Fresh off of a 26-24 statement victory at home against the red-hot Atlanta Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks head for the desert and prime-time in a Sunday Night Football matchup against the reigning NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals too are coming off of a win, but despite their recent success, this game seems more set up to be a re-taking of the crown by the Seahawks, rather than two titans going to war. As has been the case semi-regularly since Russell Wilson arrived in Seattle, the ‘Hawks should be well equipped to take care of Arizona handily, but especially so if they can win these three key matchups.
Doug Baldwin vs Tyrann Mathieu
Regularly, this would be an absolute battle for 60 minutes; the league’s top slot receiver against the league’s top nickelback. In these current circumstances, however, I think it’s a matchup that the Seahawks and Baldwin can really exploit. The man they call the Honey Badger has made a remarkable comeback from his second torn ACL, but he is certainly nowhere near 100-percent at the moment. He’s still playing at an above average level, but the two areas that have really stood out to me as missing from his game in 2016 is his uncanny ability to fly into the backfield and make game-changing plays, and his elite stop-start ability. The latter is where Baldwin will have the opportunity to do a ton of damage on Sunday night.
Over the past calendar year, there is perhaps just one wide receiver in the entire league that’s been better at creating separation than Doug Baldwin – Antonio Brown. In past years, Mathieu’s talent, athletic ability and football intelligence has been more than enough for him to compete with nearly any offensive weapon in the league; this year, however, has been a different story. Take this completion from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Brandon Marshall (slot left) for example:
Marshall sets up his route perfectly, aided by the savvy veteran forearm push, but is still slow coming back into the middle of the field. The 2015 version of Mathieu would have had more than enough time to react and make a play on the ball. Fresh off a torn ACL, the Badger is a second slower and the Jets exploited that. The combination of Baldwin’s unworldly ability to create space for himself and Seattle’s offense being a masterclass in rub routes could mean a long, long day for Tyrann Mathieu.
Bradley Sowell and Garry Gilliam vs Chandler Jones and Markus Golden
One of the main reasons that the Cardinals made little effort to retain Dwight Freeney after 2015 was the pass rusher waiting in the wings; Markus Golden. Golden drew comparisons to James Harrison last season and has lived up to the hype so far, notching six sacks in six games – including a game-wrecking performance in prime-time against the San Francisco 49ers. He’s joined by his new running mate Chandler Jones, who, after arriving in an offseason trade with the Patriots, has four sacks himself this year. When Golden and Jones are on, they are one of the league’s premier pass rushing duos.
Although the Seahawks offensive line has been competent over the past couple weeks, they’re still not a talented unit. The tackles in particular are replacement level players at best. Bradley Sowell was horrendous over the first month of the season while Garry Gilliam – who was unable to win the left tackle job over Sowell this summer – has been a worse version of himself at right tackle. With Wilson still not 100-percent, there is absolutely the chance that Golden and Jones completely wreck this game for Seattle’s offense - the duo make up the best edge rushers that the Seahawks will have faced all year. For Wilson’s offense to have a chance, they must establish the quick passing game, get Christine Michael rolling early, and Sowell and Gilliam - along with the rest of the offensive line - need to put in another solid performance.
David Johnson vs Jarran Reed, Tony McDaniel and Ahtyba Rubin
Last week I praised the work of Kevin Pierre-Louis and the other outside defenders for a terrific job containing Devonta Freeman and the league’s finest jump-cut. This week, they’ll need to put in another strong game – however I think it’s the guys in the middle that will be crucial. No running back has been better than David Johnson over the last 10 games dating back to 2015; he is an elite pass catcher out of the backfield, a terrific athlete in the open field and outside the numbers, as well as a thickly built runner when he goes between the tackles.
One particular area where he’s gone from good to great in 2016 is his ability to play much smaller than his size in the hole. This was never more evident than on Monday Night Football against the New York Jets, when he was literally untouched running up the middle for three touchdowns. His elusiveness in tight spaces, combined with his next-level vision and burst makes him a tricky proposition for opposing defenses. Seattle, and namely Reed and McDaniel, can combat this by collapsing the middle of the line of scrimmage and forcing Johnson out wide to the waiting cavalry of hair-on-fire defenders.
Arizona’s offense is a much different beast than it was last season: gone is the downfield passing game and the efficient-bordering on-MVP-level play from Carson Palmer. In its place is a regressing quarterback facilitating a host of talented receivers, all of which can be carried as far as David Johnson will take them. If McDaniel, Reed, Rubin and company can get their job done on Sunday night, Johnson won’t be taking them much further than the backfield.