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Clayton: 5 Things to watch for Seahawks-Cowboys

Jimmy Graham has a chance to have a great game against the Cowboys' young safeties. (AP)

There was a different feel to the Seahawks this week.

Normally a team that peaks in November and December, the Seahawks are coming off two losses and face the possibility of not making the playoffs. Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys is more than a must game.

O’Neil: Seahawks must show they’re not as bad as their last loss

It’s a defining game for where this team is. Heading into the season, the Seahawks had Super Bowl hopes. Once the team got past mid-season, flaws started to show. Penalties and the lack of a running game were problems all season. And though the Seahawks built a deep roster this offseason, particularly on defense, problems eventually surfaced.

Injuries hurt the defense, and special teams tackling has been off the past couple of weeks. Age may be hitting the team at some defensive spots. If the Seahawks have a bad game against the Cowboys, it might be more than just a loss; it could help determine a big shakeup for next year’s roster.

Here are five things to watch Sunday.

A heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott. During the six games Elliott was suspended, the Cowboys managed to get 121 yards per game rushing, but it just wasn’t the same; Elliott’s impact to quarterback Dak Prescott is similar to what Rob Gronkowski means to the New England Patriots and Tom Brady.

Elliott gets touchdowns. In his first 23 games, Elliott has 22 touchdown runs and averages 105 yards a game. Expect Elliott to get more than 20 carries this Sunday. The plan will undoubtedly be to test out a Seahawks run defense that couldn’t stop Todd Gurley last week.

Like the Rams, I’m sure the Cowboys will call Elliott stretch plays to see Bobby Wagner’s range. The hamstring injury limited Wagner and opened holes in the Seahawks run defense.

Dak Prescott works his best with Elliott and the lead. The plan is get off to a fast start and try to wear down the Seahawks defense.

The Seahawks pass defense matches up well against the Cowboys receivers. One of the problems for the Cowboys this year is that the passing offense has been off, and getting separation from corners has been one of the problem.

This may sound surprising for a team that has Dez Bryant, but Dez Bryant hasn’t been the Dez Bryant we’ve seen in previous seasons; he’s not getting away from corners like he has before, and has 63 receptions and a 12.2 yard average, lowest of his career.

Terrance Williams averages 11.1 yards per catch and Cole Beasley 8.9. The one deep threat is Brice Butler, who averages 20.5 per game.

The Seahawks need great games from cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin, Byron Maxwell and Justin Coleman.

This could be a potentially good game for tight end Jimmy Graham. In the past two games, Graham has minus one yards receiving. The Cowboys could be vulnerable to good play with a tall tight end who is hard to match up, though.

The Cowboys are young at safety.  Xavier Woods is a fifth-round rookie, and communication has been an issue at times in a secondary that uses as many as three rookies at a time. The Cowboys are in the middle of the league for stopping tight ends, giving up 66 receptions for 689 yards and five touchdowns.

Jourdan Lewis, a third-round choice, is becoming their best cover player. Second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie is very talented. But it will be interesting to see if Russell Wilson tries to exploit that inexperience with Graham and wide receiver Doug Baldwin.

The Seahawks need a great game from the defensive line. The Cowboys are noted for having the best offensive line in the league (though one thing to keep an eye on is the health status of left tackle Tyron Smith, who has been slowed by a bad back).

The Seahawks didn’t get a lot of pressure on Rams quarterback Jarod Goff last week. This time, the defensive line needs to win the battle against this Cowboys line, following the retirement of Doug Free and the free agent loss of guard Ronald Leary.

With the return of Elliott, the Cowboys line will have extra motivation and confidence.

Expect Russell Wilson to continue taking chances downfield. Even though the Cowboys have developed a good pass rush with DeMarcus Lawrence, they still can’t create turnovers and have only nine interceptions.

Quarterbacks are completing 66.3 percent of their passes against the Cowboys — and they’ve given up 26 touchdown passes, for an opposing quarterback rating of 95.8.

Wilson has been firing a lot of long passes trying to make big plays. His escapabilty will be important, but it would sure help if he gets some good running plays from Mike Davis and Rodney McKissic.

John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle
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