This week’s matchup against the Seattle Seahawks is not a must-win in the mathematical sense, but it’s about as close as it gets in practical terms.
Here are keys for Dallas.
DO air it out more than ever.
According to Pro Football Focus, Seattle actually has the fourth-ranked defense in the league. While most of the players are “no names,” those unheralded guys, like Chris Clemons, Alan Branch and K.J. Wright, are dominating football games. I’ll get to a couple of those guys in a bit, but Seattle’s defense is led by the league’s top-ranked run defense.
The legitimacy of PFF’s numbers are confirmed by those at Advanced NFL Stats, where you can see opposing offenses have -30.4 expected points when running against the Seahawks–by far the worst against any defense in the NFL. The next closest is Baltimore at -21.7. 65.7% of runs against Seattle have resulted in a decline in expected points for offenses. Again, the Seahawks are the top team in the league in this category, with Detroit and San Francisco second at 62.0%. Seattle has been so good against the run that opposing teams are actually losing 0.14 points per play when keeping it on the ground.
Meanwhile, Seattle has the 13th-worst passing defense in terms of expected points added, including the seventh-worst success rate. That isn’t due to the pass rush, which has generated a stout 89 pressures on the season—nine more than Dallas. Instead, the Cowboys should find a lot of success through the air due in large part to the next “DO.”
DO attack Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman (who?).
These are the starting cornerbacks for the Seahawks, and before today, I had never even heard of Browner. He’s been targeted 40 times this season, yielding a completion on 30 of those passes. He has given up 10.33 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, with opposing quarterbacks garnering a 113.9 passer rating when throwing his way. If Miles Austin and Dez Bryant cannot exploit Browner and Sherman, there is a problem in Dallas.
DO throw across the middle.
I’m actually not referring to Jason Witten here. Bob Sturm recently raised an interesting point about the Cowboys’ lack of crossing routes. He wrote:
It is my belief that Brady and Rodgers can pick you apart inside two seconds because their offense calls for way more shallow cross routes by the wide receivers. The Cowboys seem to leave the middle of the field for Jason Witten and the tight-end routes and limit their wide-receiver routes of the shallow variety to mostly outside the numbers or right at the numbers on the edges.
So why don’t we see more crossing routes from Garrett? I think we should see far more slants, digs and so on from the receivers for a few reasons this game, but one is Seattle’s safeties. While the cornerbacks have been atrocious, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have been stellar in the back end of Seattle’s secondary. By running underneath them, you can limit their impact and pick primarily on the weak corners.
Plus, running the ball should be made easier if you can get the linebackers moving side to side. If Dallas wants to run some crossing routes, they will presumably try to do so from “Trips” and other bunch formations, forcing Seattle into zone coverage. With zone drops on the mind of linebackers, they might be just a step later than normal to fill gaps in the running game. You pass to set up the run in today’s NFL, not the other way around.
DON’T give up the big play.
Seattle is a poor offensive football team, and they shouldn’t be able to consistently beat the Cowboys’ defense. Actually, Pro Football Focus has Seattle rated as the worst offense in the league (28th in passing offense, 31st in rushing offense, and 31st in pass protection). Their offensive line has been really poor, with Russell Okung, John Moffit and James Carpenter surrendering 13, 15 and 17 pressures on the season, respectively. In comparison, that’s the same number given up by the entire New England Patriots team this season.
If the Seahawks cannot run the football (which is a big ‘if’ after last week’s fiasco), the Cowboys shouldn’t show many looks with eight men in the box. The ‘Boys should really be able to get pressure on Tavaris Jackson with just four defenders, and he will have trouble completing passes with seven men in coverage. Plus, his legs become less of a threat with less defenders attacking him.
DO give Bruce Carter plenty of snaps.
The most likely Seahawks player to give Dallas fits this week, in my view, is actually tight end Zach Miller. Sean Lee is almost certainly going to be out of the game, meaning we could see a whole lot of Bradie James and Keith Brooking. PFF has them rated as the seventh and ninth-worst coverage linebackers in the league, respectively. Those aren’t efficiency stats, but rather cumulative, so imagine if either had played more than 217 snaps.
Despite not playing a defensive snap in the NFL, I can say with full confidence Bruce Carter is better in coverage than James or Brooking. It’s time to see what the rookie can do.
DON’T let Chris Clemons beat you.
Back to Seattle’s best player. Clemons has 24 pressures on the season, good for third-most in the NFL. He’s a terror off the edge and has the potential to be a nightmare for Dallas. Don’t let that happen. Double-team Clemons with a tight end whenever possible. One way to do that is to use max protection, as this will help give Romo the time he needs to find Austin and Bryant on crossing routes. Another way to do it is...
DON’T run inside.
Alan Branch is PFF’s top-rated defensive tackle, and by far the best against the run. There’s really no reason to run behind Dallas’ porous interior line. Instead, they should run powers, counters and tosses right at Clemons in an attempt to neutralize his pass rush. Screens could also be of use this week.