Not a whole lot needs to be said in terms of the storylines on Sunday.
Ezekiel Elliott’s return; the Cowboys running game vs. a usually excellent Seahawks defense, but one that has struggled mightily the last two weeks; a duel between quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson; the fact that for all intents and purposes this is a playoff game where the loser is more or less eliminated while the winner moves on to fight another week.
Sure, the loser might not be mathematically out of it at 8-7 depending on what else happens Sunday but it would just be delaying the inevitable. The storylines, and the stakes, don’t get much juicier than this.
So with all of that in mind let’s jump into it.
The Seahawks are coming off one of their worst performances of the Pete Carroll era, losing 42-7 to the Rams last week, which effectively decided the division, and some would say the game wasn’t even as close as the final score if you can believe that. It was the worst home loss for Seattle since Pete Carroll took over the team nearly a decade ago, and considering that they were already coming off a poor performance in Jacksonville the week before, you have to imagine this prideful group will come out firing on all cylinders.
The Cowboys of course must look to counteract that by starting fast themselves. The return of Elliott will surely have the team and the crowd abuzz, and if he is able to make a few plays early they could ride the wave of emotion to an early lead. The Seahawks defense is a combustible group, even in good times, and you can feel the tensions simmering all week as team leaders Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas have bickered through social media over whether or not Wagner should’ve played last week at less than 100%.
At times this type of tension and in-fighting has had a positive effect on this group as they channel their energy and take it out on their opponents, and as you can imagine at other times it has torn them apart. This is a group that prides itself on intimidating opponents and physically imposing its will; if the Cowboys and Elliott can come out, pop off a couple long runs and physically take the game to the Seahawks, they could implode under the weight of their own emotion.
On the other side of the ball it will be all about containing Russell Wilson. Outside of Wilson, the Seahawks don’t have much that scares you as their offensive line vacillates between average and atrocious depending on the week and while their running game comes in at 20th in the league. With that said, that ranking is actually inflated when you consider that Wilson is their leading rusher with more than twice as many yards as their second-leading rusher (501 to 208), which is rather astounding.
If you take away Wilson, the Seahawks running backs have a total of 861 yards rushing on 253 carries, averaging only 3.4 YPC. For comparison, Elliott has 783 yards on just 191 carries in just eight games.
Throw in 79 yards rushing from Seattle’s receivers and the total yards rushing excluding Wilson on the year is a paltry 940, which is just over 67 per game. That would rank a full 10 yards below the worst running team in the league.
Clearly Wilson is what makes this offense go, and perhaps the only thing that makes it go. Doug Baldwin, Paul Richardson, Tyler Lockett, and Jimmy Graham are dangerous in the passing game, but none of them are truly elite threats, and often their biggest plays are made after Wilson scrambles for several seconds and finds them downfield after the coverage breaks down.
Baldwin is Wilson’s most trusted target, Richardson is the deep play threat who can go up to make acrobatic contested catches, Lockett is dangerous after the catch with the ball in his hands, and Graham is the red zone/possession target, and the Cowboys secondary will have their hands full, but at the end of the day it will come down to whether or not the Cowboys defensive line can pressure Wilson, and then contain him even if they are able to get pressure.
In many ways the play is just starting for Wilson once he feels pressure as he is able to buy time and avoid rushers to make plays downfield, and that’s where the loss of David Irving will truly hurt. The game plan will likely be to contain the edges and not have the defensive ends get pushed past the pocket, opening up escape routes to either side. Rod Marinelli has surely been preaching contain all week to Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford.
The problem is that when you’re playing contain you often times aren’t getting off the ball as quickly or pressing the edge as hard, which can stifle your edge rush and makes getting an interior push from the defensive tackles paramount. If Irving were playing I’d love the matchup against what would likely be an overmatched interior offensive line, and with his height and length you’d have to like his ability to disrupt passing windows for the shorter Wilson.
Without Irving, the Cowboys pass rush could be caught between a rock and a hard place where they can’t unleash their edge rushers for fear of Wilson escaping the pocket and making huge plays downfield, but in the meantime they’re somewhat neutering their best pass-rusher in Lawrence and not getting enough of a push from the inside. Needless to say, the play of Maliek Collins will be huge this week. He is really the only credible interior rusher that the Cowboys have without Irving and in many ways the game could rest on his ability to pressure Wilson.
With that in mind, this may be a game where Lewis Neal could see some extended time. He is clearly undersized vs. the run at 280 lbs dripping wet, but against a mostly ineffective Seattle run game, his speed and explosiveness off the snap and as a pass-rusher may be just what the doctor ordered. Datone Jones could also provide a little bit of the same quickness shooting gaps on the inside.
If Benson Mayowa is unable to go, the team may have no choice but to play Neal and Jones for extended snaps. If Mayowa is available, perhaps you’ll see Tyrone Crawford inside more to get some push, but if he isn’t, you’re basically down to just Lawrence, Crawford, and Taco Charlton on the edge, with Collins, Richard Ash, Datone Jones, and Neal on the inside. Ash is obviously a run-only player, so excluding him you’re down to just Jones and Neal.
The absence of Irving and the very real chance that Tyron Smith doesn’t play should be extremely concerning to Cowboys fans against a motivated Seahawks team with something to prove. It pretty much guarantees that this will be a tight game that goes down to the wire, especially with a quarterback like Wilson against a young, albeit talented secondary. But at the end of the day I feel like the impact and emotion associated with Elliott’s return, at home, will be just a bit too much for a flawed Seahawks team to overcome.
This isn’t 2012, and while Seattle still has several excellent defensive pieces that must be respected, they’re missing several cornerstones in Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, not to mention Cliff Avril, and some of the pieces they do have are starting to age, such as Michael Bennett. Offensively Wilson is amazing but they are one-dimensional and too reliant on having him bail out an otherwise uninspiring group.
Don’t beat yourself with mistakes, ride the wave of emotion, get Elliott going early, and do just enough to keep Wilson under wraps. Wilson will keep it close but the defense will do just enough to get by in another close one as the team lives to fight for at least one more week. Cowboys, 27-24.