ARLINGTON, Texas – Matt Cassel had another week of practice with the starting offense. He had All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant back healthy. He had designs on avoiding the same mistakes that led to three interceptions last week.
But the Seattle Seahawks simply didn't allow Cassel and the Cowboys' offense to make enough plays in his second start for an injured Tony Romo (collarbone).
Cassel completed only 13 of 25 pass for 97 yards in Sunday's 13-12 loss at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys' dozen points comprising four Dan Bailey field goals. It marked the second time in three games the Cowboys didn't score a touchdown -- the other game a 30-6 loss Oct. 11 to the Patriots in Brandon Weeden's final start before the team promoted Cassel during the bye week.
Seattle delivered the same defensive identity that has helped them win consecutive NFC titles: man coverage, keeping everything in front of them, and forcing Dallas to drive long fields. The Cowboys' 220 yards of total offense was their lowest output of the season.
Only four of Cassel's completions went to wide receivers – two each to Bryant and Terrance Williams. The rest were underneath throws to running backs and tight ends – Darren McFadden led the offense with six catches for 49 yards. And with the middle of the field often open, Cassel scrambled four times for 43 yards.
"I thought he grinded away," head coach Jason Garrett said. "They've been the best defense in football for a number of years now and I thought he grinded and made a number of big plays with his feet to keep drives alive and to make big plays for us within drives. He made some good throws.
"Obviously we didn't make the plays in the passing game at the critical moments – down in the red zone and some of the third downs – as the game wore on. But we'll look at the tape. I think he's getting more comfortable running our offense."
The Cowboys faced a similar scheme in a Week 3 loss to Atlanta, Weeden's first of three starts for Romo. Against the Falcons' defense, led by Atlanta head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Weeden completed 22 of 26 passes for 236 yards on mostly underneath throws. Running back Lance Dunbar, now out for the season following knee surgery, led all receivers in that game with 10 catches for 100 yards.
Cassel's 227 passing yards and one touchdown against the Giants last Sunday were overshadowed by three interceptions that led to 10 New York points in a 27-20 loss. He was turnover-free Sunday, but the chances he took downfield this time didn't connect.
"They are the kind of defense that they do what they do, for the most part," Cassel said. "They just do really it well. You have to take what they give you and you can't force balls. We took some shots down the field and we weren't able to have much success."
The offense was gifted its best field position of the season in the third quarter when Greg Hardy's tip-interception gave them the ball at the Seattle 16-yard line. But Cassel and the unit only gained seven yards on three plays and settled for a 27-yard Bailey field goal that gave Dallas a 12-10 lead.
Two possessions later, Seattle took the lead for good on a 24-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka.
"Anytime you come off a big turnover like that, you need to come up with a touchdown and we weren't able to do that," Cassel said. "We ran the ball (for four yards on first down) and then I missed that bubble screen (to Cole Beasley). We tried to get outside and I put it a little out front. They played zone coverage and I had to check the ball down (to McFadden for three yards) on the third one.
"It was a lost opportunity for us against a good football team. When you play good football teams, you've got to score. Those would be the difference makers."
With Seattle up 13-12, Cassel got the ball back at his own 20 with 1:06 remaining and no timeouts. On third down, Bruce Irvin sacked him for a six-yard loss that ran the clock down to 22 seconds. The offense didn't gain a yard on its final two plays.
"I'm getting outside the pocket and it kind of becomes a desperation play at that point," Cassel reflected. "I tried to get the ball downfield to get ourselves in field goal range and unfortunately I felt him (closing in for the sack) at the very end."