Cardinals vs Seahawks: A closer look

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

I should note that this is my first fan-post. An exciting moment to be sure (for me anyway), and in my inaugural post I would like to take a look at our Thursday night matchup with the Arizona Cardinals. I should also note that I am mostly going to be digging into stats here and because DVOA is my favorite, I would recommend that those people who don't understand it take some time to acquaint themselves with DVOA's magic:

At A Glance

The Cardinals return home with a 3-3 record facing off against the 5-1 Seahawks. The Cardinals are ranked 24th in the league in DVOA (all DVOA stats will be through week 5) while the Seahawks are ranked a comfortable 2nd. Upon first blush, it seems the Seahawks should be relatively certain favorites. However, this is piece is about parsing out the teams, seeing what teams truly have to offer, and dissecting matchups. To accomplish this closer look, I think it's necessary to look at a few key groupings.

The Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals Offense

The Cardinals are ranked 24th in total DVOA, but fortunately, their pass offense is ranked 30th. Despite ranking 10th (221) in attempts (a Bruce Arians staple, it seems), Carson Palmer is only ranked 15th (1,483) in yards with his yards per attempt ranked at 23rd (6.71). Compounding that passing problem is a rushing attack ranked 24th in DVOA. Arizona's leading rusher is Rashard Mendenhall, but as Cardinals fans would tell you, the true threat may be Andre Ellington. Nevertheless, Mendenhall is averaging 3.3 yards per carry (ranked 34th) and Andre Ellington has only attempted 25 carries all year. It remains to be seen whether Ellington receives an overdue bump in attempts but aside from that and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals offense doesn't seem particularly threatening.

The Arizona Cardinals Defense

If the last paragraph has you thinking Seahawks win, then be assured that the strength of these and last year's Cardinals is their defense. The Cardinals defense is ranked 12th, but that may be a bit misleading. If you look at the Cardinals' defensive DVOA you see a couple of things. First, their rushing defense is elite, ranking 5th (and noticeably above the Seahawks). The only rushers to have "success" against them have been Mike Tolbert, Cam Newton, and Frank Gore. New Orleans managed to have some success on the ground, but their leading rusher finished with 38 yards so that result seems a tad unconvincing. Additionally, Tolbert and Newton didn't rush very many times (8 times in total) so adding them to the success category may be a bit dubious. Frank Gore topped one hundred yards, but beyond that performance, rushers have been pretty quiet.

If the Cardinals rank 12th defensively and 5th against the run, then their pass defense must be average or below. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals rank 15th in pass defense (pretty average). That stat, however, may be off. To start, while I find DVOA to be among the best metrics in football, 5 weeks isn't a large sample size. Furthermore, the one of the best linebackers in all of football has recently returned in Daryl Washington. Last year, the Cardinals ranked 2nd in pass defense, and while the Cardinals lost players in the secondary, the bigger loss has probably been Washington. While inside linebackers become less valued by defensive guru's, Ray Horton (criminally underrated) engineered interior pressure with Washington and subsequently made him one of the most valuable players on defense. Right now the Cardinals rank 19th in pass rush (or adjusted sack rate), but Washington's return should most certainly increase the pass rush efficiency. Absent returning a great secondary player, returning a great pass rusher is the next best way to help a pass defense.

The Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks Offense

Oh Russell, how I love you. In all seriousness, this man may have made a fan of my Israeli/Russian girlfriend. That's no small feat. I imagine you all would love to hear more about the miracles Russell has worked, so let's talk about the offense. Currently, Seattle ranks 9th in total offensive DVOA. The staple of the offense, the run game, is ranked 8th. That rush rank shouldn't be surprising considering the philosophy of Pete Carroll and the talent on the roster. What should surprise you though is that Seattle is ranked a mere 23rd in adjusted line yards, 7 spots behind Arizona and their inferior rush offense. How do you reconcile something like these rankings? Well, you could start off by pointing out Seattle's O-line injuries, and that would certainly be fair. That would explain why Lynch is only averaging 4.2 yards per carry as opposed to last year's 5.0 y/c, but that wouldn't explain why we've been successful. No, I've played coy, but you all know. The reason we've been such a strong rushing team (by DVOA standards) is because Russell Wilson is so efficient when he breaks from the passing game and just books it.

I think we all smile with glee when Russell makes defenders look so silly, but that glee tends to be impermanent. For many of us, Russell's highlights are symptomatic of a poor passing offense. To those of us (I include myself in that group) who are worried, DVOA says, "stop". The Seahawks are ranked 6th in pass offense. When I first saw that I was pretty surprised. Russell ranks 22nd in passing yards (1,254), and the Seahawks' leading receiver, Doug Baldwin is 34th in the NFL with 344 yards. Furthermore, it seems like every time Russell steps up to pass he has to immediately vacate the pocket and run. How is it then, that the Hawks are ranked so highly? To answer this question, I have to criticize DVOA (something I generally don't like doing). In short, DVOA measures efficiency. That efficiency generally is placed within a strong context as DVOA includes historical league averages on every play. The problem that occurs with trying to measure the Seahawks' offensive passing game is that DVOA doesn't account for the fact that many of the Seahawks' long gains are due to improvisation and blunders by the opposing teams. The plays are efficient and boost our DVOA, but we don't generally make enough of these efficient plays to garner praise as a strong passing offense (this is where DYAR is a better indication of ability). Opponents of my viewpoint might point out that the Seahawks manufacture these opportunities purposefully, and so far, the strategy has been successful. I concede that point to my opponents, but nevertheless remain skeptical. I would conclude that the Seahawks passing game is explosive, but overall, league average.

Seattle Seahawks Defense

The Seahawks Defense is ranked 2nd in total DVOA. Their pass defense is ranked 2nd and their rush defense is ranked 8th. I don't really have a lot to say about this section. The Legion of Boom(LOB) is clearly one of the best secondaries in the league if not the best. The rush defense is pretty robust, and while not dominant, the pass rush is around average. People trying to find fault with the defense might point to weaker showings on the road, but I don't really buy it. I don't think the points per game are credibly different, or the rush defense any weaker. People have pointed to slower get-off on the road without the 12th man, but the QB hit numbers haven't been credibly different on the road as compared to home, and subjectively the pass rush hasn't looked glaringly weaker. Offseason additions of Bennett and Avril have really helped, and it shows. Overall, it's a pretty stout defense.

The Matchups

This is the fun part. How do parts of one team matchup with another? How will said matchups affect the game? This is where the real analysis begins.

Cardinals' Offense vs Seahawks' Defense

This is the section where I'll probably sound like the biggest homer. When a passing offense ranked 30th in DVOA goes against the 2nd ranked pass defense, someone is going to have a bad time (I think it will be Carson). If we look at profiles of players it doesn't get much better either. If there's one thing that the LOB has proven, it's that large, physical wide receivers don't fare well. Simply put, you don't out physical the Seattle corners. Michael Floyd is fortunately, a large physical wide out (and a really nice emerging player, kudos Card fans) and should not pose much of a threat. On the other side, Larry Fitzgerald is always dangerous, but the Seahawks contained him fairly well last season. Some might point to his quarterback improving, but is Carson Palmer good enough to overcome Seattle's pass defense? I'm not convinced he is. Those two aside, Ellington and Andre Roberts are the next two leaders in receiving. While those two water bug types might give Seattle defenders fits, Seattle has been improved when defending the slot receiver (thanks Walter!). Additionally, the pass protection of Arizona is ranked 19th in adjusted sack rate, so it's not crazy to think the Seattle defense could cause problems. In sum, it looks as though Seattle can rush the passer, and cover the wide receivers. Even if our defense against them isn't dominant, Seattle's defense has held better offenses to fewer points.

If they can't pass, can they run? Again this is going to sound like homerism, but no. We shouldn't expect a Cardinals offense to run on Seattle. The Cardinals rank 16th in adjusted line yards and rank 24th in total rushing attack. Conversely, they're going to try and run against the 8th ranked rush defense. Not a good proposition, but the difference in efficiency may be understated in this case. The Seahawks have had to go against Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and Cam Newton. As we saw earlier with Russell, a mobile quarterback can increase their team's rushing efficiency quite dramatically without the help of the running back or o-line. Because Palmer is not mobile, our rush defense might perform even better this week against a traditional rushing attack. The only glimmer of hope I can point to for Cardinals fans is that Seattle tends to struggle against quicker, and smaller backs. That profile fits Andre Ellington to a tee, and his presence may prove problematic for the Seahawks. Unfortunately, Ellington just doesn't seem to be a large part of the game plan. Perhaps the Cardinals staff doesn't think he can handle the hits or like to deploy him in certain situations that don't appear very often. Whatever the case is, I just don't think he'll have enough touches to impact the game enough to defeat the Seahawks.

Seahawks' Offense vs Cardinals' Defense

This to me represents the most interesting matchup and if I sounded like a homer before, perhaps I'll sound more critical here. I do not think that Marshawn Lynch is going to be successful against this defense. In general, Seattle hasn't been good at run blocking (23rd in adjusted line yards) and Arizona has been pretty good at stopping the run (ranked 4th in adjusted defensive line yards). We're not getting any linemen back this week so it doesn't seem prudent to expect the Hawks' output to increase. The only saving grace the Seahawks have in running is Russell Wilson. I think he should run the way he has been the past couple of games and that should help, but expect quite a bit of frustration in the running game.

While the running game is a bit more variable thanks to Russell, I have less faith in the passing game. The numbers may be efficient, but I don't think the Seahawks will pick up very many yards in this game. Patrick Peterson is one of the best corners in the NFL and he should have no problem shutting down either Golden Tate or Sidney Rice. Sadly, I'm also confident that Jerraud Powers should be fine against the second receiver. Some might point to Jerraud's pedestrian numbers in the past and assume that the Seattle receivers can pick on him, but outside Doug Baldwin, I doubt that they'll be able to. Furthermore, while Baldwin is great, the only type of receiver that's had any success against the Cardinals pass defense is the tight end (and Calvin Johnson, but he's not fair). Unfortunately, Bevell doesn't seem to incorporate tight ends into his passing offense very well (highest receiving total for a TE in his offense is 566 yards). Moreover, the Seattle tight ends may be more involved in blocking to protect an injured line anyway. A line that is going to be attacked at perhaps is weakest point: the interior. Remember how Washington is back? Well, as I mentioned, he's a great interior rusher and the Seahawks' counter includes a guard that's a year and half removed from playing defensive tackle and a guard who couldn't beat out a below-average journeyman. Seattle doesn't have the weapons to attack this Cardinals team effectively, their protection should be compromised, and their offense is going to be frustrating on Thursday.

X Factors

Andre Ellington is the big x-factor for me. As I said earlier, he may be the only player capable of hounding the Seattle defense. If he gets enough touches, he may open things up for the rest of the offense enough that Palmer looks pretty decent.

Calais Campbell's status is another big question mark. Undoubtedly, he's a big part of that defense. If he's not his usual self, or completely absent, how does that affect the defense? Will they contain Lynch as well? Will less pressure help Seattle's passing game? I'm going to assume he'll be good enough to make an impact like he always does, but that's not a guarantee. (On a different note, I'm glad to see Campbell will make a full recovery. That was a scary play and while I don't like that he plays against Seattle, Campbell is a treat to watch. Stay strong buddy!)

Thursday night. Simply put, weird junk seems to happen on Thursday Night Football. Outside of the Seattle games, I try and avoid Thursday Night Football. With all the talk (by the NFL) of replacing boring preseason games with more regular season games, they don't seem to mind serving up a steaming pile of dung on Thursday night. Keep it classy NFL.

The Narrative

So how is the game going to be played out? This is going to be another defensive battle (something Seattle fans should be used to by now), and points will be hard to come by. That said, field position will be important and Seattle has another advantage: special teams, (especially on punts) where they're ranked 6th in DVOA to Arizona's 14th. With superior field position, untimely Carson Palmer turnovers, and the brilliance of Russell Wilson, the Hawks' should find the endzone one to two times. The redzone woes continue as Seattle receivers struggle to get open and Russell's scrambles become truncated in the face of a more compact defense. However, as long as they don't implode on a field goal again, the Hawks' should score a few of those too leading to something around 13-23 point score. The Cardinals offense isn't great but it's not crazy to think they could string together some nice plays. They should reach the redzone 3 to 4 times and could score anywhere from 6 to 13 points.

Prediction: Seahawks win 19-10

Thanks for reading everyone, and if you've noticed any stats errors please do note them. Hope my first post can start some discussion.

{Update: footballoutsiders have updated their rankings and stats only hours after I finished writing this post. I guess you'll just have to trust me on most of the stats. My apologies- I'll try and be more prompt in the future.

Arizona has moved from 24th to 17th in total DVOA. Their defensive DVOA has moved from 12th to 7th and as I predicted, their pass defensive rating has improved from 15th to 11th. Their rush defense DVOA has moved from 5th to 6th. Arizona's rush offense DVOA has improved from 24th to 16th. Perhaps the Andre Ellington effect?

The Seahawks remained 2nd in total DVOA and stayed mostly the same across the board as far as I can tell (with minor movements in rank).}