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.