The Seattle Seahawks (3-1) host the Dallas Cowboys (4-1) at CenturyLink Field Sunday afternoon. Both teams are coming off victories — Seattle on the road Monday night over the Washington Redskins and the Cowboys took out the Houston Texans at Jerry World Sunday.
Neither team will be fully healthy. Seattle will be without tight end Zach Miller and cornerback Tharold Simon, strong safety Kam Chancellor is listed as questionable and center Max Unger carrying doubtful status into the game.
Linebacker Bruce Carter has been ruled out by Dallas and four others remain questionable.
The strength of the Dallas Cowboys thus far in 2014 has been their running game — DeMarco Murray leads the league in rushing and has carried 130 times in five games — and the Seahawks boast the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL in both total yards allowed and yards per carry. Seems to be a strength-versus-strength proposition.
Outside of Week 1, the Cowboys have run up numbers on the ground versus defenses that currently rank No. 28, 15, 12 and 19 in yards per carry. Those teams rank No. 32, 26, 17 and 1 in passing defense. Aside from the Rams (No. 1), the bulk of the Cowboys’ opponents have not only proven weak in run defense, but also in defending the pass, which opens things up for the offense as a whole.
There’s a very high likelihood that the ‘Boys’ offensive rankings fade as their schedule gets tougher. The point? Their current numbers don’t mean much, and there’s no doubt their toughest test yet will come Sunday in Seattle.
Having made such a point, Dallas does have offensive weapons, and you can make the argument that Seattle has played three teams that much prefer to pass — Green Bay, San Diego, Denver — and just one, Washington, that commits to the run, helping provide slewed statistics in their favor.
Here are three other things to watch for in this weekend’s game.
1. Jason Witten and Third Down Defense
A year ago, Dallas ranked No. 25 in third down conversions at 35 percent, but with the improved running game they are up to 56 percent this season. Tight end Jason Witten, who plays virtually every offensive snap in the Cowboys’ Ace personnel — one back, one tight end and three wide receivers — is Tony Romo’s favorite target on third downs.
The Seahawks have had some issues getting off the field, allowing opponents a 44-percent conversion rate on third downs, despite stifling the running game and setting up numerous third-and-long scenarios. If Channellor is out Sunday, the home team will have one fewer option versus Witten. The veteran has caught 19 balls this year, 14 of them to the middle of the field where safeties and linebackers roam.
K.J. Wright may be called upon most in this matchup, but undoubtedly the Seahawks will use several coverage plans to slow down Witten as they have successfully versus Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham over the past few years. The Hawks’ stout run defense is likely to hold enough to set up at least a half-dozen key passing situations on third down. Making plays on Witten will be essential. Failure to do so could be Week 2 all over again.
The last time these two teams played, Witten was targeted 10 times and caught four balls for 58 yards. The same results would be a big win for Seattle.
2. Dan Quinn vs. Romo, Bryant
The Seahawks boast the league’s most talented defense, with or without Chancellor, but if there is a weak link — and I use that in relative terms only — it’s probably right cornerback Byron Maxwell. Maxwell is a solid player, but Bryant is among the elite outside receivers in the game and brings extreme athleticism to the table, likely of which the Hawks have not seen from the position this season.
Romo has been prone to the interception now and again, but has just two since Week 1 and isn’t the INT machine some would have you believe. He does, however, prefer to throw the ball to his left — Maxwell’s side — which happens to be the side Bryant prefers, too.
Among Bryant’s 32 receptions, 27 are to the left side or over the middle. Romo’s efficiency rating to the left and over the middle, to all receivers, is 121. To the right it is just 72.
How Hawks’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn decides to attack these tendencies will be very interesting. Richard Sherman is not going to switch sides and while Romo may throw to Sherman’s side a few times, most of the action through the air clearly will take place away from that third of the field.
Maxwell has been OK this season but he has given up 24 receptions on 29 targets. He’s yielding 13 yards per reception and a QB efficiency rating of 109.6. A year ago Maxwell’s QB rating against was just 57.8 with just 29 completions allowed in 58 targets.
Getting to the quarterback is always key for defensive backs and the Seahawks have just six sacks on the year, so perhaps dialing up more pressure is the easy answer, but Maxwell is going to have to play better, too, as the Hawks prefer not to blitz a lot and leave their coverage naked.
3. More Lynch Early, Please
The Cowboys’ weakness is their defense and the weakest aspect of it is their run defense. Through five games, Dallas has allowed 5.2 yards per carry, No. 31 in the league, suggesting a healthy dose of Marshawn Lynch is the likely elixir.
But they’re not much better against the pass at No. 22 — 7.5 yards per attempt — and Seattle ran more play-action pass in 2013 than any other team in the NFL. By percentage of totals play ran, they again lead the league at 41 percent through four games this season. Russell Wilson’s yards per attempt climbs from 6.9 to 8.8 with play-action and his completion percentage jumps a bit, too.
But play action passing doesn’t work — at all — when the defense isn’t afraid of the give to the running back. Teams always are cognizant of Lynch’s presence, but the Seahawks haven’t established the traditional running attack as much early in games in 2014, perhaps explaining why just the eight passes of 20 or more yards.
The Seahawks’ offensive weakness has been pass protection and the best solution for that is to run the rock and run it early, setting up play-action and keeping the Cowboys’ interior pass rushers from crashing without a second thought.
The Cowboys’ pass rush is balanced and sound. Seattle will not be able to send Wilson into deep drops in order to get the ball down the field if they aren’t getting meaningful gains with Lynch and Robert Turbin.
We’ve seen the Seahawks’ run defense struggle — not this year, but a year ago in St. Louis and at home versus Tampa Bay and New Orleans (NFC Divisional), and if it happens again Sunday Wilson and the offense will be asked to do more than score three touchdowns to win the game.
Doing so will mean big plays in the passing game.
Dallas’ struggles stopping the run are not simply about a front seven not making the plays. The secondary has not helped much at all, namely strong safety J.J. Wilcox and the now-injured-and-out cornerback Morris Claiborne. Wilcox has missed seven tackles already in just 303 snaps, six in the running game.
But that line and the linebackers have been awful shedding blocks and taking away gaps, including free agent signing Henry Melton, who essentially replaced Jason Hatcher at tackle. While Melton presents a serious problem to the Seahawks in rushing the passer, especially if Unger does indeed miss the game, Melton’s presence on potential running downs may entice offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to run up the gut just a little bit more. Generally, Dallas uses Melton on more obvious passing downs, sticking with Tyrone Crawford and Nick Hayden when they expect the run.
Speaking of missed tackles, the Seattle Seahawks are up to 31 in four games this season after registering just 78 in the regular season a year ago. A few bright spots in that department, however, include middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has just two missed tackles, and nickel corner Marcus Burley, who has yet to miss an opportunity in 151 snaps and 15 direct chances…
Watch Russell Okung closely Sunday as he attempts to get back to form. He had toe surgery and missed a lot of reps in camp. but he’s four full games into the season now and if he’s truly healthy enough to play every snap — and that is in serious doubt — the production should be there, too, and without excuses.
According to Pro Football Focus, Okung has been the 28th best pass blocking tackle in football this year, and the 39th best run blocking tackle. He was poor by most accounts last season, too, after a stellar 2012 when he was among the very best all-around tackles in the entire league.
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