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Before the season started, most people outside of the Pacific Northwest thought the NFC West would be cleanly divided into two tiers. The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers met in the NFC Championship Game last year and there was no reason to think they wouldn’t slug their way to the top of the division again in 2023. A few brave souls even thought the Arizona Cardinals might poke their tiny beaks into the mix as well, but nobody and I mean nobody predicted that the Seattle Seahawks would be right there with them.
And yet, despite fielding one of the youngest rosters in the league, a career backup at QB, and a (to put it kindly) unproven defense, that’s exactly where the ‘Hawks find themselves. But to show that they are worthy of adjusted expectations, Seattle would have to beat a Cardinals team that came in as the betting favorites. What followed was a complete team effort that has eluded them since Week 1.
The Cardinals started with the ball, and immediately took advantage of the only thing their offense has done well this year, which is watching Kyler Murray run. On the second snap, Murray took a short drop back, saw a gap to his right, and took off. There is no one in the NFL that runs quite like Murray, and Arizona’s diminutive QB darted about like Toadstool with a star in MarioKart 64. By the time the Seattle caught up, Murray had covered 42 yards and had his team in scoring range. Two plays later, he hit Rondale Moore— who is somehow even smaller than Murray— for 26 more and a 1st & goal. Eno Benjamin got a few on the next play, then Seattle’s front strung Murray out on a keeper for a loss of four. On 3rd down, a shot to AJ Green fell incomplete and the Cards kicked a short field goal for an early lead.
The Seahawks took over for their first possession, trying to keep their remarkable early-game production going with Geno Smith and a surprisingly efficient offense. It didn’t get off to a great start, as Abe Lucas started falsely to make it 1st & 15. The first real play was an incomplete attempt to DK Metcalf, setting up a 2nd & very long. No matter, Smith calmly found Noah Fant on a crossing route for 10 and then, on 3rd &5, Shane Waldron reached a little deeper into his bag.
With Ken Walker III lined up next to him in the shotgun, Smith faked like the snap was going over his head. As he did, the ball was hiked to Walker III, who shot through a gap in the line, cut toward the right sideline, and then sprinted upfield for 17. On the very next play, they went back to the rookie, who gave us another highlight. Walker III broke an arm tackle as he got through the line and planted his left foot in the ground so hard he left a dent in the field. Walker sprung to his right, absolutely crumbling a linebacker with the juke, but he wasn’t done. Walker III delivered a a stiff-arm to evade the next would-be tackler and then hopped out of the grasp of another, finally getting pushed out of bounds 34 yards later. The drive would stall when an ambitious jump-ball to Metcalf was unsuccessful in double coverage but Jason Myers knocked the short kick through the uprights to tie the game, and it looked like we’d be off on another high-scoring adventure.
Nothing about Arizona’s next drive did anything to dispel that notion, at least not initially. Their possession would last 14 plays, eating up the rest of the first quarter as they alternated short Benjamin runs with short Murray completions. They used that formula to get the ball back inside the Seattle 30 but the Seahawks defense would stand strong again.
Keontay Ingram carried it for seven on first down, but Poona Ford busted through to wrap him up for a loss of three on the next play. Murray would hit AJ Green on 3rd down but Jordyn Brooks was there to pin him down after a gain of two. That brought up 4th down and, with their recent kicking struggles fresh in Kliff Kingsbury’s mind, they elected to go for it on 4th & 4. On this pivotal down, Seattle was able to create pressure again, rushing Murray’s throw and Kyler skipped it short to Moore as the crowd erupted.
There weren’t a ton of highlights over the remainder of the first half, as the two teams would trade three-and-outs on the next two possessions, with Arizona’s hallmarked by a fierce third down sack from Uchenna Nwosu. Seattle had a nice drive after that, going 51 yards on 10 plays to get another field goal but I found the way they did it pretty interesting— and pretty encouraging. One of the things that has always bugged me about Seahawks offenses, and this spans multiple coordinators, is that there are certain personnel packages that have telegraphed run plays. For years, there have been depth receivers whose only appearances seemed to come when the top guys needed rest, and Seattle would simply hand the ball off until the big guns were ready to come back in.
On this possession, however, Seattle found themselves in a three-TE package with Walker III in the backfield and Dee Eskridge as the only WR. I thought for sure this would mean a run play and, on first down, it did. Walker III would gain three yards but instead of sending Metcalf and Tyler Lockett back onto the field, Geno went no-huddle and immediately hit Will Dissly for 12. They hustled back to the line and Smith found Colby Parkinson for seven more. Walker III got a first down with a four-yard carry, then two more on the next one. Smith kept it for six to set up 3rd & 2 but Walker III would get bottled up and Myers would send another one through to make it 6-3.
The next three drives ended in punts, and Seattle was able to muster one last push before the break, using a 22-yard out to Marquis Goodwin and a slick 24-yard scramble from Smith to get a third field goal from Myers and the home team took a 9-3 lead to the locker room on the backs of their oft-maligned defense.
I’ll be completely honest with you— I think the Cardinals offense is unwiped butt outside of Kyler Murray’s ingenuity, but I still expected the Seahawks defense to capitulate over the game’s final 30 minutes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After a third-down sack ended Seattle’s opening drive in the third quarter, the defense kept the juice flowing.
The Cardinals would get a couple of first downs on their first drive of the second half, but the paved road turned to mud again as they got into scoring range. A 1st & 10 from Seattle’s 35 quickly became a 4th & 2 from the 27 and Kingsbury left his cute little offense on the field once more. Just like last time, the Seahawks got a great push up front and forced an errant throw towards AJ Green that Quandre Diggs nearly picked off. That kept the game 9-3 and the Seahawks took advantage of their opportunity to make it a two-score game, helped by a couple of Cardinals infractions.
After a four-yard completion to Parkinson, a batted pass was overturned by a roughing the passer call. Smith would find Eskridge for 12, and a couple snaps later, an ill-advised throw to a double-covered Metcalf was bailed out by defensive holding. Walker III would then pinball his way to a 21-yard gain, showcasing his rare combination of balance and power as he banked off defenders. The drive fizzled when Smith took a sack on 3rd & 6 from the Cardinals 8 but Myers was true once again and the ‘Hawks found themselves seated upon a nine-point lead.
Of course, we knew this game wouldn’t go without some drama, and Seattle’s trademark silliness would make an appearance shortly afterward. After a bananas 32-yard Kyler scramble that saw him step on every blade of synthetic grass in the stadium, the Cardinals were in Seattle territory for the fourth time this game. Two plays later, Arizona found themselves with a 3rd & 6 and went right back to the only thing that ever seems to work for them. With the pocket collapsing around him, Murray set his feet and jolted forward for the first down. As he angled for the sideline, Coby Bryant snuck in with a perfectly-placed left jab, punching the ball free where it was pounced on by a sprawling Tariq Woolen. It was Bryant’s league-leading fourth forced fumble of the season and Woolen’s league-leading 5th takeaway.
With a 12-3 lead and the ball, Seattle had a chance to put the game away— but where would the fun be in that? Instead, they went backwards at a remarkable rate, running for a loss of two, throwing an incomplete pass, and then getting sacked. That brought Michael Dickson out to punt from his own endzone and hilarity ensued. Dickson took the head-high snap and readied his kick. As he did, the Seattle line crumbled like the walls of Jericho and Dickson was swarmed under by the breach. Instead of attempting what certainly would have been a blocked punt, Dickson brought the ball down but he was unable to secure it for the safety. Instead, he fumbled for the second consecutive game, which has gotta be some kind of punter record, and Arizona recovered it for a score their offense was incapable of getting themselves. As if that wasn’t enough goofiness, the Cards kicker hooked the extra point and the score stayed 12-9.
That put pressure on the Seahawks offense for the first time all game, and they responded with their best drive of the day. Smith hit Fant for 15 on first down then flipped it short to Eskridge who scampered up the right sideline for 16. Then, on play-action, Smith pulled out and fired a strike over the middle to Metcalf for 17. Staying with what was working, Smith went back to the air, dumping it off to Walker III for six then finding Lockett for 10 more. That gave Seattle a first down at Arizona’s 11 and Walker III did the rest. After six straight passes, the draw was set up beautifully and Walker III zipped through the left side of the line, breaking another tackle and sneaking inside the pylon for what would be the game-clinching touchdown.
All that was left was for Tariq Woolen to pick off Murray’s final fourth down heave, putting an exclamation point on Seattle’s most complete victory of the year.
~The 2022 Seahawks offseason looks better and better with each passing week. Lots of ink has been spilled about Geno Smith’s performance and he was his usual efficient self today. Free-agent addition Uchenna Nwosu has been the team’s best defender and got himself another sack this afternoon. Ken Walker III answered the bell the moment Rashaad Penny went down and looked phenomenal as a bell-cow back against Arizona. Shelby Harris and Noah Fant, who came over in the Russell Wilson deal, had their best games of the year in this one. Coby Bryant’s coverage gets better and better, and Tariq Woolen is firmly entrenched in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. Tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas had a tougher go than usual in Week 6 but have earned raving reviews for rookies so far this season. And that’s not even accounting for the extra 1st and 2nd round picks they acquired. To top it all off, they let someone else pay Wilson a quarter of a billon dollars, creating an incredible amount of financial flexibility moving forward.
I don’t mean for this to be interpreted as me saying that Seattle is without weakness, or that their strengths can’t be improved upon. What I do mean to convey is that the Seahawks are stacking their dominoes in a fashion that makes a return to real competitiveness look much more imminent than many of us dared to hope. I’ve been pretty critical of Pete Carroll and John Schneider over the last couple of years, but they went upper-deck with their moves over the last seven months.
~Geno Smith was blitzed relentlessly today, and while Smith has been very good against pressure this year, the Cardinals strategy was effective. They sacked Smith five times and kept him out of the end zone. They forced tight windows downfield and Smith spent most of the game taking the opportunities underneath. His final line of 20-31 for 197 yards, no scores, and no turnovers should quiet the unrealistic-but-still-fun MVP chants but he did everything necessary to make sure the team won today. He added 48 yards on the ground and went five of six on the one touchdown drive, trusting his arm with the game in the balance. Nothing about what I saw today changes my optimism about Geno.
~One of the things Chuck Powell mentioned on the podcast this week is how Ken Walker III’s obvious talent with the ball in his hands has been tempered in camp by his struggles with assignments. We saw some of that today— not in terms of mistakes from Walker III but in Seattle’s insistence on using Deejay Dallas in obvious passing downs. That’s all stuff you can coach up in a player— but you can’t teach the electric running ability Walker displays every time he has even a sliver of room. He is a highlight waiting to happen, and he finished with 110 yards and the game’s only offensive score on 23 touches. In the game-and-a-half since Rashaad Penny got hurt, Walker III has 185 rushing yards and two TDs on 29 rushes, for an average of 6.4 yards per carry. He is ready.
~Seattle’s two standout WRs have been finding their grooves of late, but they didn’t have a huge impact in this one. Instead, the Cardinals funneled passes to the role players and those guys were good enough to get it done. Noah Fant continues to build momentum and he led the team in targets (7), catches (6), and yards (45). Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson shared three catches while Dee Eskridge and Marquis Goodwin combined for five receptions and 65 yards between them.
The Arizona Cardinals absolutely sold out to take DK Metcalf away, either shading a linebacker beneath him or a safety over the top every time they didn’t outright double him. And it worked. The first four throws to Metcalf were nearly intercepted and Smith was just 2-7 for 34 yards when targeting his alpha dog. Usually, if Metcalf is quiet then Tyler Lockett is loud, but he didn’t have much say in things either, catching two of five passes thrown his way for 17 yards. Obviously we’d love to see these two more involved but it’s pretty encouraging to see the offense do well enough without them.
~The offensive line had their worst game since Week 2 against San Francisco, surrendering five sacks and letting the Cardinals’ front besiege their quarterback all afternoon. Still, they were solid in the running game, creating enough room for Walker III to excel and paved the way for 130 yards on the ground. Charles Cross was pretty good, all things considered, but Damien Lewis and Abe Lucas had real rough goes of it. Fits and starts. Gonna be this way all season.
~There’s the defense! Ever since their inspired performance against the Denver Broncos, this unit has been nothing more than a punchline, allowing 955 yards and 84 points over the last two weeks while creating next to nothing in terms of quarterback pressure. Today, however? The complete opposite. Today, they were the defense Carroll and Clint Hurtt have been envisioning. They held the Cardinals offense to three points on 335 yards, registering six sacks and forcing two turnovers. They held the Cardinals to an incredible 4-16 on third down and 1-5 on fourth. A dominant outing that saw contributions from just about everyone.
It started up front, as it does with most great defensive performances. Shelby Harris, Poona Ford, Quentin Jefferson, and Darrell Taylor each had their names called more today than we’ve heard all season. All four of them registered a sack, with Ford adding two additional tackles for loss and breaking up a pass. They collapsed rushing lanes and showed terrific discipline against a slippery opposing QB.
The linebackers were great today as well. Uchenna Nwosu also logged a sack among three tackles while Jordyn Brooks racked up 11 takedowns— the majority of which were near the line of scrimmage. Cody Barton hardly saw the field and for now, that’s probably best.
How about this secondary? I’ll get to the corners in a moment but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how Ryan Neal has taken control of the second safety position next to Quandre Diggs. Neal joined the sack party with a perfectly timed blitz and broke up a pass at the goal line on Arizona’s opening drive. He finished with seven tackles and looks like the guy in that spot moving forward.
For as excited as I am about Seattle’s two rookie tackles, their first-year corners have somehow been even better. Even when the defense was struggling, Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen would each flash in every game. Today, we got a glimpse of what these two can be once they really find their footing. They both already have such a great sense for the football, and that was on display once again this afternoon.
Coby Bryant was good in coverage and is proving to be a very willing tackler, sticking his mug in for eight tackles and, of course, forcing that big fumble on the Murray scramble. Woolen, for his part, is looking like a bona fide star in the making. His instincts are remarkable, and with his second fumble recovery and fourth interception, he now leads the entire NFL in takeaways. If what we saw today is for real, watch the hell out.
~The penalties were much better today. Six flags for 44 yards isn’t awesome but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’ve seen from a team that came in with more fouls than any other team in the league. Hopefully this becomes a trend instead of just a dip in an otherwise disappointing graph.
Just when we thought we had this team figured out, they go out and give us a performance like this. One of the points I try to hammer throughout each season is one that I often forget myself: NFL teams have remarkable abilities to adapt over the course of their schedule, and early-season outlier performances often regress toward the mean as the games stack up. As fans, we write our opinions of teams in wet cement but in the actual NFL, they are written in sand.
Trying to win the race to 40 points is not a sustainable way of succeeding at the highest level, but the way Seattle played today sure as hell is. With the Rams winning and the 49ers losing, the Seahawks are now tied for first in the NFC West at 3-3. This season is turning out to be a lot more fun than many of us anticipated. Onward and upward.
Pulled out a La Promesa Toro from My Father today. If you’ve been reading the articles for a while, you know my affinity for everything My Father does and this stick is no exception. Slow, smooth, and packed with flavor— this is a terrific standalone stogie. That said, I gave it a pretty dance partner in the form of some Whistlepig Bespoke Blend.
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The 2022 season of Cigar Thoughts is also proud to be sponsored by Fairhaven Floors and Brandon Nelson Partners in Bellingham, WA.