Here is what to watch in the Seattle-Dallas game Sunday from Seahawks beat reporters Bob Condotta and Jayson Jenks.
First, three from Condotta
1. Seattle’s top defensive priority every week is to stop the opponent’s running game. Seattle has been as successful as can be achieving that goal this season, ranking first in the NFL in run defense, allowing just 62.3 rushing yards per game and 2.6 per play. But on paper, Dallas presents the most imposing challenge yet for the Seahawks with a line that features three former first-round picks — including left tackle Tyron Smith, who made the Pro Bowl last season — paving the way for running back DeMarco Murray (above in an AP photo), who in his fourth year out of Oklahoma is having a breakthrough season. “They are big and they get on you pretty quick,’’ Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said of Dallas’ line. “We’ve just got to get off blocks and make sure we tackle. DeMarco breaks a lot of tackles, so tackling is going to be big.’’
2. One of the themes of first quarter of the season has been the lengths to which Seattle opponents have gone to avoid cornerback Richard Sherman. He has been targeted just 14 times in 276 snaps, allowing seven receptions. Dallas owner Jerry Jones was widely quoted this week, though, saying that the Cowboys won’t shy away from throwing the way of Sherman. Then the question becomes when and how often will Dallas line up Dez Bryant on the right side opposite Sherman, who almost always is positioned on the left side of Seattle’s defense. The 6-20, 220-pound Bryant leads the Cowboys with 32 receptions for 376 yards and has the respect of Sherman, who said this week that Bryant “does matter’’ in the NFL — he had said after the win over Washington that Washington receiver Pierre Garcon “doesn’t matter in this league.’’
3. The Seahawks noticed a few things in Washington’s defense last week that they thought they could exploit with Russell Wilson’s running, and it resulted in a career-high 122 yards rushing by Seattle’s quarterback. Wilson has 209 rushing yards for the season, the most of any quarterback in the NFL and on pace for 836 for the season — he rushed for 489 and 539 yards his first two seasons. What happened at Washington won’t happen every game. But last week showed that Wilson’s running is always there to serve as another valuable weapon for the Seahawks, and something that opponents, such as the Cowboys this week, better be ready for.
And from Jenks:
1. When will the pass rush start hitting its stride? The Seahawks rank 24th in the NFL with six sacks this season. That puts them on pace for 24 sacks this season. For comparison, they had 44 sacks a year ago. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said the pass rush hasn’t “gotten on track as well as we would like,” and he indicated that part of the reason the Seahawks haven’t had many turnovers this season can be traced to the lack of a consistent pass rush. It took the Seahawks’ pass rush until about midway through the season a year ago to really hit their stride. Will that be the same this year?
2. Will the third-down conversion numbers improve for the offense? The Seahawks have yet to be really efficient on third down this season. They are converting 38 percent of their third downs, which ties them for 22nd in the league with the New York Jets. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are the best team in the NFL on third down and convert 56 percent of their third downs. Quarterback Russell Wilson said the Seahawks are just one or two successful third downs away from flipping those numbers, but they’ve yet to do that consistently through four games.
3. The rotation at linebacker. Bruce Irvin returned from injury against Washington and played as the Seahawks’ third linebacker when they went with one. That meant that Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl MVP, didn’t play a single defensive snap against Washington. I’m curious to see how that plays out this week and as the season progresses. Irvin offers the Seahawks their best option at strongside linebacker because he is bigger and better against the run. But Smith has also been productive when he’s played. That traffic jam at linebacker isn’t a bad problem to have, but it will be interesting to see how it shakes out moving forward.