“Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going.”
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is a fiction novel but also a semi-true historical story, John Joel Glanton and his gang of outlaws ride out from the Sonoran desert into Arizona where they encounter, outside the fortified walls of Tucson, a few dozen Chiricahua Apaches. It’s December of 1849 and Glanton and his mercenaries have for 200 pages been marauding all over the Mexican countryside, alternately hunting or being hunted by Apache warriors, but mainly murdering peaceful native communities and innocent Mexicans by the hundreds in order to gather whatever dark-haired scalps they can collect to defraud the capitals of various Mexican states that had contracted them to exterminate Apaches. So this showdown is fraught with tension, but instead of the awaited battle it dissolves into petty haggling when Glanton’s horse bites off the ear of the Apache lieutenant’s steed and they agree to settle it with a barrel of whisky—which the Americans prank their adversaries by filling with water, and then ride off toward Yuma where—. Well, I won’t tell you what happens.
But this episode reminds me of the Seattle Seahawks’ own visit to Arizona this weekend because their standoff against the Arizona Cardinals has a similarly anticlimactic feel after an offseason in which the matchup was anticipated as a tilt of prime contenders for the NFC.
We were told this would be like the 2012 San Francisco 49ers all over again.
In week 7 those 49ers already ranked fourth in offensive DVOA, even though that San Francisco offense is remembered as not kicking into high gallop until Colin Kaepernick took over in week 10. Arizona in week 7, 2016, is the 24th best offense according to Football Outsiders and its 28th-ranked passing game is to blame. Notwithstanding Mike Iupati, this Cardinals offensive line nowhere approaches those 49ers' and is already wracked with injuries, which helps explain the difference. But in a way, Carson Palmer's struggles actually transform Arizona stylistically, or at least effectively, into something more like an Alex Smith-deliberate passing-forceful-running attack—only without Smith's care with the ball or mobility, and without Bruce Arians designing the offense to fit.
On Bill Barnwell's podcast this week, Mike Sando called Palmer a middle class Ryan Fitzpatrick. Barnwell added that Palmer's performance this year falls considerably when under pressure: In 2015, the virtual reality-fueled near-MVP Carson Palmer posted a 57.8 QBR when pressured, one of the best in the league. Monday night's broadcast highlighted how Palmer's still got the VR goggles, only now, Barnwell says, Palmer's QBR against the rush is 4.6. No there are no digits missing from that stat. And defenses have pressed that advantage by blitzing the Cardinals 36 percent of the time.
Since Bruce Arians arrived, Arizona's offense has thrived when causing defenses to split attention between Larry Fitzgerald's ruthlessness in the slot and a vertical passing game. With Palmer's arm issues and the offensive line shuffling, non-running backs and receivers not named Fitzgerald have averaged 2.5 fewer yards per reception (12.3) than they did last year (14.8). So the Cardinals have taken to piling triplets and quad receiver groups in bunch formations close to the tackle box. From there they run combinations that try to turn them all into Fitzgerald: stick routes, crossing routes and outside comebacks instead of go patterns that John Brown and J.J. Nelson excel at, or sideline shots to flanker Michael Floyd.
Of course Arizona also likes to throw to David Johnson, who is the NFL leader in all-purpose yards and behind only LeSean McCoy in combined receiving and rushing DYAR. Johnson has helped the Cardinals' line look good on the ground too, where they're second in adjusted line yards and tops in success on power runs. But as great as Johnson has been he can also be stopped. In the recent matchup with the New York Jets, for example, Johnson gained 111 yards on 22 carries which is slightly misleading. Apart from one 58-yard scamper he broke in the first quarter, the second-year back only gained 2.5 yards per rush on his other 21 attempts.
Plus, if there's anyone who can stand up to the Johnson's precocity it's Seattle. The Seahawks are great again against the run, second in the league in yards allowed per carry and rushing defense DVOA. In two career games against Seattle, Johnson has a total of 25 rushing yards and 42 receiving yards.
As good as Arizona has been in power running situations, however, their defense has been bad. The Cardinals allow a first down or touchdown with two yards or less to gain 88 percent of the time. This means a nice opportunity for Christine Michael and the Seahawks offense, which has struggled in those same spots (56 percent), including getting stuffed on a third-and-1 against Atlanta.
Arizona held New York to 33 rushing yards in a blowout, but has been average overall in that category, allowing 4.0 per attempt. Seattle should borrow some plays from the Buffalo Bills, who deployed a look almost like the old-time Wing T, with a tailback diving while another runner sweeps behind the quarterback into pitch relationship to turn Tyrod Taylor loose on the edge for a 49-yard gain.
Not that Russell Wilson, still slowed by his several injuries, will be able to sprint for such big gains, but the exotic run schemes can help counter the Cardinals' aggressive outside linebackers Markus Golden and Chandler Jones. Mixing in wildcat with more traditional outside veer and power run has become the Bills' signature offense now, but it started because McCoy took advantage against Arizona, rushing for almost 6.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
One of them was even on a Seahawks-style zone block to get Buffalo's offensive line active at the second level and blasted a huge lane for McCoy. The Bills' line is nothing special either, just 19th in adjusted line yards, which is better than Seattle's but still McCoy and Mike Gillislee do most of the work for their league-leading 5.4 yards per play rush attack. Either way, I can see Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon being vulnerable to downfield blocks by Mark Glowinski, Justin Britt and Germain Ifedi.
Make no mistake, however, defense is where the Cardinals will find an edge. The unit has been a turnover-forcing machine, with already nine interceptions made and five fumbles recovered—plus 19 sacks and two safeties. Arizona's defense is actually slightly ahead of Seattle's in yards per play against. With a healthier Tyrann Mathieu now back at nickel corner, the Cardinals again deploy tons of wacky movements before the snap.
On the first play against New York, when the outside flanker in a twins formation wide left for the Jets motioned to the slot, Mathieu showed an edge blitz and both deep safeties, D.J. Swearinger and Tony Jefferson, moved into the box. Mathieu crashed the play so fast he nearly beat the runner to the handoff—except defensive end Josh Mauro was already there. Defensive front dominating the line of scrimmage all night versus the Jets, Frostee Rucker and friends in the air batting balls down seemingly every series.
The defense has led Arizona to two wins in a row by a combined 61-24, but then again they also haven’t played a real quarterback in that stretch. It will be fascinating to watch Russell Wilson go at Tharold Simon, who played 43 percent of snaps Monday. The Seahawks and Cardinals really are pretty evenly matched in traditional efficiency: The offenses are tied at 5.4 yards per play—although in only one more game Arizona has twice as many turnovers.
It will probably be a close game. And the stakes remain high. Seattle has demonstrated itself as a squad that can stay relevant and command its division for years at a time. The league’s full of teams that get good for a while and seem like they’re on their way to glory but fall apart because of, say, a broken quarterback, or both disillusionment and dissolution, and fall again into the Grand Canyon of NFL mediocrity. A big win Sunday could drop the Cardinals right down that same valley as the 49ers. On the other side, a 4-3 Arizona team would be right back in the saddle with a win over the Seahawks, and closing in behind.
Let these fools chase Seattle right off the cliff. Cardinals are a branch to branch bird. Seahawks stay fly.