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Seahawks-Cardinals preview: An overworked Adrian Peterson and other things to watch for

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

On a short week, the Seattle Seahawks will travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals for the first time this season. The Seahawks are coming off an incredibly frustrating loss at home against Washington, while Arizona defeated the San Francisco 49ers 20-10 on Sunday. Week nine’s results moved the Cardinals just a game back of Seattle, despite Arizona losing Carson Palmer and David Johnson for the season, and never truly looking like a playoff team in 2017.

A win for the Seahawks would put them at 6-3 and firmly in the mix amongst the NFC’s top teams. Additionally, they would improve to 3-0 inside the NFC West -- a start that could prove to be hugely important down the stretch as they vie for the division title with the L.A. Rams. Following Thursday’s game, Seattle will enjoy a miniature bye week, not playing again until Nov. 20.

Seahawks-Cardinals games are usually classics - last year’s 6-6 tie included - and there are a number of interesting things to watch for this week:

Will Arizona again lean on Adrian Peterson on a short week?

In last Sunday’s victory over the 49ers, the Cardinals gave 32-year old Adrian Peterson a ridiculous 39 total touches -- or 10 more touches he had during his entire time in New Orleans. That’s an insane number to give any running back in any given game, but even more so for a player coming off a major knee injury in their 30s. Peterson, however, rewarded Arizona’s maddening approach, picking up 159 yards and forcing eight missed tackles. A staggering 110 of those 159 yards came after contact.

Peterson will now have just four days rest before Seattle comes to town for a game that could all-but-end the Cardinals’ playoff chances. Despite taking positive strides defending the run, Seattle still ranks just 19th against the run by DVOA. Another big game from Peterson is likely Arizona’s best chance at defeating the Seahawks, but they may have negated that possibility by showing a reckless abandon for his body in week nine. With Drew Stanton under center, the Cardinals will give Peterson a full workload again, and will be left hoping he can defy the odds yet again.

Can Seattle hold up over the middle?

Last Sunday, Kirk Cousins and Washington did the majority of their damage over the middle of the field, working Vernon Davis on intermediate routes against Kam Chancellor. It worked repeatedly, and Chancellor found himself getting targeted again and again. Although Earl Thomas’s absence wasn’t felt as much as it was last season, it was still the Seahawks’ worst game of the season defending the middle of the field. Thomas is a game day decision heading into week 10, but my money's on the team taking the cautious route, and giving him until Nov. 20th to get back to full health.

With or without Thomas on the field, expect Seattle to be tested over the middle again. Arizona is ninth in the league in yards per play when lined up in trips formation (three receivers), and the All-Everything Larry Fitzgerald works primarily out of the slot. Last Sunday, he was targeted nine times while no other Cardinals receiver was targeted more than four times. If Peterson is less effective coming off his massive week, that will make Fitzgerald the focal point of Arizona’s offense. And while they’ve struggled in the past two weeks, the Seahawks still rank fifth in the league in yards allowed in nickel (on a per play basis), giving up just 5.2 yards. Justin Coleman could be in line to face the biggest test of his NFL career on Thursday night.

Will Richard Sherman’s presence force the Cardinals’ hand?

In the two games Stanton has played in since Palmer was lost for the season with an arm injury, Arizona and Stanton have thrown outside of the left hash marks just six times. Even while leaning heavily on Peterson and Fitzgerald - which will naturally narrow the field - that’s a crazily low number. For comparison, Cousins threw 10 passes outside of the left hash on Sunday. In the loss to San Francisco, Stanton threw 13 passes to the right side of the field -- or where Richard Sherman will be lining up on Thursday night.

If Stanton and the Cardinals’ trend keeps up on Thursday night, they’ll be attempting the rare anti-Rodgers: avoiding the side of the field where Sherman is not. With this in mind, it’s a possibility Sherman shadows Fitzgerald on Thursday night, but through nine weeks Seattle seems less willing to move him around the defensive formation than they were last season. More likely, it’s going to force Arizona’s hand to expand the field, and go against what’s worked for them with Palmer missing.

Blair Walsh’s bounce-back game

In what was likely a wise move, the Seahawks stood by their kicker this week after a 0-3 day on Sunday*. Walsh has been solid over the course of the season, missing just one kick all season prior to last week. On a short week, it would be too difficult to get a replacement in for a workout, signed and ready for Thursday night. With his coach and teammates standing by him, Walsh has a great shot at redemption in an incredibly kicker-friendly environment.

For several seasons, University of Phoenix Stadium was inexplicably Steven Hauschka’s bogey venue. Including last season’s overtime fiasco, he missed eight kicks (field goals or PATs) in six visits to Arizona. The anomaly that is Hauschka aside, it’s a stadium beloved by kickers. The Cardinals’ own Phil Dawson praised the kicking surface this summer, telling Robert Klemko of the MMQB:

“It’s incredible, Cleveland doesn’t even compare. In that part of the world, the grass is long and thick and chunky. This is like hitting from the middle of a fairway.”

Walsh’s career was derailed by struggles after he missed a potential game-winning kick against Seattle, but the Seahawks took a low-risk move by bringing him in and it had paid off through eight weeks. If his issues extend into Thursday night, they might be forced to look elsewhere. In a controlled environment, Walsh will have a good chance of getting back on track.

*Our very own Sean Clement went into detail on what went wrong for Walsh against Washington. His kicker column has been exceptional this year, and this week it’s a must-read.

Will the short week effect Seattle’s defensive line rotation?

Despite possessing strong depth on the defensive line, the Seahawks ridiculously continue to play Michael Bennett far too often. He’s 31, on a newly signed three-year extension and playing on a bad foot, but his playing time is floating around 85-percent -- a number that was eclipsed on Sunday, when he played 92-percent of defensive snaps. Ideally, he would be around 60-percent; realistically, 70-75 percent would be OK. Instead, he’s playing almost four-percent more than he did in his last full season in 2015.

Playing on a short week might force Seattle to lean heavily on the rotational players along the defensive line. Sheldon Richardson should be back, while Marcus Smith is likely to miss out due to a concussion he suffered on Sunday. That leaves Dwight Freeney, Nazair Jones, Branden Jackson and Dion Jordan - who will be activated for Thursday’s game according to his agent - capable of playing meaningful snaps on the edge. The mini-bye the Seahawks will head into following Thursday’s game will be a huge boost to the entire roster before the stretch run begins, but Bennett’s usage needs to be managed better, beginning on Thursday night.

Quick Hits:

  • Thomas Rawls will have to try and build upon his best game of the season against an Arizona team that ranks 14th against the run by DVOA, and seventh in the league in yards/attempt. At this point I’ve stopped holding out hope for Seattle to ditch the run, and just accepted they’re going to stubbornly stick to their ‘identity’. Rawls looked more like 2015-Rawls on Sunday than he had all season, but still ran for just 39 yards.
  • The Cardinals are the 10th highest team in the league in blitz percentage, blitzing on 32.3-percent of snaps. With Joe Staley missing and Trent Brown sliding to left tackle for the 49ers last week, they brought pressure even more than usual and it worked wonderfully. They sacked C.J. Beathard five times and seemingly got pressure on every passing down. There’s a chance they test the Seahawks in a similar manner on Sunday.

Following Thursday’s game, Seattle doesn’t play again until Monday Night Football on Nov. 20, at home against the Atlanta Falcons. The extended break should afford Thomas, Jordan and potentially even DeShawn Shead the chance to get back to full health and ready to play against the Falcons.