Saturday's Wild Card game between the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks is a rematch of sorts. These two teams squared off earlier this season in Week 3, with the Seahawks emerging the victor with a score of 24-13. But, that was then and this is now.
Both the Seahawks and Cowboys have changed quite a bit since these two teams played each other earlier in the season. It's not out of the ordinary. It's just the natural progression of things when it comes to the NFL and how teams shape and build their rosters.
Today, I want to take a quick look at some of the bigger changes I've noticed and how they could impact the outcome of the game. As far as the Dallas Cowboys are concerned, their changes have mostly been for the better. Hopefully that will help them deliver a little payback in the Wild Card round.
Let's get started…
No Earl Thomas for Seattle
If I were to put my finger on the one thing that helped the Seahawks defeat the Dallas Cowboys earlier this season, it would be Free Safety Earl Thomas' dominant play. Amidst all the trade talk about the possibility of the Cowboys adding #29 via trade from the Seahawks, Thomas came out and led his defense in tackles and interceptions, the second of which sealed the game for Seattle.
Unfortunately for Thomas, he sustained a lower leg fracture the next week against the Arizona Cardinals and was placed on injured reserve in early October. Not having him in the lineup is a huge blow for the backend of the Seahawks defense, but something that should greatly benefit Quarterback Dak Prescott and his offense.
I know one player doesn't make a team, but when that player can dominate the way Earl Thomas did against the Cowboys it's worth noting. If not for his two-game changing interceptions last time, Dallas may have been the ones leaving Seattle with a victory.
Offensive Line Changes for Cowboys
One of the biggest changes the Dallas Cowboys have made, if not the biggest, is what they have done with their offensive line. The last time they played the Seahawks Paul Alexander was still the OL coach, but has since been fired and replaced with Mark Columbo. This one move without a doubt helped turn the Cowboys season around.
Unfortunately, Alexander's blocking scheme just didn't fit Dallas' personnel. Once Colombo took over he got them back to doing what they do best and the offense has been better for it. But, changing OL coaches isn't the only improvement the Cowboys made since they last saw the Seahawks.
Back in Week 3 Center Joe Looney and Left Guard Connor Williams only had two starts under their belts. They have much more experience now, even though Williams has been in and out of the starting lineup the past few weeks. With the change in blocking scheme and more experience playing together, this Cowboys OL should be much more prepared to handle the Seahawks defensive line.
Addition of Amari Cooper
If the offensive line isn't the biggest change the Dallas Cowboys made since they last played the Seahawks, the addition of Wide Receiver Amari Cooper is. He immensely improved the Cowboys passing game, which in turn has improved the overall performance of the entire offense.
Cooper's production may have fallen off a little bit as of late, but he still a player the Seahawks secondary has to respect each and every down due to his game changing ability. If they decide to devote extra attention his way it should open up things for other players in the passing game. Look at what Cole Beasley and Blake Jarwin was able to accomplish last week as an example.
Any extra attention devoted Cooper's way also helps Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys running game. This is an area the Seahawks defense will without a doubt want to shut down, but may have trouble doing so with #19 on the field. Seattle's D has to be much more aware of Dallas' weapons this time around.
Ascension of Leighton Vander Esch
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch kind of had his coming-out party against the Seahawks in the Week 3 earlier this season for the Dallas Cowboys. It was a game Sean Lee left early due to an injury and Vander Esch stepped in and finished the game with 10 combined tackles. He hasn't looked back since.
The difference between now and then is that #55 has continued to get better and better, which is good news for the Cowboys but not so much for the Seahawks. Vander Esch has had a Pro Bowl caliber season since that meeting and his ascension has turned him into one of the best LBs in the game.
Running Back Chris Carson is only one of two RBs to rush for over 100 yards against the Cowboys defense this season, but I don't expect him to repeat in large part to having Vander Esch in the lineup and dominating like he has been. He did get a little banged up last week against the Giants, but nothing serious enough to impact his play.
Emergence of Randy Gregory
The last time the Seahawks played the Dallas Cowboys the only pass rusher they really had to worry about was Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, but that's no longer the case. The emergence of DE Randy Gregory over the second half of the season has given the Cowboys defense a dynamic duo coming off the edge.
After all of the suspensions and off the field problems, Gregory is finally turning into the dominant pass rusher the Cowboys envisioned when they drafted him in the second-round a few years ago. His six quarterback sacks don't look all that impressive, but is 15 QB pressures over the last four weeks are. He's impacting games with the pressure is applying, which is good news considering he'll be chasing down the ever elusive Russell Wilson this week.
Gregory didn't record any stats the last time these two teams squared off against one another, but should make himself known this week in the Wild Card game. He should give Left Tackle Duane Brown all he can handle Saturday night.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
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