Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Changing Seahawks and Cardinals

Russell Wilson will face off against John Skelton tomorrow at CenturyLink Field. It will be a replay of a game played three months ago, though, Seahawks fans would like to believe their team has grown while the Cardinals have collapsed. 

The facts are inarguable. Seattle has gone 7-4 since that season opener in the desert, while Arizona has gone 3-8. The Cardinals have lost eight in a row, which is incredibly hard to do in this age of NFL parity. Seattle's starting quarterback has had a passer rating over 90.0 in five straight games, six of the last seven, and eight of twelve overall. The Cardinals have not had a QB reach that number since Kevin Kolb did it in week three against the Philadelphia Eagles, and that was the only instance of it occurring this season. 

Arizona is not bereft of talent either. Their defense is formidable. Their offense...not so much. The Cardinals put 20+ points on the board in each of their first four games, helping them to an undefeated start. They have not managed that many points since. It is almost inconceivable that a team with Larry Fitzgerald could not move the ball with at least some regularity. Seahawks fans have seen that he is largely indefensible when a quarterback puts the ball within five yards of him. He has been targeted 120 times, resulting in just 56 receptions. It is so hard to fathom, that it must be seen to be believed. 

For all the statistical narratives, it is the anecdotal aspects that have my attention. Wilson struggled mightily in his first start. He was a different player then, at least that is what he can prove tomorrow. The Cardinals shredded the interior of the Seahawks offensive line and had Wilson on the run much of the day. Still, Wilson was inaccurate all day, often throwing high to receivers, even when the ball was caught. Those first four games featured a Russell Wilson that was anxious and unsure. That feels like a distant memory. This Cardinals game begins a stretch of games where Wilson will be able to replay his three worst games of the season, whether by QBR or passer rating. Arizona is a perfect moment to demonstrate to Wilson, his teammates, coaches, fans and opponents that the old tricks are not enough to hold him down. He can transition from being a weakness that those NFC West defenses try to exploit, to a strength that they must defend. 

Arizona did not see the read option in that first game. They have an extremely athletic front seven that should be as lethal to the read option as any team in football. It is a good test. Do not be fooled by the Cardinals large opponent rushing totals. They may give up nearly 130 yards rushing per game, but they only allow 4.1 yards per attempt, far better than Seattle's 4.5. Teams run a lot against the Cardinals because nobody like passing against them. They are second-best in the NFL at holding down opposing quarterbacks passer rating, and are also second in the league in interceptions. Most teams figure they can play conservatively on the ground to protect the ball and still come out on top against the suspect Cardinals offense. Scoring 18 points would have been enough to beat Arizona in seven of their last eight games. Seattle has averaged 21.5 points during that span, and 25.2 in the last five games. 

Another subplot will be the emergence of Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. It may surprise you that the leading receiver in that first game is no longer on the Seahawks roster. Braylon Edwards could not pull in Wilson's high and hard pass in the end zone, but he did make five catches for 43 yards. Rice had 12 catches for 132 yards and one touchdown in those first four games. He has 15 receptions for 256 yards and four touchdowns in his last four. Similarly, Tate went rose from 144 yards in those first four to 231 yards in the last four, including four touchdowns of his own. 

Seattle was not throwing the ball deep against Arizona. They were incredibly conservative. Their number of explosive passes (20+ yards) has gone from less than one per game, to nearly five per game. This is a vastly different offense than the Cardinals faced that first week. 

Still, division games are fraternal. You can be the MVP of the city basketball championship, but somehow lose to your brother in the driveway. This is a game where the Seahawks should know the Cardinals better than vice versa. Less has changed for Arizona. The defense was great then, and is now. If there has been any change, it has been on offense and in team expectations, and those are not changes for the better. Seattle has regressed on defense, but did not play all that well in the first match-up when they allowed Arizona to score in every quarter on the way to notching 20 points total. It is hard to find a story line that favors the Cardinals tomorrow. 

Many will point to the absence of Brandon Browner. It is the area the Seahawks know least about in terms of their capabilities. Walter Thurmond III will play outside except when the Cardinals go to three receivers, when he will almost certainly slide inside and rookie Jeremy Lane will play outside. The Cardinals regularly go to three receivers, and have more incentive to do so now. Seattle will counter by giving Lane safety help on nearly every play. The surprise may be that the Cardinals do not try and match-up Fitzgerald with Lane. Instead, they could put Andre Roberts or Malcolm Floyd over there, hoping that gets Fitzgerald more single coverage with the Seattle safeties assisting Lane. Of course, all that relies on the quarterback making the right throw and being upright, which is a tall order considering the Cardinals are 31st in the NFL in sacks allowed as a percentage of their pass attempts. It is a chess match worth keeping an eye on. It is also worth mentioning that the Seahawks will not face another receiver of Fitzgerald's caliber the rest of the season.

This will be the Seahawks third chance to go three games over .500 on the year. They are 0-2 in those games so far, losing to the 49ers and Dolphins. The team has proven they can beat the best teams in football, but have yet to prove they can play winning football over long stretches. Arizona represents a stiff test, but one they have studied well for. Passing it will validate the growth the team appears to have experienced this season. 


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