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Enter the Cardinals, part II: Highway 6-6 revisited

All the ways the Seahawks can shut down Arizona’s weapons and make sure their own offense gets into the end zone more often than last time these teams met

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“The beef is dehydrated, and then juiced back up with potent red sauce…”

If the previous meeting between the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks was anticlimactic because it wasn’t the deadly clash in the desert that the preseason presumed, then this encounter is all about avoiding a letdown. Last year, when the situation was reversed, the road team arrived in week 17 and flattened the division winner 36-6. Of course not everything was opposite then, since Seattle was also headed to the playoffs, but the only motives really at play for either team were the Seahawks’ grip on the DVOA and defensive scoring titles.

The latter of those pride points, at least, is still in front of Seattle if it can shut down the Cardinals’ offense Saturday afternoon, so I don’t expect this one to turn ugly—or anyway not sour in the way Arizona’s season finale did in 2015. It could still get ugly, since the teams are both so defense-heavy, if ugly is what you called the five quarter war with only tumbleweeds reaching the end zone. The name Blood Draw is not going to stick, I can probably admit now, because the stakes of that card game never met their promise as this Cardinals team will evaporate from memory as soon as the regular season ends on New Year’s Day. The only real lasting consequence of that affair was the elevation of George Fant, which could turn out to be a boon if he develops but for now is still only about a break-even estimate over what else was in Seattle’s future at left tackle.

Just about everyone on Bruce Arians’ roster has disappointed this fall. Carson Palmer’s virtual reality simulator must have broken. Tyrann Mathieu never seemed to fully recover from knee surgery, and now his shoulder is hurt. The state of Arizona accidentally deported its offensive line. Deone Buccanon was playing good before he went on injured reserve. And Robert Nkemdiche—well for all I know he might be in a pile of glass at the bottom of a hotel balcony again, only no one cares anymore because he’s no longer a stud prospect with a bright future.

I say “just about” because David Johnson has not come close to lapsing, even with more defenses gameplanning for him with the rest of the offense struggling around him. Johnson can be the first running back since Marshall Faulk in 1999 to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, and only the third player ever after Faulk and Roger Craig, if he gets 200 more yards through the air in the next two weeks. He’s not going to get it against the Seahawks, but with a January 1 Bowl Game against the Los Angeles Rams upcoming, that figure is dangerously in play.

Can the Seahawks stop Johnson on the ground? He got 113 yards against Seattle last time but he ran the ball 33 times (in five quarters). He’s only otherwise carried more than 20 times twice this season, and in the Seahawks matchup gained his lowest yards per carry of any game except the following two (when he—combined with his offensive line—were hypothetically recovering from that grueling load multiplied by Seattle’s bruising tackling). Johnson enters this game relatively fresh, however, after only 12 carries for 53 yards versus the New Orleans Saints, and he is aiming for his 15th straight game with 100 all-purpose yards.

Larry Fitzgerald hasn’t exactly been a disappointment either—he’ll reach 100 catches and 1,000 yards if he doesn’t get hurt or rested as a precaution—the latter for the eighth time in his 13-year career, and if he completes 12 more balls in the next two games that will be a new career high in receptions. But he is the 66th wideout by DVOA, with a negative-7.5 percent rating, although receiver DVOA is specifically difficult to disentangle from quarterback play and other factors in the offense.

Fitzgerald is still very reliable as a security blanket within the Cardinals offense, as you can see from this three-play sequence in a desperation drive at the end of last week’s Saints game:

It starts with 3rd and 15 at Arizona’s 39-yard line, which is a terrible situation because the Cardinals are down two scores and there’s no question where the ball is going. But Fitzgerald gets open close enough to the sticks to set himself up for an even tougher fourth-down conversion on the next snap. Then on first down he creates another conversion with a nifty step inside after the catch for 13 yards. Yes, the Saints are in prevent and have a week pass defense to begin with—but in three plays Fitzgerald turns what looked to be the end of the ballgame into a drive that yielded a touchdown on the next play, generating a last stab at an onside kick for Arizona.

(One other wrinkle to note: Arians employed a fair amount of Wildcat against New Orleans, with Kerwynn Williams taking direct snaps and Palmer occasionally split out. Whether that’s a move to protect Palmer with the season more or less over, or just a way to introduce some read-option into the Arizona attack and free things up for Johnson, be on the lookout for it more Saturday.)

Those are the threats to keeping the scoring title intact, but if the Seahawks want to wrap up the NFC’s second seed by winning this game they need to manufacture first downs more effectively than they did in the first outing when they were 3-14 on third down and didn’t manage to score until four minutes left in regulation. That starts with protecting Russell Wilson, because Markus Golden and Chandler Jones were devouring Bradley Sowell/Fant and Garry Gilliam throughout that Sunday Night Football showdown.

The Cardinals love to blitz, and if the tackles aren’t holding up, or if penetration gets through overloaded gaps, one antidote to the pressure could be to prepare quick-striking throws to the outside like you see Drew Brees perform here:

Brees’s pass is to the left sideline, but the danger for Seattle is that Patrick Peterson usually guards that part of the field. Indeed, Wilson’s greatest success in the first Arizona tilt came passing to the short right area of the field. 17 of Wilson’s 24 completions were toward the right side, many of them on shallow drag routes from the opposite end or slot, or out in the flat.

You can see how Wilson prefers targeting Marcus Cooper’s area. Cooper is questionable with a wrenched back after departing the Saints game, but he got the job by supplanting rookie Brandon Williams who struggled earlier in the year—so expect Wilson to again look to this part of the field (I included one incompletion to Doug Baldwin up the sideline in that reel because it was so open).

As Matty Brown pointed out at Inside the Pylon earlier this year, you can also attack the Cardinals’ defensive pursuit with screens:

And like I mentioned before Seattle’s own matchup with New Orleans earlier in 2016 (with another assist from Brown), yet another way the Seahawks neutralized Arizona’s aggressive edge rush in the past was by splitting the tight ends out in double stacks formations to either force the Cardinals to change personnel and run against the spread nickel front, or throwing quick to mismatched corners wide. Either way, getting Jimmy Graham more involved will give the passing game a needed boost.

Although Tyler Lockett got a greater share of the praise after last week’s Rams win, Graham probably had the highlight of the game when he burst through multiple defenders for a 31-yard gain to set up Seattle’s controversial second touchdown. And yet it was only one of two catches for Graham in the last two weeks. Still, even after just 47 yards in those two games, Graham is already over 800 yards for the season and could be headed toward his third-most productive season ever in his seventh year. Graham’s been able to do it in the flow of the offense, so it’s good they’re not forcing him lately, but Wilson has got to activate his connection to Graham to take get things going against Arizona. After all, that’s how the Seahawks managed to break out of their offensive slump after the first three quarters in Glendale:

If you study the timestamps on those plays, you can see how a string of completions to Graham (mostly again in that soft right area of the field) set up Baldwin for his long catch and run that had me thinking Seattle was poised to gut out that game in overtime. Even more fun: Watch how Graham pancakes Josh Mauro off his release before that last catch, and still manages to complete his drag route for a healthy gain!

If the offense works together in all those ways, the running game has to work better than the 52 yards on 19 carries it did in the Blood Draw. Although the Cardinals are just behind the Seahawks allowing 3.7 yards per rush on the year, they gave up 130 yards and 2 rushing touchdowns to the Saints last week partly because Bucannon sprained his ankle against the Dolphins in week 14 and is done for the year. It may also have to do, as Seth Cox of Revenge of the Birds says, with how Chandler Jones has not been his usual formidable self lately and Honey Badger Mathieu has “not been good all season” according to Cox UPDATE: He’s been moved to IR too.

Cox also alluded to Arizona’s special teams woes. The Cardinals’ specialty units have posted negative expected points in 11 out of 14 games so far this year, and are seventh worst in both punt and kick coverage. Meanwhile, Chandler Catanzaro missed a field goal and extra point last week in a game they lost by a touchdown and was tied in the fourth quarter. With 5:30 minutes left in the game, Arizona went three and out because Carson Palmer threw two incomplete passes trying to drive for a touchdown and a third that was fumbled on third down, which let New Orleans expand the lead to 14 putting it out of range on the next series—but with those extra four points Arians could have handed the game to David Johnson (and probably should have anyway) to move more methodically toward a then-game-winning touchdown with a field goal try in reserve.

It’s also impossible to attribute Catanzaro’s struggles to anything lingering from the Blood Draw misses: Shortly after Bobby Wagner’s blocked field goal in that game, Cris Collinsworth pointed out the missed kick that cost Arizona its opener against the New England Patriots, and kicking difficulties that annoyed Arians against the Buffalo Bills. “This has been a long year for their special teams, in particular the field goal team,” Collinsworth said. A long year—midway through week 7!

Now it’s been a truly long year.

By the way, it’s interesting to remember those Patriots and Bills games at this point in the season—and of course the Cardinals lost to the Dolphins more recently. Folks like to hold it against Seattle that it has a middling record against the NFC (5-4-1, with no road wins yet), but a large part of explaining the difference between the Seahawks and Arizona right now is how they both played against the AFC East (4-0 versus 1-3). Take away the interconference games and Saturday night’s showdown in Seattle would be for the division crown. And the result of the tie in the desert in October is that NFC record will (almost certainly) not factor into any playoff seeding for the Seahawks.

Still, with more at stake competitively for Seattle in this division rematch, it should be highly engaged in turning the team in white into red machaca.