It wasn’t too long ago that traveling to Seattle to take on the Seahawks was a death sentence for any offense. Between the deafening roar of the fans and the vaunted Legion of Boom defense, Seattle posted a 47-17 record at home in Pete Carroll’s first eight seasons as the head coach.
But this Sunday when the Cowboys take to the grass at CenturyLink Field there will be no fans and no Legion of Boom. The seats will be empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, while the major players that made up the Legion of Boom - Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, and Byron Maxwell - are all gone after filtering out of Seattle the last two years.
Carroll and GM John Schneider have done their best to rebuild the secondary, though. Last year they acquired free safety Quandre Diggs from the Lions via midseason trade, and in just five games with the Seahawks he solidified his job as the center field safety. Diggs racked up three interceptions, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pick six to go along with 21 tackles.
In the offseason, Seattle also traded for cornerback Quinton Dunbar and safety Jamal Adams. Dunbar, who came over from Washington, was a consistent interception machine and already has one on the 2020 season. Adams, as many Cowboys fans know, is a jack of all trades who single-handedly kept the Jets defense afloat last year. Through two games this year, he already leads the team in both tackles and sacks.
But while the Seahawks’ shiny new objects have all been doing well individually, the defense as a whole has yet to get it together. Schematically, they run the same thing the Falcons run - a whole lot of Cover 3 and press man - and the same as the Cowboys ran the last two years. Last week against Atlanta, that helped the Cowboys offense go off, as Dalton Schultz explained:
“We knew that this team liked to play a lot of man,” Schultz said. “They were basically, you know, our defense from last year, so we were pretty familiar with it. We knew where the open spots were, we just kept attacking that little void. After a couple of drops last week, I was making sure I was on the jugs (machine) Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday after practice. And so I knew I was ready for that workload. You know, I felt like it was my job to kind of step up when we needed it. So I am glad I was able to do that, and I am really glad we got that dub.”
And step up Schultz did. Becoming the starter after Blake Jarwin’s injury, Schultz had a career day by leading the team with nine receptions for 88 yards and snagging his first career touchdown catch. He was able to rack up so many yards in part because Atlanta’s style of defense (read: Seattle’s style of defense) creates holes underneath for shallow routes.
And as Schultz caught more and more passes, it opened things up for the Cowboys’ dangerous receiver trio as well, with both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb going over 100 yards in the game. It was a great example of how this loaded offense can attack any weakness of a defense, and they did so against a pretty bad Atlanta defense.
But here’s the catch: Seattle’s defense has been worse through these first two games than Atlanta’s. The Falcons currently rank 31st in both total yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Seattle ranks 32nd in both categories. The Falcons are 28th in pass defense DVOA so far, while the Seahawks are 29th in pass defense DVOA. Schematically and production-wise, these defenses appear to be nearly identical.
The big difference is Seattle’s run defense is significantly better. They’re giving up the third fewest rushing yards per attempt and rank fifth in run defense DVOA. This is in large part due to six-time All Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, who ranks fifth among off-ball linebackers in ESPN’s run-stop win rate.
In short, running the ball against this defense is not going to work well, but throwing the ball will likely be very successful. That’s why Mike McCarthy’s comments on Thursday should inspire a lot of hope:
Mike McCarthy says the Cowboys' plan is not to run clock on offense to keep Russell Wilson off the field as much as possible. "We want to score as fast as we can, and as many times as we can."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 24, 2020
That’s not to say Ezekiel Elliott won’t still get the ball, but the Cowboys understand that they can attack this defense in much the same way as they did last week and find success. The biggest thing will be holding onto the ball and not fumbling it away like they did in the first quarter. Jamal Adams, who has six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in his career but none so far this season, will surely be looking to rip the ball out - especially since he tried to get traded to Dallas in the offseason, only for his favorite team to ultimately have no interest.
Adams, alongside Diggs, Dunbar, and Wagner, pose a threat to disrupting some plays here and there. But Seattle has struggled mightily against the pass, and injuries to nickel back Marquise Blair and defensive end Bruce Irvin won’t make things better in that avenue. Dak Prescott and this offense should have another big day, and possibly serve up another #Team40Burger in the process.