The 2018 post-season begins with the Wild Card round this weekend. The fourth seed Dallas Cowboys (10-6) host the fifth seed Seattle Seahawks (10-6) in primetime Saturday.
Much has changed since the Seahawks prevailed over Dallas at CenturyLink Field in Week 3. However, what remains the same is Seattle being a formidable opponent that has yet to lose to the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys.
As mentioned by Jason Garrett earlier in the week, Brian Schottenheimer’s offense developed and established a run-heavy mentality during the season. In fact, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks led the NFL in total rushing yards with 2,560, while Dallas fell to 10th overall with 1,963. That was an average of almost 38 yards more per game for the Seahawks.
Chances are most of the action will occur on the ground, as each team uses their rushing attack to create explosive opportunities through the air. Only a handful of organizations have the talent and scheme to exploit the Dallas run defense. The problem for Cowboys fans is that Seattle is one of them. For Dallas to win their first home playoff game in the Prescott era, their run defense must live up to its top-5 ranking.
Here are some of the plays Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s unit will face on gameday.
Much of the Seahawks’ plan of attack should consist of inside and outside zone runs. Both of these plays require the offensive line to work in unison with the inside zone, creating a more vertical push at the line of scrimmage while the outside zone moves horizontally.
Teams proficient in zone blocking can create creases in defensive fronts, even those that are fundamentally sound and carry an extra box defender. That was the case in this Week 15 play at San Francisco. Despite the 49ers having every gap covered with seven defenders against six blockers, Seattle still managed to bust Chris Carson through for 21 yards on an inside zone run.
The Cowboys suffered a similar fate that same Sunday at Indianapolis. The Colts unexpectedly gashed Dallas for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries. One of the league’s top defenses struggled to contain what had been an average-at-best rushing team at the time.
On this play, the defense brought safety Jeff Heath into the box to give them a seven-on-six advantage, yet Marlon Mack and Indianapolis’s offensive line flawlessly-executed this RPO outside zone for a gain of 12 yards on 2nd-and-10.
Although schematically sound, both defenses were exposed by these zone runs. That scene repeated itself throughout the Cowboys’ loss in Week 15.
But the Dallas run defense largely regained its form in Weeks 16 and 17, with the exception of two plays by Saquon Barkley. Excluding Barkley’s 68-yard scamper, they held the Bucs and Giants to 2.9 yards per carry.
If the game flows in the Seahawks’ favor, then these two runs will be a common fixture. Consistently defending them requires discipline, fast pursuit, and winning one-on-one matchups. The Cowboys have the personnel to accomplish the task, but nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs.
Expect to see the trap/wham called at least twice on game night, and more if Carson and his teammates find room.
The trap is a good design that takes advantage of aggressive defensive lines. The play leaves at least one defensive lineman unblocked, often along the inside. This allows the offensive line to engage the linebackers immediately while another lineman traps the defensive tackle to create a running lane. When a tight end or halfback is used, the block is referred to as a wham.
One of the ways Seattle dresses up the play is with jet motion.
Dallas gave up nine yards on 2nd-and-10 on the wham below in their reeling loss at Indianapolis.
Jet Motion and Option Runs
Speaking of jet motion, don’t be surprised if Schottenheimer frequently sends Tyler Lockett streaking across the formation. Seattle has often deployed this form of window dressing with a lot of their runs. This helps draw defenders away from the box and has the potential to break for an explosive gain if the defense becomes desensitized to the sweeper.
In the middle of the first quarter at San Francisco on 2nd-and-5, the Seahawks ran a simple inside zone with jet motion.
Although technically not a read-option-type play, it can be easily altered. That’s what happened on the last play of the third quarter on 1st-and-10. This time, Lockett jets behind Russell Wilson and acts as an outlet on a read-speed option.
Even though the 49ers kept the ball out of the end zone, the play gained nine yards.
The sweeper could also turn up the sideline on a wheel route if the defense isn’t paying attention on the back side. That’s the case on this Week 14 play against the Vikings.
Notice how each play looks similar to the others. Running multiple concepts that initially appear the same keeps the defense from gaining a jump on the play.
As a sort of tendency breaker, watch for the Seahawks to dial up the occasional toss or pitch outside. The pre-snap motion by the receiver is similar to one of the trap runs Seattle sometimes calls, so it has the potential to hold defenders in the box for an extra split second.
Schottenheimer could also combine jet motion with a flip or toss outside as a changeup to the interior runs.
This year has seen an incredible display of chemistry between Lockett and his quarterback. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Kansas State alumnus is the most efficient deep ball receiver in 2018. That’s critical to the success of any run-based offense.
Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis will have their hands full guarding the 5-foot 10-inch speedster. One way the Seahawks could target him is on the slot-fade or stutter-fade route. Against man coverage, a well-placed ball by Wilson could easily gain 20 or more yards.
Even if the defender is in-phase, Lockett has the ball-tracking and hand usage skills to make tough catches downfield. Against the Chiefs, Lockett gained 45 yards on 2nd-and-12 on this deep pass in the fourth quarter.
From the end zone angle, watch the subtle hand usage by Lockett as he staves off Charvarius Ward and adjusts to Wilson’s well-thrown pass.
This type of connection is extremely difficult to stop. The most effective way to disrupt it is with the pass rush. Fortunately for the Cowboys, their “Hot Boyz” are capable of doing just that. But whether they can do so consistently enough to win the game is the real test. In a close contest like the one many expect; one deep pass can turn the game’s momentum on its head.
Presuming turnovers don’t skew the game in anyone’s favor, then a physical coinflip is the likely outcome. It’s quite possible both offenses find little room to maneuver, so field position and limiting mistakes will play a huge role in deciding the winner.
The good news for Dallas is they’ve fared much better at home this year while the Seahawks have struggled to beat winning teams on the road. But that trend can be easily thrown out the window as everyone ups their game in the playoffs.
For the Cowboys to win, it’s vital they defend all parts of the field. That’s obvious and should go without saying, but the concept is always easier said than done. If Prescott can hit his receivers over the middle like he did against Tampa Bay, then the defense should limit Seattle enough to earn victory.
If Prescott and the offense struggle, then DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith and the rest of the defense must produce a Saints-esque shutdown. Otherwise, Dallas will be watching the Divisional round from the couch.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.