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Seahawks face Cowboys for wild-card weekend: 3 players to watch

Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright could be key in limiting Dallas' run game. (AP)

The Seahawks’ return to the postseason starts in Dallas with a Saturday evening game against the Cowboys.

Moore Predicts: Can Seahawks get past Cowboys, make Super Bowl run?

Both teams finished the regular season 10-6 and lean into a run-first offense. Seattle won their last meeting in Week 3, but there are a few new faces this time around. That includes Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (more on his impact here) and Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, who missed the first half of the season with a knee injury.

Wright kicks off this list of players to watch Saturday.

LB K.J. Wright

Limiting running back Ezekiel Elliott is usually the key to beating the Cowboys. Five of Dallas’ six losses were in games where Elliott rushed for less than 90 yards. Three of those losses came before the team acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper, so the passing game was limited. But simply put, Dallas’ offense is less efficient when opponents stop Elliott.

Problem is, he’s not easy to contain. Elliott’s 1,434 rushing yards are more than any other running back had this year and 120 more than the next-leading rusher (Giants’ Saquon Barkley).

“We need to do a better job on Zeke, but it’s going to be fun,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said of the matchup.

Dallas’ sole loss when Elliott rushed for more than 100 yards was, coincidentally, in Week 3 against Seattle. This time around, Seattle’s front seven will have an added veteran: linebacker K.J. Wright. Wright missed time this year recovering from knee surgery, but is set to start a second consecutive game Saturday.

CB Tre Flowers

Tre Flowers came this close to having his first career interception in Seattle’s win over the Vikings in Week 13. His first season hasn’t been perfect, but it’s impressive nonetheless – especially considering that he made the switch from safety to corner last summer and was thrust into a starting role only after two other players were injured.

Flowers has done just about everything he can when it comes to getting after the ball with three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, and it certainly feels like a pick is around the corner.

“What Tre has done kind of independently from when you look at Sherm (Richard Sherman) and you look at Shaq (Shaquill Griffin)… he has been more effective attacking the football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Flowers’ play. “He’s been really good at getting the ball out from guys and he’s got a chance to be really unique that way if it keeps happening. The focus is there.”

Asked which rookies have stepped up this season, wide receiver Doug Baldwin led with Flowers.

“I would say Tre Flowers, for one,” Baldwin said. “I love the progression that Tre Flowers has gone through during the course of the season. He’s always had the physical tools. I think it was just a mental part of him getting the confidence necessary for him to be out on an island sometimes and be successful and hold his own. He’s done a fabulous job of that.”

The offensive line

710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake Heaps cited this group as his biggest area of concern heading into Saturday.

Yes, the O-line has shown marked improvement from last season. Yes, Seattle saw its first 1,000-yard rusher in four years. But they also surrendered 51 sacks this season, which is a career-high for quarterback Russell Wilson. And a group that’s managed to have the same starting five through a good portion of the season surrendered six sacks last week when it was short both starting guards. One of those two players, left guard J.R. Sweezy, remains questionable for this weekend’s game.

Granted, the O-line has improved overall in pass-blocking efficiency. Pro Football Focus ranks Seattle’s linemen 17th this year, up from 29th in 2017. The group has allowed two or fewer sacks seven times this season, and in four of those games Wilson saw season-highs in his quarterback rating. Some of their best performances came against Oakland, Carolina and Detroit – and it’s that version of the line that needs to show up Saturday against Dallas. But that’s easier said than done when you’re facing a playoff team.

Right guard D.J. Fluker, who’s having the best year of his career, is expected to return after being sidelined with a hamstring injury. His arrival doesn’t make up for the absence of a starter on the left side, but it does allow Germain Ifedi to slide back into his normal right tackle position, where he too has seen improvement this year. Tackle George Fant will also be freed up to return to his role as a tight end and additional blocker.

Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard, who is also Dallas’ defensive play-caller, is plenty familiar with the Seahawks, having coached with the team from 2010-17. The Cowboys’ fifth-ranked rushing defense will be looking to limit a Seahawks team that leads the league in rushing yards per game (160). If they’re successful the Seahawks will need to turn to Wilson, and the O-line will need to stifle a Dallas pass rush headed by Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.

More Seahawks-Cowboys coverage

Psychology, counseling helping Doug Baldwin through difficult year
Heaps’ Film Room: A look at Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett’s ‘perfect’ season
How Schottenheimer, Carroll got on the same page about the Seahawks’ offense
Seahawks’ wild-card matchup: 3 Dallas Cowboys to watch
Moore: Don’t expect a repeat of Seahawks’ Week 3 win over Cowboys