yet they flew home from that Christmas Eve contest with a 21-12 victory. The biggest reason the Seahawks came out on top despite that limited offensive output? They won the turnover battle 3-0, including a forced fumble that gave the offense a short field to set up one touchdown, and a Justin Coleman interception that the nickel cornerback returned for a touchdown.

The Cowboys have done a good job taking care of the ball this season, but have not forced many turnovers, and are yet to record an interception. The Seahawks secondary already has five picks, but thanks to some untimely turnovers, Seattle is only even in turnover ratio. If Seattle’s defense can continue its ball-hawking ways, and if Wilson and company can get back to their normal ways—Seattle had only 17 turnovers all of last season, which was tied for seventh fewest in the NFL—then the Seahawks could greatly help their chances of earning their first win.

And the Cowboys know they’re going to have their hands full with Seattle’s defense, especially on the road.

“They’re a really good defense,” Garrett said of the Seahawks. “They’re very talented guys in all three levels of their defense and they have a scheme that they believe in. They make it difficult on opposing offenses, there’s no question about that. They have really good run defenders on their defensive front, they got a lot of good pass rushers on their front. The linebackers are obviously off the charts in terms of their ability to run and make plays. The same thing with the secondary, they got a lot of guys back there. Earl Thomas is as good of a defensive player as there is in the league. Some of the faces are different, but you know, they’re still a very, very good defense”

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