Having clinched a playoff spot and all but locked into the fifth seed in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks will close out the regular season in a relatively stress-free matchup against the troublesome Arizona Cardinals. The Cards, lifeless and led by Steve Wilks, who seems destined to be one-and-done at the helm, have often represented a problem for the Seahawks in Seattle; if that remains the case, it is unlikely to matter much at all.
Here are the Week 17 seeding scenarios, before we get into the preview:
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Since these two teams last met, Arizona’s undergone a change at offensive coordinator, firing the grossly inept Mike McCoy and promoting Byron Leftwich. Though the Cardinals’ offense haven’t improved much, Leftwich, a Bruce Arians disciple, is doing some things right, mainly, giving David Johnson more opportunities. The biggest issue facing Arizona’s offense is their inability to protect Josh Rosen. Pro Football Focus’ Cardinals Twitter account perfectly highlighted the importance of pass protection for Rosen this week:
#AZCardinals QB Josh Rosen's splits with 6+ pass blockers vs. 5 pass blockers.— PFF ARZ Cardinals (@PFF_Cardinals) December 21, 2018
6+ pass blockers: 76.8 passing grade (11th), 64-127, 863 yds, 11 BTT, 4 TWP
5 pass blockers: 39.3 passing grade (39th), 129-234, 1,236 yds, 7 BTT, 11 TWP
Their defense, under Wilks, remains unchanged since the first meeting—you can read more on his scheme here.
Numbers that Matter
34.8: The Seahawks, essentially locked into the fifth seed, are free to manage their personnel as they see fit in Week 17. I wouldn’t be surprised to see backups play a fair amount, especially at running back. With a deep backfield, there’s no need to give Chris Carson 15+ touches a week before a playoff game. Rashaad Penny, expected to return from his knee injury this week, should be the biggest benefactor.
Through 16 weeks, Arizona is facing a league-high 34.8 touches a game from opposing backs, and are the 27th ranked run defense in DVOA. In the first meeting between these two teams, Seattle had exactly 34 carries. Both the matchup and the situation should give the Seahawks a chance to give Penny an extended run, getting him back into game shape and more importantly, resting Carson ahead of the playoffs.
25.3: Among the laundry list of problems facing the Cardinals’ offense is their inability to convert third downs and extend drives. They’re 30th in run success rate and 32nd in pass success rate on third downs. Rosen and Arizona are converting third downs just 25.3% of the time, the second lowest mark in the league—and have the second most three-and-outs. The Cardinals’ offensive line, which is 25th in the league in adjusted sack rate, is completely overmatched on third downs, where opposing defenses can tee off on Rosen—who has taken the 10th most sacks (16) on third down.
Third downs aren’t going to get any more pleasant for Rosen and Arizona in Week 17, facing a Seattle defense that excels at getting off the field. They rank 11th and 6th in success rate against the run and pass respectively, and opponents are converting just 36.14% of third downs against the Seahawks (5th in the league). Despite no longer boasting a deep NASCAR package, Seattle has remained a great pass rushing team on third downs, with the 4th best pressure percentage in the league, at 42.2%.
The Cards’ offense is going to put on an ugly showing, they’re going to get themselves into third and longs, and the Seahawks will be able to rush freely. With playoffs on the horizon, it could mean a throwback to the preseason, with rookies Rasheem Green and Jacob Martin playing a considerable amount on the edges.
Matchups to Watch
Seahawks’ defense vs. David Johnson: There isn’t much in this game in terms of matchups, if only because we don’t know exactly how Seattle will manage the starters’ snaps. However, one thing I’m curious about and will be watching closely, is how they combat the versatile Johnson.
The most interesting thing about Pete Carroll’s outstanding coaching job this season has been the way he’s deployed first Delano Hill, and then Akeem King, as matchup dependent defenders in K.J. Wright’s absence. They were leaned on against George Kittle, and then last week, Travis Kelce. Wright has traditionally been used to defend running backs, but will Carroll and the Seahawks test this new wrinkle against one of the game’s best receiving backs?
Since Leftwich took over as OC, Johnson’s been split wide more often, and his targets have risen over one more per game. On the season, he’s caught 11 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown lined up at receiver—with another 36 receptions coming out of the backfield.
With Tedric Thompson set to return to the field, Hill could return to his role as the third safety, roaming around the box and picking up Johnson in coverage.
Opponent to Know
I’m going to do something a little different in this space for Week 17 and forgive me, because it’s completely self-indulgent. Arizona’s trip to Seattle to close out their season may be Larry Fitzgerald’s final NFL game; if it is, then my favorite football player of the last decade will be retiring following the season.
What can one say about Fitzgerald that hasn’t already been said by everyone surrounding the sport over the last ten-plus years? Whether it was Cris Collinsworth gushing over yet another stunning Fitzgerald performance on Sunday Night Football, or Richard Sherman talking about how difficult it was to trash talk the veteran because he was just so damn nice, or Bobby Wagner giving his respect for letting up on a potentially devastating block, everyone in and around the NFL respects Fitzgerald for the living legend he is.
Fitzgerald is one of the greatest receivers of all-time, a receiver with insanely reliable hands, a result of his grandfather making him practice with tennis balls as a child… with just one eye open at a time. He has perhaps the greatest playoff run of all-time, an insane 30-catch, 546-yard, seven touchdown four-game stretch in 2008. He reinvented himself as the best slot receiver in the league, at age 30, posting 10 touchdowns after it looked like the end was near. And he did it all with that big smile on his face.
Larry Fitzgerald was a pain in the ass when he played against your favorite team, catching everything in sight and making plays at the most unlikely of times. But, he was also a joy to watch, coming up big on the biggest stages time and time again. One of the greatest playoff performers of all-time may not be retiring with a ring, but if this is it for Fitz, in five year’s time he’ll have a gold jacket to make up for it.
The Seahawks rid themselves of any angst they may have had in Week 17 by defeating the Chiefs last week. Instead, they get to close out the season against a Cardinals team that’s playing its worst football of the season at the end of a three win campaign. Seattle will get to manage their team’s health and roll into the playoffs in good shape.