The Seahawks head down to the desert this weekend to take on their NFC West brethren Arizona Cardinals, and though Arizona certainly has been the butt of jokes regarding their quarterback situation this preseason, it's their defense that I'm more concerned about. There's no uncertainty along their defensive line, where they return DE Calais Campbell and DT Darnell Dockett. Also in the mix is NT Dan Williams, who has had an uneven career thus far, but when he's on his game, does a lot to help that Cardinals defense plug up the middle of the field. Calais Campbell has six sacks in six games against the Seahawks in his career, and nine passes batted down in those six games, so it seems likely he'll be a big factor.
The Cardinals' defense is multiple and attacking, zone blitz heavy, and over the final nine games of the 2011 season (when Arizona went 7-2), finally seemed to start clicking under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton and his Steelers'-style defensive schemes. Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield should set the edges as Arizona's two outside linebackers and both players are young, tenacious, and underrated. Combined with the disruptive and talented defensive line, don't be surprised to see the Seahawks struggle with protection, especially if Marshawn Lynch sits, and, don't be surprised to see Russell Wilson frequently flushed from the pocket and running around in space as he avoids pressure. The Seahawks' may try to mitigate Horton's blitzing style and Campbell/Docketts' presence in the middle with designed bootlegs, waggles, half-rollouts, and screen passes or swing passes to receivers and running backs more than they did in their final two preseason games.
The Cardinals' secondary has some talent as well - Patrick Peterson has emerged as a very good, potentially shutdown style cornerback, and it will be interesting to see if he shadows Sidney Rice on Sunday. If this is the case, expect more targets for Braylon Edwards, and this first game will be a litmus test as to what the veteran receiver still has left in the tank. With the Cardinals' seeing some issues with depth at corner -- Greg Toler is questionable with a hip injury - and this may lead to Horton putting veteran CB Randall Gay in the nickel spot and throwing rookie Jamell Fleming on the outside (this is what they've done in the last few preseason games). This means, possibly, we'll see 6'4 Braylon Edwards against 5'11 rookie Fleming on the outside, and with the success that Edwards has had in jump balls during the preseason, mixed with Russell Wilson's ability and willingness to throw the ball up for his receivers to make plays, this matchup could turn out to be pretty important.
I'm really hoping that they feed the ball to Rice though - Peterson be damned. Rice absolutely needs to become a major focal point of this offense, especially in the downfield passing game, and don't be surprised to see a shot or two early on to Rice as the Seahawks go off of their early-game script.
I'd expect the Seahawks will try to run the ball frequently though this week, control the football and control the time of possession game. That's the formula they stuck with in the preseason and I don't really see that goal changing. Assuming Marshawn Lynch can go -- and at this point, my best guess is that he will -- they'll probably feed him the ball 15-20 times and mix Robert Turbin and/or Leon Washington in for 10-15 rushes. J.R. Sweezy has his work cut out for him in his first NFL start, and I'll be interested to see how the Seahawks look to protect Wilson in his first start with tight end chips and possibly by leaving Zach Miller/Anthony McCoy in to block to give Wilson more time to throw.
With the addition of Evan Moore, it will be very interesting to see how often he sees the field, and in what personnel. Will he platoon with Anthony McCoy or will we see the three tight ends on the field together at the same time? Moore helps a lot with the injury to Golden Tate because he can play the X-reciever spot in certain personnel groupings again, don't be surprised to see him lining up in the slot or on the outside as the Seahawks look to take advantage of matchups. Still, with Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes patrolling the secondary - and some believe they're one of the top units in the NFL - the Cardinals do have an answer for the Seahawks' talented tight end group.
On the defensive side of the football for the Seahawks, with Beanie Wells questionable and Ryan Williams still a big question mark coming back from a patellar tendon tear, LaRod Stephens-Howling should see a decent amount of carries. Last season, the Seahawks had issues with the shifty, scat-back type of running backs as these guys were more able to stretch the field horizontally and the gap-plugging trio of Red Bryant, Alan Branch, and Brandon Mebane aren't exactly ideal pursuit linemen. The Seahawks have upgraded speed in their linebacker group though, so I'd expect to see K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner flying around.
The Caridnals ran with 3+ WR 54% of the time in 2011 (12th in NFL), according to Football Outsiders tracking, and 4+ WR 18% of the time, which was 2nd in the NFL in frequency, so expect to see a good deal of nickel and dime defenses for the Seahawks this week. This means Marcus Trufant, Winston Guy, Jeron Johnson and possibly even Jeremy Lane could see some significant snaps. The Cardinals move Larry Fitzgerald around their formations, in the slot, on the outside, in iso, in an effort to create confusion and get him matched up with linebackers or safeties. The good news is that the Seahawks have been developing a talented and fast secondary and this will be a great first test.
Kenny told you all about John Skelton yesterday, and though I honestly don't know how I feel about him at this point, he's certainly a boom-or-bust type of player at this point in his career. Pete Carroll's defense is going to look to harass him in the pocket - which will be helped by the Cardinals' offensive line woes. Arizona heads into Sunday with an interesting tackle group -- rookie right tackle Bobby Massie, and a left tackle in D'Anthony Batiste, who has four NFL starts, all back in 2007, will bookend Arizona's line. This is another reason I expect the Seahawks to run in their nickel looks perhaps more often than they normally would, hoping to get Skelton rattled and rushed, and to deny him time to set up and throw the football. Skelton has been compared to Ben Roethlisberger of late, because of his size and ability to escape pressure and get throws off, but he's also pretty erratic once he's flushed from the pocket. The Seahawks will look to make him force and rush throws, and hope to create some turnovers.
Bruce Irvin, Chrls Clemons, and Jason Jones are three players to watch on defense, and I'll be interested to see how well Bobby Wagner flows to the ball, how he diagnoses plays, and if he's able to help this defense contain a shifty back like Stephens-Howling.
I am now just mentioning it, of course, but special teams play will be absolutely essential. Jon Ryan will have his hands full, as he attempts to angle punts away from Patrick Peterson and potentially even out of bounds, and the Seahawks coverage units will have to have a strong game. Steven Hauschka has been, well, a bit shaky in the preseason, and seemingly anything past 45 yards is a crap shoot (not that this is super abnormal, I suppose, but my confidence in him has been shaken). We've heard reports that the team was tinkering with his form and he ended up missing a field goal and having an extra point blocked last week. He'll be one to watch.
All in all -- this should be a very interesting game.