Enemy Confidential: Dominant defense leads retooled Cowboys

Even with an anemic offense ranked 29th in scoring, Dallas has stifled opponents defensively so far this season.

Only nine months removed from their last encounter, the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys will face off in a rematch at CenturyLink Field looking dramatically different than last December.

Known more for offensive firepower in recent seasons, the Cowboys have turned a new leaf so far this season, overcoming expected offensive struggles with a stingy defense coached by Rod Marinelli. While quarterback Dak Prescott continues to build chemistry with a revamped receiving corps missing Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, Dallas has held its first two opponents to 14.5 points and 274 yards per game, third and fourth in NFL rankings respectively.

With an improved defense that flies to the football and an offense that appears close to turning the corner, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows the Cowboys will present “a very difficult challenge” for his team in the home opener on Sunday.

Here’s a closer look at Seattle’s upcoming opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and Carroll’s evaluation of the Cowboys heading into Sunday:

Series History

--18th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series, 10-8. Prior to Seattle relocating to the NFC in 2002, Dallas dominated the series, winning five of the first six matchups between 1976 and 2001. Since realignment, the two franchises have evenly split 10 regular season contests and Seattle edged Dallas in a 21-20 thriller during the 2007 NFC Wild Card round. The Seahawks have won the previous two matchups, most recently defeating the Cowboys 21-12 in Week 16 last season.

What’s New?

--Additions: Early signs indicate Dallas hit a home run in this year’s draft, selecting LB Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State in the first round and snagging G Connor Williams from Texas in the second round. Rookie WR Michael Gallup also drew strong reviews during the preseason and could emerge as one of Prescott’s top targets as the season unfolds. The Cowboys signed former Jaguars WR Allen Hurns, traded for speedy former first-round pick Tavon Austin, and recently re-signed WR Brice Butler in an attempt to bolster the team’s 31st ranked passing offense. Troubled DE Randy Gregory returned from a lengthy suspension and was reinstated in August for additional pass rushing help. While most of the coaching staff remained intact, Dallas did hire former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard as its new secondary coach.

--Departures: Dallas suffered major losses on the offensive side of the football, as Witten retired and transitioned into the broadcast booth and the team dumped Bryant to clear cap space. The Cowboys have also had major injury issues along the offensive line, as standout C Travis Frederick remains sidelined as he recovers from a neurological disorder and G Marcus Martin landed on injured reserve in August. Defensively, the Cowboys didn’t lose much aside from choosing to move on from veteran CB Orlando Scandrick.

Inside the Numbers

23.8: Overall conversion rate on third down for the Cowboys, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Only the Cardinals have been less efficient moving the chains during the first two games of the season.

44: Percentage of plays where Cowboys used play action against the Giants last week, highest percentage in the NFL for Week 2. According to Pro Football Focus, Prescott completed eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown off play action in the game.

165: Average passing yards per game by Prescott, 29th overall among starting quarterbacks.

74: Total yards lost on Cowboys sacks this season, tops in the entire league. The Cowboys have recorded 9.0 sacks as a team this season, second-best in the NFL.

16: Sacks Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence is on pace for after recording one in each of the team's first two games. He finished with a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2017.

0: Number of interceptions the Cowboys defense has generated in two games against the Panthers and Giants.

84.4: Coverage grade for Cowboys CB Byron Jones via Pro Football Focus, second-highest score among NFL cornerbacks. Jones switched from safety to corner prior to the start of this season.

Carroll’s Thoughts

--As one of the major subplots of this matchup, the Seahawks will face a Cowboys secondary now coached by former defensive coordinator Kris Richard. Richard played for Carroll at USC and served as an assistant coach under him with Seattle from 2010 to 2017.

When asked about Richard’s influence on Dallas’s defense, Carroll said “I can see it in the corner play. The corners are playing really well. They’re on the line of scrimmage and they do a nice job. They made a nice move with [Byron] Jones and he’s made a nice, quick transition. He’s doing a good job for them.”

The Seahawks opted to move on from Richard in January, as Carroll felt the young coach would benefit from working on a different staff and that making such a move could accelerate his rise to a head coaching position of his own. He interviewed with the Colts for their vacant head coaching position in January before being fired by the Seahawks and now the apprentice has a chance to beat his master.

--When asked what he believed had changed the most for Dallas’s offense since the two teams met last December, Carroll emphasized how the Cowboys have incorporated designed runs for Prescott into their scheme. In the team’s first two games, he rushed 12 times for 64 yards.

“The quarterback has already run a number of times, so that’s a little bit of a tweak in their offense…” Carroll stated. “He’s good at it, so it’s a good dimension to their team.”

Seattle had some trouble stopping Bears QB Mitch Trubisky when he scrambled on Monday night, so it’s clear that Carroll has taken notice of Prescott’s running ability and how the Cowboys have purposely been mixing in quarterback run plays for him to use his athleticism. The Seahawks may deploy a spy in coverage to prevent him from doing damage as a runner, especially with LB Bobby Wagner likely to return to action from a groin injury.