How to deal with pesky Cardinals

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Seahawks are on a 2-game winning streak!

It's a little sad that that's a big deal, but here they are, 4-4 and facing their second stretch against division opponents. Having dropped a disappointing contest to the St. Louis Rams in Week 1 and destroyed the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7, Seattle hosts the Arizona Cardinals Sunday night (Week 10) and the 49ers again in Week 11.

As the cliche goes, you try to be 1-0 each week. Or, as the other cliche goes, every week is the start of a new season. Or, as the other cliche goes, you're 4-4 and need to beat the current division leader if you hope to have a chance at the division title. I'm pretty sure that's listed in the latest edition of Webster's Cliches for Sports, Work, and Cooking.

I've previously cataloged some of Seattle's offensive capabilities -- in series completion and play selection. Here, we'll focus instead on the Seahawks' opponent in an attempt to root out a "good" strategy for upending the division leaders.

Let's start small and work up some complexity to see if we can crack this nut.

Arizona is on a 2-game winning streak. Its last loss was to a rather sad 25-13 showing against a Steelers team that was missing Ben Roethlisburger. The Cardinals have also lost to the Rams, who are apparently able to beat any NFC West opponent but have a hard time beating anyone else. In its last two contests, the Cardinals abused a desultory Browns team 34-20 -- made "close" only by a couple early mistakes by Arizona -- and slipped by a fading Ravens team 26-18.

The Cardinals have played a relatively easy schedule to this point, slamming the Week 1 Saints (not to be confused with the Week 8 Saints, who seem to have rediscovered some sort of playing ability), a half-Cutler-led (and still pretty bad) Bears team, the recently-Gabberted 49ers, and a Lions team that is currently vying for the top draft pick. But thanks to the magnitude of those wins, Football Outsiders places the team at #2 in DVOA.

Arizona has tallied 40 or more points three times this year, and it's topped 30 in five of its six wins. Each of those contests was a passing explosion that exploited a receiver corps stocked with solid all-around talent without featuring a superstar. Between Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, and Jaron Brown, this is a tough group to cover; meanwhile, Carson Palmer continues his late-career tear.

And while the Cards don't have a high-octane running game, they've cobbled together acceptable numbers each week with their committee approach. Andre Ellington is certainly less than his 2013/early 2014 self on the ground, but he's still got receiver chops and some nifty moves in space; he's joined in the receiving back role by David Johnson, who adds talent in the return game. Meanwhile Chris Johnson is now a modestly successful lead back, spelled by Stepfan Taylor's short-yardage legs.

Arizona has run 504 plays this season, 5th fewest of the 8-game teams. (The Seahawks, for the record, have run the 3rd fewest at 482.) Just over 57% of those have been passes. The team has managed a poor-but-not-terrible 15 turnovers, but is 2nd in the league with 9 fumbles lost. That's a 3% total turnover rate, in the top third of the league, but the fumble rate is an exploitable weakness.

A couple weeks ago, I discussed offensive efficiency in terms of converting 1st down opportunities into non-4th down situations. By that metric, Arizona is doing quite well: 74.4% of its 1st downs turn into new 1st downs or touchdowns -- that's 2nd only to the New England Patriots (the gap to their 77.6% is as large as the gap between the Cardinals and the #7 Saints).

Remember that efficiency doesn't translate directly to points, as it only tells us what kind of success rate a team has in moving the chains; a team that scores a TD on 1st down every time it gets the ball will have the same success rate as a team that gets 10 yards each play. Success typically translates to points only when combined with decent field position. (I'm looking at you, Dallas, with your 7th-ranked 70.8% success rate but 29th rank in offensive points; the Cowboys average starting at their own 23.5 yard line, 9.1 yards worse than the top-ranked Pats.)

The Cards average starting possession on their own 29.4 -- top half in the league -- and run fewer than 5.5 plays per drive, but they gain a ridiculous 35.4 yard per drive on average. This matches what the efficiency metric tells us and what we should expect from the Arizona offense: decent field position turned into wildly successful or wildly unsuccessful drives. There should be few "sustained" drives that peter out after 8 or 10 plays.

So how do they score touchdowns? Carson Palmer is exploding, throwing for just under 300 yards per game and 20 TDs. On the ground, the team has posted 8 scores and averages almost 125 yards per game. This includes 60+ yard runs from both Ellington and C.Johnson that combine to jack that average by 15 Y/G. Six of the team's last seven TDs have been through the air, stretching back to the Pittsburgh loss.

Arizona gets off most of its plays in the first half -- 282 of 504 (55.9%). And it gets most of its throwing done in the 2nd quarter, where the team has 93 passes; that's almost twice as many as in Q3 and 19 more than the next-highest (Q4). Unlike Seattle, the team's success rate running does not appear to improve through the game:























Arizona's offensive line has thus far been good at getting runners downfield before contact, but those backs do better in the open field than at the second level. This suggests that the Seahawks, who are at the very least decent against the run and have a strong LB corps, should be able to contain the 4-headed rushing attack. The Cards' losses have been their two worst rushing games; their third worst rushing game was against the Bears, where Arizona had just 300 total yards of offense and scored 4 TDs on 17 pass completions.

That leaves the focus on limiting the passing offense, which will probably mean containing the center -- or blowing up the backup center if Lyle Sendlein can't go -- and exploiting RT Bobby Massie to get at Palmer.

The Cards are relatively unsuccessful throwing to players out of the backfield. Some 41 of 258 total throws have gone to running backs, who have pulled in just 25 of them (60.9%). Tight ends are responsible for 35 targets and 23 completions (65.7%), but top dog Jermaine Gresham has only roped in 11 of 20. The Seahawks will obviously need to close down Larry Fitzgerald, but he's their "short-yardage" guy, averaging just over 12 yards per catch. They'll more aggressively need to contain the speedsters; expect Sherman to focus on John Brown or Michael Floyd, players who are posting 15.2 and 16 yards per catch, respectively. Meanwhile watch for, in particular, Cary Williams to be attacked deep if he's facing one of these guys and is too close to his assignment at the snap.

On defense, the Cards are widely regarded as one of the strongest in the league, mostly at defensive back. Their 13 interceptions are tied for the most in the NFL, and they're giving up just over 230 yards per game through their air. To be fair, that number is bolstered somewhat by a 4-INT game against the Lions, who threw the ball 70 times while averaging just 5.4 Y/A.

Up front, the Cardinals have a decent pass rush, but they've only garnered 13 sacks to date, putting them in the bottom third. Even with the OL problems in Seattle, Russell Wilson's mobility should neutralize most of that pressure. Evidence the Steelers game, when Michael Vick rushed 5 times for 47 yards while being sacked just once, and the 49ers game, where Colin Kaepernick went just 9 for 19 with 67 passing yards but still rushed 7 times for 46 yards and a score.

The Cardinals' run defense has posted strong numbers this season, giving up just 3.5 yards per carry over 156 rushes. It's difficult to separate that from their opponents, though. Todd Gurley gashed the team with a 19-146 line, while Le'Veon Bell managed just 88 yards on 24 carries, a rare foray into sub-4.5 ypc territory. Amazingly, in both of these losses Arizona held its opponents to under 200 passing yards, a situation that Wilson may very well find himself in.
Based on the strengths and play selections of these teams, this game will likely be won or lost in Q2. That's when Bruce Arians likes to chuck the ball like salmon in a stereotypical Seattle establishing shot. If the Seahawks can shut that down and put up a long drive or two -- along with, we hope, some points of their own -- Arizona will find itself in unsavory territory heading into the 2nd half. For Seattle, that will also mean getting comfortable with the ground game and making sure Wilson isn't forcing throws.

Since the Cardinals have been a relatively slow 3rd quarter team while the Seahawks have been at their best in that period, if Seattle builds a small lead in Q2, it can put Arizona's feet to the fire during the third frame. Another successful 3rd quarter by the Seahawks running the football could pay major dividends even if the Cardinals stifle the passing game.

But make no mistake, Arizona has brutal comeback potential. In Week 1 and Week 8, the Cardinals turned on their offense and slammed in a few late scores to snag the victory. With as many vertical threats as Arizona has, the Seahawks will have to be very careful not to fall back to early-season form in the 4th quarter. This is one game where Seattle should really press for a 4th-quarter touchdown to put a dagger in the Cards rather than crossing its fingers and hoping for the best.