When the Cowboys host the Seahawks on Thursday night, it will be a reunion of sorts for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. While Schottenheimer doesn’t call the plays in Dallas, this is his first time back in the coordinator role since he was fired by the Seahawks after the 2020 season. Seattle had enjoyed success under his watch, and Russell Wilson was a fan of his, but there were deeper philosophical differences that caused the split.
Head coach Pete Carroll, looking for a better way to get the run game going, turned to Shane Waldron as his next offensive coordinator. Waldron had been with the Rams since Sean McVay became the head coach, holding a variety of different roles but mostly serving as the pass game coordinator.
In hiring Waldron, Carroll hoped to capture the magic of the Rams offense, which had taken the league by storm. This scheme is well known by now: the run game is heavily based on a wide zone scheme, and the passing game is built off of that with play-action and lots of crossing routes. The fundamental goal is to force defenses to move sideways, thereby opening up passing lanes at every level.
Waldron’s first year in Seattle was a trying one, as Wilson got injured five weeks in. The offense had been working well early, but things stagnated when Geno Smith took over for Wilson. After just three weeks, Wilson returned to the field and had two really bad games before settling back in. But the Seahawks, 3-7 by the time Wilson got back into a groove, were already well out of the playoff picture.
They finished 7-10, and the Seahawks embraced an apparent rebuild that offseason. Much of the defensive staff was let go, and Carroll brought in a host of defensive minds that came from outside his regular circle. Waldron’s offense finished seventh in DVOA and 14th in EPA/play, not bad considering his challenges, but Seattle sent Wilson off to Denver in a huge trade anyway.
After a brief quarterback battle, Smith won the starting job last season, which only encouraged the idea that the Seahawks would find a new quarterback in the draft. Instead, Smith turned out to be a better fit for Waldron’s offense than Wilson ever was. The Seahawks finished 13th in both offensive DVOA and EPA/play, and Smith led the league in completion rate at 69.8% while amassing 4,282 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions. The Seahawks finished 9-8 and made the playoffs, leading Smith to win Comeback Player of the Year and receive a nice extension to remain in Seattle.
The Seahawks felt confident about their offense heading into this year. They had a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year last season in running back Kenneth Walker III, and they landed a highly-graded slot receiver in the draft when they took Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the first round this year to pair with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Expectations were high for this offense.
So far, though, they’ve fallen short. Heading into this game, Seattle is 19th in offensive DVOA and 18th in EPA/play. Smith is still playing well, but he’s become less accurate and is throwing more interceptions and less touchdowns than he was last year. Walker has been one of the better backs in the league, but he got hurt early in the Seahawks’ Week 11 loss and missed last week’s game entirely. His status for this game remains unclear, as Carroll has hinted that he could be a game-time decision. And Smith-Njigba has struggled with consistency, leading all rookie receivers in percentage of dropped targets so far.
Cosmetically speaking, the offense will look pretty familiar. They use a ton of pre-snap motion, play-action, and are generally a pass happy team. Only two offenses have fewer rush attempts on the year, and Seattle is seventh in the league in early down pass rate.
Despite that, Smith is using play-action on 26% of his dropbacks, eighth in the league. Usually, that makes it harder for defenses to generate pressure, but Smith is tied for the fourth-highest pressure rate. That’s partially due to his 2.91 seconds per throw, ninth in the league. Smith frequently gets caught looking for the deep shot, attempting passes of 20+ yards at the fifth-highest rate but also welcoming more chances for the pass rush to get home.
That makes this Dallas defense a nightmare matchup for Smith, as they’re one of the best in the league at both generating pressure and taking away the deep ball. They’ve also faced similar offenses quite a few times this season, and their familiarity with the looks should be fairly high by now. Still, Seattle has a really good receiving corps and Smith has proven capable of producing fireworks at times. The Cowboys will need to be at their best Thursday to prevent any big games from happening.