Welcome to Wild-Card Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The second wild-card game of the 2018 NFL season will take place in Dallas as the Cowboys will face the Seattle Seahawks. Here’s what to watch for:
SEAHAWKS GETTING BACK TO THEIR ROOTS
After two Super Bowl appearances and winning a championship in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks began a gradual decline that culminated in missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2011. It was a time in which the Seahawks began to get away from their identity a bit, as then-coordinator Darrell Bevell turned his run-based scheme into one more pass-heavy, and was shown the door following 2017.
Head coach Pete Carroll then came to the realization that quarterback Russell Wilson, while among the game’s best deep-ball throwers, is more suited to operate an offense that’s run-oriented and can use play-action, bootlegs and passing plays outside of the pocket – mostly due to his 5’11” frame, which limits Wilson inside the pocket. So he hired Brian Schottenheimer to execute this vision, and Wilson has adapted accordingly.
An underrated hire last spring was new offensive line coach Mike Solari, who has taken an offensive line that has underachieved in recent years and has turned them into the top rushing team in the NFL. While Duane Brown, J.R. Sweezy, Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker and German Ifedi have allowed 51 sacks – eighth most in the league – they have executed quite well in the ground game, along with running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny.
Doug Baldwin, who has dealt with injuries throughout this season, is the closest thing to former Carolina Panther Steve Smith that football has seen. He and Tyler Lockett possess a ton of speed.
DITTO FOR SEATTLE’S DEFENSE
The same scenario happened for their defense, as Kris Richard moved towards an approach based more off of Cover-One – man coverage across the board with one deep safety and one in the box – and not on their traditional Cover Three (three-deep zone coverage). Carroll let Richard walk before this season and replaced him with former linebackers coach and Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and the Seahawks have gotten back to their zone-based fundamentals.
While not the feared Legion of Boom unit from earlier in this decade, the Seahawks have a youthful defense that is ranked in the middle of the pack in most categories but is among the better teams in the league at getting to the quarterback. Their best pass rusher is the criminally underrated Frank Clark, who is coming off of a 13-sack season – his third straight with at least nine.
Defensive tackle Jarran Reed is good at clogging gaps against the run. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain among the best in the NFL in coverage responsibilities, and the rebuilding secondary is headlined by young cornerbacks Shaq Griffin, Tre Flowers and Justin Coleman, and the rising safety Bradley McDougald.
DALLAS DEFENSE BUILT OFF SIMPLICITY
Richard, who has joined forces with Rod Marinelli in Dallas, has had excellent results in Big D. While the Cowboys are so-so against the pass, they finished the regular season fifth in the NFL against the run.
Given that Dallas rarely blitzes, their defensive line – led by defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and second-year man Taco Charlton – relies on slants, stunts and twists at the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback. They also use them against the run, which helps shut down multiple gaps at once. Helping out the defensive line are linebackers Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch, who are all intelligent, fast and extremely good in run support and in pass coverage. Vander Esch is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Cowboys are led in their secondary by former first round pick Byron Jones, who has been solid at cornerback.
COWBOYS’ OFFENSE REJUVENATED
The Cowboys’ offense, which is based off of the Air Coryell system that has been the foundation of Dallas’ passing attack for the better part of three decades, faced a crisis coming into the 2018 season. With longtime veterans Jason Witten and Dez Bryant having left in the spring, beyond Cole Beasley the Cowboys had no proven threat at wide receiver.
Until the trade for Amari Cooper. Since coming over from the Oakland Raiders, Cooper posted 53 catches, 725 yards and six touchdowns in nine games with the Cowboys, rejuvenating a passing attack that had relied on Ezekiel Elliott’s abilities in the screen game (which he’s very good at).
Elliott, an explosive, powerful runner, operates behind perhaps the best offensive line in the game. Anchored by all-world tackle Tyron Smith and perennial All-Pro guard Zack Martin, this unit hasn’t missed a beat without injured center Travis Frederick.
Dak Prescott, while not yet a great anticipatory passer, does have a few traits that help out the Cowboys’ running game. His mobility helps Dallas remain dangerous on play-action, bootlegs, rollouts, zone-reads and RPOs – all plays that are built off of the run.
THIS AND THAT
- Seahawks assistant special teams coach Larry Izzo and Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik were both in New England from 2001-08, winning three Super Bowls together, while Izzo was still a player.
- Solari and Cowboys safeties coach Greg Jackson worked together in San Francisco from 2011-14.
- This is also Solari’s second stint in Seattle, as he was there from 2008-09. He also worked with Pete Carroll in San Francisco from 1995-96. Additionally, Soliari was Tom Landry’s special teams coach in Dallas from 1987-88.
- Richard worked for Carroll for ten years both in Seattle and at USC. He also played for Seattle from 2002-04, and also played for Carroll at USC in 2001.
- Cowboys offensive consultant Hudson Houck, who had two stints as their offensive line coach (1993-2001, 2008-11) worked for Seattle in 1992. He also was with Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett from 2005-06 in Miami.
- Norton played for Carroll with the 49ers from 1995-96 and for Dallas from 1988-93, winning two Super Bowls in the process. He also coached for Carroll from 2004-2014.
- Seahawks associate head coach Carl Smith, assistant offensive line coach Pat Ruel and assistant defensive line coach Jethro Franklin all worked for Carroll in New England or at USC.