NFL Preview - Seattle (2-4) at Dallas (4-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Fresh off their most impressive performance thus far in the 2009 season, the Dallas Cowboys will attempt to maintain the momentum in Sunday's encounter with the visiting Seattle Seahawks.
Dallas had entered the Week 7 docket owning a credible 3-2 record, but wins over lightweights Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City -- teams that are a combined 3-17 at the moment -- had left the Cowboys still searching for a measure of respectability when a one-loss Atlanta squad made its way to Texas this past weekend. They got it i n the form of a convincing 37-21 victory over the Falcons in which Dallas excelled in every phase of the game.
Much-maligned quarterback Tony Romo sent a message to his detractors with a sensational 311-yard, three-touchdown effort, while a defense that's had its share of critical breakdowns in the season's early stages was both cohesive and dominating, limiting the talented Falcons to 298 total yards and sacking young field general Matt Ryan four times.
The Cowboys even got a big contribution on special teams, with recently- demoted wide receiver Patrick Crayton returning a punt 73 yards for a game- sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Crayton had been displaced as a starter on offense by fourth-year pro Miles Austin, who's gone from obscurity to superstar with an amazing two-week stretch that's seen the undrafted free agent rack up a whopping 421 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Last week's triumph improved Dallas to 2-1 in the magnificent new Cowboys Stadium and was the club's second straight win overall. The Cowboys begin Sunday's play trailing the slumping New York Giants by only a half-game for first place in the NFC East.
Seattle stands at 2-4 in head coach Jim Mora's first year at the helm and two games back of Arizona for the NFC West's top spot. The Seahawks lost some ground in the division race with a discouraging 27-3 home loss to the Cardinals on October 18, one week after Mora's troops put together a 41-0 throttling of Jacksonville on the Qwest Field turf.
The Seahawks were on a bye in Week 7, which provided the team with the opportunity to tend to its extensive list of wounded players. A pair of key defenders, cornerback Marcus Trufant and outside linebacker Leroy Hill, are expected to return from injuries that have kept them out of action for most or all of this season in Sunday's tilt.
However, Seattle will be without standout middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, sidelined indefinitely with a pectoral tear suffered in the Arizona game, as well as starting offensive tackles Walter Jones and Sean Locklear. Jones, a seven-time All-Pro recognized as one of the premier players at the left tackle position, has not seen the field this season due to a serious knee injury and is likely headed to injured reserve.
Dallas leads the all-time regular season series with Seattle, 7-4, including a 34-9 home rout of the Seahawks on Thanksgiving Day 2008. The Seahawks won the previous regular season meeting, a 13-10 home result in 2005. Seattle last won in Dallas in 2002.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams played a memorable postseason contest, won by Seattle in dramatic, 21-20 fashion at home in the 2006 playoffs.
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 6-1 in his career against the Seahawks, including a 4-0 mark while the Broncos (1993-94) and 1-1 while at the helm of the Bills (1998-2000). Mora was 0-1 against Dallas while at the helm of the Falcons (2004-06), and will be meeting Phillips for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle's considerable health issues have taken a toll on an offense that's struggled to establish consistency for a good part of this season. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (729 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) sat out a couple of games earlier in the year with a fractured rib, while four of the five intended starters on the line have missed at least two contests due to injuries, which offers an explanation for an anemic running game that mustered a franchise- worst 14 yards in the team's lopsided Week 6 loss to Arizona. The makeshift front wall also failed to provide adequate protection for Hasselbeck, who was sacked five times in addition to completing a subpar 10-of-29 passes for 112 yards. Those pass-blocking liabilities have also made tight end John Carlson (24 receptions, 2 TD) less of a factor, as the sure-handed second-year pro has often been needed to assist the tackles. When he's given enough time, Hasselbeck has an excellent go-to guy in free-agent pickup T.J. Houshmandzadeh (31 receptions, 2 TD) and a legitimate big-play threat in Nate Burleson (32 receptions, 398 yards, 3 TD) at the wide receiver spots. Julius Jones gets the bulk of the carries for Seattle's 28th-ranked rushing offense (90.3 ypg), although the one-time Cowboy has averaged a poor 2.3 yards per attempt over the last three games.
The Seahawks are going to need to get their stalled ground attack in gear on Sunday, otherwise Hasselbeck could face the prospect of becoming a sitting duck against a fierce Dallas pass rush spearheaded by the remarkable DeMarcus Ware (24 tackles, 4 sacks). The disruptive outside linebacker, the proud owner of a new six-year, $78 million contract signed on Monday, has been on a tear following a slow start, having amassed multiple sacks in each of the team's past two outings. Ware's recent re-emergence has certainly aided a secondary that had come up with few difference-making plays early on, with cornerback Mike Jenkins (21 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) and nickel man Orlando Scandrick (19 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) each netting interceptions of Ryan in last week's win over the Falcons. The Cowboys were stout versus the run in the Atlanta game as well, limiting powerful back Michael Turner to a non-threatening 50 yards on 18 totes. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff (15 tackles, 2 sacks), a Pro Bowl participant in 2008, is adept at creating havoc up front and allowing veteran linebackers Bradie James (40 tackles, 1 sack) and Keith Brooking (39 tackles, 1 sack) the space to be effective.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas has compiled the second-highest yards per game average (419.3 ypg) in the league this year and can hurt its competition in a number of ways. The Cowboys rank fourth in the NFL in rushing offense (153.3 ypg), with a terrific stable of backs consisting of bruiser Marion Barber (344 rushing yards, 3 TD, 5 receptions), home-run hitter Felix Jones (249 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) and third-down specialist Tashard Choice (225 rushing yards, 2 TD, 13 receptions) capable of wearing down the opposition behind a sturdy front line. Dallas did most of its damage through the air last Sunday, however, as Romo (1652 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) was a sharp 21-of-29 in recording his third 300-yard game of the season and the suddenly-spectacular Austin (21 receptions, 502 yards, 5 TD) toasting the Falcons for 171 yards and two scores on only six grabs to prove his 10-catch, 250-yard outburst in a Week 5 win at Kansas City was no fluke. The Cowboys also make good use of the tight end, where five-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten (33 receptions, 1 TD) is annually among the most productive players at his position and sophomore Martellus Bennett (7 receptions) possesses great physical skills and can be a matchup nightmare for enemy defenses.
The Seattle defense has held up fairly well considering all the key injuries, as the unit enters Sunday's test tied for seventh overall in points allowed (18.2 ypg) and 12th in yards given up (319.7 ypg). That's not to say the team couldn't use the talents of Trufant, an accomplished ballhawk who has yet to play this year due to a nagging back problem, and Hill, a reliable five-year starter who underwent groin surgery shortly after the season opener. The Seahawks will miss the range and leadership of Tatupu (32 tackles, 1 sack), although backup David Hawthorne (27 tackles, 1 INT) did notch 16 tackles in an emergency start against Chicago earlier this season. Veteran end Patrick Kerney (14 tackles, 4 sacks), Seattle's best pass rusher, may also sit out this week's game after aggravating a groin injury against Arizona, but fellow linemen Lawrence Jackson (14 tackles, 4 sacks) and Darryl Tapp (13 tackles, 1 sack) are both proficient at getting to the quarterback as well. The Seahawks have posted 16 sacks in their six games this season.
Those who were astute enough to grab Austin off the waiver wire should no longer wonder whether the previously little-known wideout is a viable fantasy option, as he's clearly passed the disappointing Roy Williams (12 receptions, 1 TD) as Dallas' No. 1 outside receiver. Austin's breakout has diminished Witten's value a bit, though the trusty tight end is still a good every-week choice. Carlson, on the other hand, has been a shaky play at that position due to his targets having been limited by his team's blocking deficiencies. Both Houshmandzadeh and Burleson make for solid alternatives as a second wide receiver or flex player, but Hasselbeck can no longer be considered a top-tier quarterback due to the 34-year-old's recent injury history and a lack of support from the running game and offensive line. There's little concern in regards to starting Romo, however, and the star signal-caller has the potential for another big day in a matchup with a Seattle defense that's still banged up. Dallas' depth at running back assigns some risk to each member of the stable, with Barber possessing the greatest upside as the favorite to get goal-line work. As for the Seahawks, Julius Jones has reached the point where only desperate owners should be taking a flier on the declining back.
This has the potential of being a trap game for the Cowboys, with road trips to Philadelphia and Green Bay looming in the next two weeks. Still, the Seahawks don't seem to have enough available talent on defense to keep Dallas' wealth of playmakers completely in check, or the balance on offense to be able to hang if it's a high-scoring affair. Seattle's best hope is for Dallas to suffer a letdown after last Sunday's big win, and that Hasselbeck can make it out of the stadium in one piece against what should be a relentless Cowboys' pass rush.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Seahawks 13
10/29 10:11:34 ET