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.
LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys
In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.
Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…
"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."
Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:
The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.
If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).
As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.
Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?
How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster
Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.
While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.
The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.
Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.
So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.
In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.
But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.
Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.
When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.
No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.
We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.
This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.
But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.
DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win
Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.
Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.
As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.
Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.
Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.
A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.
Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.
"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli
Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.
Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.
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