If Dez Bryant finally returns Sunday for the Dallas Cowboys – far from a certainty – he’ll be picking a difficult weekend to do so.
He would be catching passes from Matt Cassel for the first time while facing a vaunted Seattle Seahawks secondary he has never scored against in three prior meetings.
Bryant practiced for the first time in almost seven weeks Wednesday, but he’s listed as questionable. He was a limited participant in practice all week and said he’s ”trying to be smart about it.” But he also said Friday that if the decision were his, ”I would be playing.”
Bryant hasn’t played since suffering a broken right foot in the Sept. 20 opener against the New York Giants.
”I think the other guys have rallied around really well in his absence,” coach Jason Garrett said. ”But to get him back, just on the practice field and certainly once the game starts, will make a big difference to our football team. There’s no question in my mind about that.”
The presence of Bryant would take some pressure off Cassel, who made his Dallas debut in last Sunday’s 27-20 loss at New York. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown, but doomed the Cowboys with three second-half interceptions.
”He’s getting to know me and I’m getting to know him, just like all these guys,” Cassel said. ”Every little bit helps because we get into my second week really running the offense.”
Cassel replaced Brandon Weeden as the starter but it didn’t stop the Cowboys (2-4) from dropping their fourth straight without the injured Tony Romo, who will miss at least three more games.
Bryant came into the league the same year as vaunted Seattle safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and one year before Richard Sherman joined the Seahawks. The receiver has totaled 11 receptions and 156 yards in three matchups while being targeted 26 times.
"He’s a great player. We’ve had some pretty cool battles over the last four or five years so it’d be fun," Sherman said.
Cassel will be challenged by a pass rush that features defensive end Michael Bennett, who had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks in last Thursday’s 20-3 win at San Francisco and is tied for the NFL lead with 6 1/2.
The outspoken Bennett voiced his opinion on Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy’s outburst near the end of the Giants game. Hardy had a physical confrontation with special teams coach Rich Bisaccia and berated teammates on the coverage unit after barging into their huddle following a decisive 100-yard kickoff return for a TD by Dwayne Harris.
Garrett said Dallas would not discipline Hardy.
"He probably just got overheated and hopefully he can work it out," Bennett said. "But Hardy’s one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. He’s been doing his thing since he’s been here, so I know he’s a great player. He just has to stay out of the news."
Hardy will play his third game with Dallas and will help a pass rush that could have a favorable matchup since Russell Wilson has been sacked a league-high 31 times – 13 fewer than his career-high total in 2013.
It could be an even more favorable if starting left tackle Russell Okung – who would be matched up against Hardy – can’t play. Okung injured his ankle in practice Thursday and was unable to practice Friday before the Seahawks traveled to Dallas. He was initially listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report, but coach Pete Carroll said Okung is questionable and will be a game-time decision.
Of course, Seattle thrives thanks to a rushing attack that averages 143.3 yards for the league’s second-highest mark. Marshawn Lynch rushed for a season-high 122 yards on 27 carries in the 49ers game after totaling 182 yards in his first four.
”We go with Marshawn. He leads the way," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "The style in which he runs, the style in which he leads in the huddle, that’s what’s important to us. That’s what helps us get to where we want to be. We’ll go as far as he takes us.”
The Seahawks curiously went away from Lynch in last season’s 30-23 home loss to Dallas, giving him 10 carries for 61 yards. Wilson posted a 47.6 passer rating for his worst mark since his rookie season.
The Cowboys outgained the Seahawks 401-206, held the ball for 37:39 and amassed 162 rushing yards – 115 from the departed DeMarco Murray. Romo threw for 250 yards and two scores.
Dallas ranks seventh in rushing in 2015 with 127.7 yards per game. Darren McFadden ran for 152 yards last week after starter Joseph Randle left with a strained back. Randle left the team facility Thursday morning to deal with an unspecified personal issue and is out Sunday.
Seattle (3-4) has dropped its last three visits to Dallas, including two at AT&T Stadium. Coach Pete Carroll posted Wednesday morning on Twitter that he expects plenty of Seahawks fans in attendance in the club’s last game before the bye.
"Hopefully we can play real well and go into the break, it would be nice to get to the halfway point and get this thing evened up and get ready to go for the second half so we’re looking forward to that," Carroll said.