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.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
Breaking: Scott Linehan and Dallas Cowboys Part Ways
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is reporting that the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have mutually agreed to part ways following a tumultuous season that saw the Dallas Cowboys offense finish outside the top 12 three out of his four seasons in Dallas.
Sources: The #Cowboys are firing OC Scott Linehan. Taking their offense in a new direction. An announcement is coming.
Scott Linehan was brought in prior to the 2015 season and saw his offenses finish 31st, fifth, 14th, and 22nd in his four years as the Cowboys play caller. The 2015 season can be excused as the Cowboys rolled out Kellen Moore, Matt Cassell, and Brandon Weeden for 13 starts after Tony Romo was injured twice during the season, but the team 2-11 in those 13 starts and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs despite a strong performance on the defensive side of the football.
The Cowboys saw an offense that finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 decline each of the last two offseasons and Linehan has been continually criticized by analysts, fans, and players as well.
Many believe that the reason that Dez Bryant and Brice Butler weren't brought back in the offseason was because of the public criticism of the offense and the play caller instilling the offense and that criticism has carried over to this season when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper acknowledged that the Philadelphia Eagles were sitting on the slant routes that they had run all game. Dak mentioned that he changed Amari's route to a go route, which led to a 75 yard touchdown that helped open up the offense.
Cole Beasley has been frustrated with his role for much of the season and deservedly so. He was often non-existent in the offensive game plan until the final five minutes of football games.
In the running game, the offense had become too predictable and reliant upon jumbo formations that led to Ezekiel Elliott having to run against eight in the box anywhere from 25-30% of the time. For perspective, Todd Gurley only ran against eight-man fronts around eight percent of the time. Scott Linehan never looked to attempt to take players out of the box, instead insisting on motioning more players into the box for the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott to run against. It's amazing when you think about it, that Ezekiel Elliott was able to win the rushing title when facing loaded fronts as often as he did.
This was a move that needed to happen and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need to waste anymore time to make it happen. The offense had become stale and frustrating for the players as well as the fans. While Jason Garrett started the offseason saying he "didn't expect any changes," this was a move that absolutely had to happen for the offense to take a step forward. Below, you can read Jason Garrett's announcement on the move.
Cowboys have fired Scott Linehan
Even after the move for Amari Cooper, the offense looked better, but it still struggled at times to move the football.
The Cowboys have a young team with especially young players on the offensive side of the football. They have a quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but has excellent movement skills and capabilities of throwing the ball on the run. He's an excellent runner on designed runs. Despite us knowing all that, Scott Linehan looked reluctant to use him on designed quarterback runs that weren't read options or speed options. What you saw on designed runs in the Seattle game is what this team should be doing five times a game.
Now the question becomes, who should the Cowboys next offensive coordinator be? Our own, Staff Writer Brian Martin, laid out 5 Options to be the Next Offensive Coordinator earlier this week. I suggest you give it a read.
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
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