Enemy Confidential: Revived Aerial Attack Sparks Cowboys Run to Postseason

Unlike when Seattle hosted Dallas back in Week 3, the Cowboys passing game has been clicking on all cylinders.

When they met at CenturyLink Field back in September, the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys were both trying to find their way amid disappointing starts to the 2018 season.

Admittedly placing too much emphasis on the passing game, the Seahawks lost back-to-back games in Denver and Chicago, crawling into an undesirable 0-2 hole. As for the Cowboys, they couldn’t muster much offense splitting their first two games against the Panthers and Giants.

But since Seattle used a physical ground game to wear down Dallas in a 24-13 win in Week 3, the fortunes for both franchises have improved dramatically. While the Seahawks rattled off six wins in their final seven games to clinch a Wild Card spot in the NFC, the Cowboys overcame a dreadful 3-5 start to win seven of their final eight games and win the NFC East.

Though the game looked to be a turning point for both teams, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll doesn’t think either team has changed that much since their first encounter.

“Probably no more than what’s changed with us. Really, we both started slowly and then somewhere in there we kind of found our stride. These guys put together seven out of eight to finish off the season. We had a nice little run ourselves, so they’re not that much different, we’re not that much different. But really, the way we have formatted our team play, I think both teams have done well to this point.”

At the epicenter of their resurgence, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has found his groove thanks to the midseason addition of receiver Amari Cooper, who was acquired from the Raiders on October 22. Since his arrival, a once-dormant passing game has been far more lethal, averaging nearly 75 more passing yards per game with him in the lineup. In two of Dallas’s past three victories, Prescott has thrown for over 400 yards per game and seven touchdowns.

Defensively, the Cowboys have remained rock-solid all season, sitting sixth in the NFL in scoring defense while giving up only 20.3 points per game. Led by the dynamic young linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas also has been one of the best teams in football stopping the run, allowing less than 95 rushing yards per contest.

As Cowboys coach Jason Garrett also pointed out, a secondary headlined by Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones and coached by former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard has also played a crucial role in the team’s overall success in 2018.

“Kris has done a fantastic job for us. He really has. We felt like, when we hired him, that so much of what he believes in is what we believe in. He and Rod Marinelli are cut from the same cloth. The DNA of our defense is aligned with the values that Kris has so it’s been a really good fit in that regard.”

Here’s a closer look at Seattle’s upcoming opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and Carroll’s evaluation of the Cowboys heading into Saturday’s Wild Card battle at AT&T Stadium:

SERIES HISTORY

--2nd postseason meeting. Cowboys lead all-time series, 10-9. Prior to Seattle relocating to the NFC in 2002, Dallas dominated the series, winning five of the first six matchups between 1976 and 2001. Since realignment, the two franchises have evenly split 10 regular season contests and Seattle edged Dallas in a 21-20 thriller during the 2007 NFC Wild Card round. The Seahawks have won the previous three matchups, most recently defeating the Cowboys 24-13 earlier this season.

WHAT’S NEW?

--Additions: Teams rarely add first-round talent at the trade deadline in the NFL, but the Cowboys did just that by shipping a first-round pick to the Raiders in exchange for Cooper. The fourth-year receiver has been everything owner Jerry Jones hoped he’d be when he signed off on the trade, giving Prescott a true number one receiver at his disposal.

--Departures: The Cowboys held out hope early in the season that center Travis Frederick would be able to return from a neurological disorder, but he has remained on the reserve/non-football injury list and will not play this season. Defensive end Datone Jones landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury after playing against the Seahawks in Week 3. Tight end Geoff Swaim, who started the first 9 games of the year for Dallas, also landed on injured reserve.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

101.2: Quarterback rating for Dak Prescott on third downs during the regular season, eighth-best in the NFL.

48: Percentage of red zone possessions resulting in a touchdown, fourth-worst among 32 NFL teams.

5.6: Yards after the catch per reception by Amari Cooper, ranking 11th in the league among qualified receivers.

25: Points off of turnovers margin for Dallas in 2018, eighth-highest total in the league.

51: Percentage of defensive red zone drives allowing a touchdown, seventh-best in the league.

60: Number of explosive runs/pass plays surrendered by Cowboys defense, fourth-best mark in the league.

CARROLL’S THOUGHTS

--When the Cowboys traveled to Seattle back in Week 3, they brought with them a passing game in shambles. Quarterback Dak Prescott struggled to find open receivers, throwing only eight touchdown passes and averaging less than 185 passing yards per game in Dallas’s first seven games.

Looking for a spark, owner Jerry Jones opted to ship a first-round pick to Oakland to acquire receiver Amari Cooper. After acclimatizing himself to the Cowboys’ offense, he quickly became Prescott’s favorite weapon, catching 48 passes for 694 yards and six touchdowns. His breakout game came against Philadelphia in Week 14, when he hauled in 10 receptions for 217 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s a terrific player. He’s an explosive, dynamic football player, can catch everything – all the routes, all the concepts.” Carroll said. “You could go to him inside if you want to, you can work him down the field, he can go deep. He’s got everything, so he’s a fantastic player. It’s a great boost to his team in picking him up.”

Seattle actually played against Cooper earlier this season when he was still with Oakland, but he left the game in London with a concussion after taking a big hit across the middle from safety Bradley McDougald. In a much better situation all around following the trade to Dallas, he’ll be a tough assignment for cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers on Saturday.

--Away from Cooper, the Cowboys have also received a boost in the passing game during recent weeks from seldom-used tight end Blake Jarwin. The undrafted tight end out of Oklahoma State only played in one game as a rookie last year, but he’s been a revelation in the second half of this season catching passes from Prescott, helping fill some of the void left behind by the retirement of Jason Witten.

“He’s been lighting it up lately. They’ve been used to having a guy that could make plays all over the field at that spot with Jason [Witten].” Carroll stated. “He had a great game last week and looked like he could catch and run and do anything you need him to do.”

Carroll wasn’t joking about Jarwin tearing it up, as he earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in Week 17 by catching seven passes for a career-high 119 yards and three touchdowns. Prescott has showed more faith in him over the last month and he’s suddenly become an important part of the Cowboys aerial attack.

Seattle has had its share of issues defending tight ends this season, though the Seahawks did hold Travis Kelce to only 54 yards in a 38-31 win over the Chiefs last month. Losing Delano Hill to a season-ending hip injury may hurt, as he did a really nice job in coverage against both Kelce and 49ers tight end George Kittle in recent games. Moving back to his natural strong safety spot, McDougald may be tasked covering Jarwin this weekend.

--Prescott’s overall numbers (3,885 passing yards, 22 passing touchdowns) aren’t prolific, but he’s been accurate and limited turnovers, throwing only eight interceptions the entire season. He’s also been a threat running the football, though he did post a career-low averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season.

Much like Russell Wilson, Carroll believes Prescott’s mobility sets him apart from other quarterbacks, creating conflicts for opposing defenses due to his ability to extend plays and improvise.

“Both guys can really hurt you with their legs. Dak had a phenomenal year to get started and get rolling and has just been solid since.” Carroll said, adding: “I think it’s the dynamics of the mobility that when you add that together and of course they can both throw the ball way down the field and all that, so he’s got a great arm. I think that’s what makes them very similar. You’ve got the same kind of problems, they can run the same kind of plays when they want to and all of that. That whole mobility thing is a really great factor now. It makes guys special and he is.”

Dallas has incorporated a bit more read-option into its offense earlier this year, taking advantage of Prescott’s size and athleticism. But he hasn’t ran the ball near as much since Cooper came to town and the passing game found traction during the second half of the season. That being said, Seattle still needs to be prepared for him to tuck and run when the opportunity presents itself.

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