Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys were the punch line of many NFL pre-season jokes. Their defense was already bad, and had lost great players like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. Sean Lee was lost for the season with an injury, and even Tony Romo was hobbled with back problems. Most Seahawks fans looked at this home game as a chance for a blowout. Low and behold, the Cowboys come into Seattle tied with the Seahawks (and others) at 4-1 atop the NFC. Mirage? Time to take a look.
Opportunistic secondary props up defense
Dallas is a confusing mix on defense. They are eighth in the NFL in points allowed, which is better than Seattle. They are in the middle of the pack in opponent third-down rate (15th), red zone rate (18th) and points per play (14th). But when you look under the covers, there are some very troubling indicators that point to a hard fall ahead.
The Cowboys are dead last in opponent yards per play, allowing a startling 6.4 yard gain per snap. They are second-to-last in yards per carry allowed (5.2). They are 25th in opponent pass completion percentage (66.7%).
Having numbers that bad would usually indicate a bottom-third defense, but the Cowboys have stayed afloat with a decent pass rush and timely interceptions.
DT Henry Melton, DL Tyrone Crawford, and LB Justin Durant have helped the Cowboys rank 5th in the ProFootballFocus.com pass rush rankings. They are not getting sacks (27th in the NFL in sack percentage), but they are getting pressure. That pressure has contributed to the fifth-best interception rate in the league.
Seattle is third in the NFL in protecting the football. They are tops in the NFL in running the football. They are sixth in yards per play. It is hard to envision a Seahawks home game where they run effectively, throw effectively, protect the football, and lose.
Dominant offensive line keys offense
The Cowboys came into CenturyLink Field two years ago for what became Russell Wilson’s first NFL victory in his first home game, and got pushed around. The team has invested heavily on the offensive line via the draft to address that issue on at least one side of the ball.
They feature a potent running game that should be respected, and represents their best chance to make this a competitive game. Still, it might be worth tapping the brakes a bit on just how unstoppable they are.
The five Dallas opponents so far rank 10th, 12th, 15th, 27th, and 28th in rush defense (yards per carry). Part of that is due to playing a great running team in Dallas, but none of those defenses compare to what Seattle has done so far this year, and none of those games were in CenturyLink Field. We often talk about how crowd noise impacts pass protection, but it also keeps linemen from being able to fire off the ball as aggressively on run plays.
Tony Romo is a magician in the pocket. He spun out of multiple sacks the last time he played here. He has real weapons in Dez Bryant and a still effective Jason Witten. Their slot receiver Cole Beasley has been a clutch performer who will need to be tracked closely.
Tall order for the boys from Texas
There is no doubt Dallas is a better team than anyone, even Jerry Jones, expected so far this year. Their offensive line is legit, and will only get better in coming years. Romo is known for his interceptions and struggles when the game is on the line, but he is a dangerous passer who requires discipline to contain. Melton and others present real challenges as interior pass rushers, and could cause problems for guys like J.R. Sweezy or Stephen Schilling if Max Unger cannot go.
But there are solid reasons why the Cowboys are eight-point underdogs this weekend. The defense is reliant on takeaways to be viable. The schedule has been kind so far, as Dallas has the 22nd-ranked strength of schedule, according to TeamRankings.com. And this offense has not had a game where they struggled to run the ball yet.
If Seattle can slow the Cowboys running game and win the turnover battle, this could be the blowout everyone imagined before the season started.