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Seahawks-Cardinals preview: Larry Fitzgerald’s immortality and more to watch for

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

Still alive heading into Week 17, the Seattle Seahawks return home from a Christmas Eve victory in Dallas to welcome the Arizona Cardinals. The Seahawks out-uglied the Cowboys en route to a 21-12 victory last week, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to win a game with more penalty yards than total yards. They now turn their attention to their NFC West rival Cardinals, needing a win at home and a loss by the Atlanta Falcons to extend their season into January.

Arizona took advantage of a lifeless, directionless New York Giants team last Sunday, winning comfortably 23-0. Most notably coming out of the Cardinals’ Week 16 win was the loss of Antoine Bethea, who tore his pectoral, becoming the ninth starter to be put on injured reserve by Arizona this year. Entering the final week of the season at 7-8, the Cardinals have little to play for; however with it possibly being both Bruce Arians and Larry Fitzgerald’s final games, they should be a highly competitive opponent. What to watch for:

Chandler Jones’ quiet DPOY campaign

In a season with no clear cut Defensive Player of the Year favorite, Chandler Jones is one of many possible candidates: Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner, Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan, Jalen Ramsey and Everson Griffen all have cases to be made. But among the seven legitimate candidates listed, Jones has gone almost unnoticed — the cost of playing for a team that’s largely been uncompetitive all season. But - team record aside - Jones has as good of a chance as any one of those players listed. He’s affected the quarterback more than anyone else this year, and more than last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack:

Mack’s 2016: 16 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 5 forced fumbles.

Jones’ 2017: 25 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 2 forced fumbles.

Rushing predominantly from the defense’s right, Jones never seems to lean heavily on one specific pass rush move in a given game, blending speed, power and finesse moves over the course of four quarters. But the matchup against Jones on the outside won’t be as simple as Duane Brown on an island. Arizona defensive coordinator James Bettcher dials up blitzes like it's an art form, overloading sides and bringing pressure up the A-gaps - their 33.2 blitz percentage is the eighth highest in the league. In addition to timely blitzes, Bettcher and the Cardinals’ defense utilizes stunts to gain favorable matchups, meaning the onus of stopping Jones will fall not just on Brown, but Luke Joeckel as well. Stunts and twists are something Seattle’s struggled with for years, and communication will have to be flawless if the Seahawks are to slow down Jones and keep Russell Wilson upright.

Larry Fitzgerald versus Justin Coleman

At age 34, future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald remains one of the league’s most consistent and reliable pass catchers. Currently sitting at 68.2-percent (101 of 148 targets), Fitzgerald should end the year with the third highest catch-percentage of his career. Entering Week 17, Larry Legend has already broken the 100-catch and 1000-yard marks, as well as leading Arizona in touchdown catches with six. The second-phase of his career, as a slot receiver, continues to be an utter success as Fitzgerald leads all receivers in yards from the slot with 750 of his 1101 yards coming from the inside. With John Brown failing to bounce back in 2017, Fitzgerald was once again trusted to be the team’s number-one option, and he has delivered yet again. Now, Justin Coleman will be tasked with slowing down one of the greatest receivers of all-time, and Arizona’s best offensive player.

In Dallas in Week 16, Coleman was the subject of two hugely important plays. First, he picked off Dak Prescott and took it 30 yards for a touchdown. Just two plays later, Coleman was wrongly flagged for pass interference deep downfield - a 43-yard penalty - resulting in a Cowboys field goal. All-in-all it was another strong performance from one of Seattle’s surprise players of the season, but now Coleman will go from a shifty, underneath receiver in Cole Beasley to a physical, refined receiver/legend in Fitzgerald who can win all over the field.

Despite his age, Fitzgerald is still able to create separation regularly, averaging the same yards of separation per target as Antonio Brown, Brandin Cooks and Adam Thielen, among others this season. Lining up across from Fitzgerald, Coleman will be targeted often by Drew Stanton, but could be aided by a strong pass rush…

Frank Clark versus Will Holden

Among the nine starters the Cardinals have placed on injured reserve this season is starting left tackle Jared Veldheer. Playing in his place is rookie Will Holden, who has struggled in his first two starts. In last week’s blowout victory over the Giants, Holden avoided Jason Pierre-Paul and his terrific showing because of a broken hand suffered by the pass rusher, forcing him to rush from the defense's left. Still, the rookie caused Arizona to give help on the edge - something they don't often do - and will be at the center of Seattle's pass rush on Sunday. Frank Clark - who excels rushing from the defense’s right, particularly against backup left tackles - had an incredibly effective game against Byron Bell last week: One sack, six hurries and three run stops.

Clark regularly effects quarterbacks late in games by turning to inside pass rush moves after bending around the corner early in games, using jab steps to the outside before exploding past the tackle’s inside shoulder. It was particularly effective against the Philadelphia Eagles and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, but even last week in Dallas there were several instances of Clark slashing inside to get into the backfield. His late-game effectiveness makes for an interesting matchup with Holden; the rookie tackle handled inside moves decently against the Giants, but was getting the corner turned on him regularly. With that in mind, we could see Clark lean on his bend around the corner, as well as speed-to-power moves rather than the inside moves he’s had so much success with.

Drew Stanton’s limited passing

Re-entering the starting lineup last week, Drew Stanton relied heavily on intermediate throws, largely over the middle, to move Arizona’s offense against a depleted and dysfunctional New York defense. Stanton threw just two passes beyond 20 yards - one of which was intercepted - and with good reason. His passer rating on deep throws (20+ yards) is 32nd in the league, a measly 20.6, and the team’s two deep threats in J.J. Nelson and John Brown have been ineffective all season.

Instead, Stanton leans on his ‘backs and tight ends, as well as Fitzgerald, to complete safe passes and rely on yards after the catch. Against the Giants, Stanton was 8/10 for 122 yards and two touchdowns on intermediate throws, and his passer rating (89.7) is higher on throws between 10-19 yards than it is on throws of 0-10 yards (87.4). The way Stanton works the middle of the field only heightens the importance of K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, something that was evident in Wright’s return last week.

Returning from a concussion, Wright was targeted eight times by Prescott, allowing just three catches for 15 yards, as well as breaking up a pass and of course intercepting a pass that was so generously tipped up in the air by Dez Bryant. Wright’s play recognition and ability to break on passes when covering the hook/curl zone underneath is hugely important, especially against conservative passing attacks. The L.A. Rams took full advantage of his absence in that area, before Wright returned with a bang against the Cowboys. Stanton and the Cards will be yet another passing attack working the middle of the field, and the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl linebacker duo will both be healthy to step up and defend against it.

Although Arizona has had success in Seattle recently, having won three of the last four at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks should be able to take care of business against a depleted Cardinals team. If they do, all attention turns to the Falcons and Carolina Panthers.