Pete Carroll may have his players convinced that every game is of equal value, but good luck getting fans on board with that notion this week. Seattle plays a pivotal game against their division rival Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. The Cardinals come in playing the part of powerhouse with a better record and gaudy statistics. Seattle is still trying to convince themselves that they are worthy of championship aspirations. Dive a little deeper into the numbers and there are some subplots that may surprise you.
First impressions: Arizona Cardinals
I have watched most of the Cardinals games this season. They are supremely talented, confident, and productive. Carson Palmer is having an MVP-caliber season through eight games, and is throwing to what may be the best receiver corps in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown are fantastic at what they do. The running game is stronger than it has been in a very long time with the help of a revamped offensive line, better tight ends and a reborn Chris Johnson.
Arizona is 7th in the NFL with a 4.5 average yards per rush attempt. The last time the Cardinals had a team that averaged 4.5 YPC was 1985.
They can run inside or outside with a variety of weapons. Palmer will take swings and screens, but has been lethal throwing down the field. He averages an insane 9.2 yards per pass attempt, easily the best in football.
The last time a quarterback matched, or exceeded, Palmer’s 9.2 YPA for a full season was Aaron Rodgers in 2011 (9.3). The time before that was Kurt Warner in 2000 (9.9).
This offense is legit, expertly run, and fearless. Taking away one player would seem to have little benefit as there are too many weapons who could step forward in his place. There are some interesting clues that at least indicate how best to slow them down that I will cover in a bit.
Arizona was 9-1 last year largely on the back of their playmaking defense. They lost their coordinator in Todd Bowles who became the head coach of the New York Jets. They lost their nose tackle in Dan Williams to free agency. Their first choice replacement for Williams, free agent Corey Peters, was lost for the season due to injury before he played a game. Yet, here they stand at #7 in the NFL in scoring defense (19.1 ppg) and #3 in total defense (312.8 ypg).
Much like their offense, the defense is multi-faceted and is relatively strong across the board. They are ranked in the top ten for: #9 yards per carry (3.8), #4 rushing yards per game (90.1), #3 yards per pass (6.1), #7 passing yards per game (222.6) and are #1 in interceptions. Their defensive backs are talented playmakers who also are physical in run support.
They rely on their talented secondary to allow for creative blitzes that leave fewer players in pass defense. It is a recipe that has left them vulnerable at times, but has been largely effective. They are essentially gambling that they will make more plays than your team will, and have been right to this point.
David Johnson is second in the NFL in kickoff return average, and Patrick Peterson is comparable to Tyler Lockett so far as a punt returner. Their kicking game is not as strong. Chandler Catanzaro’s longest field goal this season is from 43 yards away. He has attempted four field goals over 40 yards and made just two. Drew Butler has the worst punt distance in the NFL, and has been slow to get his punts off, resulting in a blocked punt and some very close calls.
This team deserves to be talked about among the Super Bowl contenders. They are well coached, talented and balanced. Their ability to create big plays from offense, defense or special teams has been the key to their dominance. Even when they trailed 20-7 to the Cleveland Browns last week at the half, there was a clear expectation along their sideline that it was just a matter of time, and it was.
Below the surface
Those were my first impressions. Peel back the covers a bit, and some questions and trends reveal where the Seahawks may find some traction.
A team can only play the opponents the league puts in front of them on their schedule. Arizona should not be criticized for walloping some poor competition. The fact remains, though, they have had one of the weakest schedules in the NFL to this point. TeamRankings.com has their strength of schedule (SOS) as 29th in the NFL, with only Tennesse, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay having an easier go so far. They have played only one team in the top 15 of my power rankings (Pittsburgh), and they lost that game.
The next toughest team they faced were the #16 St. Louis Rams. They lost that game as well. Their wins have come against #18 Cleveland, #21 New Orleans, #24 Baltimore, #26 San Francisco, #28 Chicago, and #31 Detroit. Seattle, despite their unimpressive 4-4 record, rank #5 overall. My rankings are done mathematically, but if you question their objectivity, Seattle ranks fifth in the mathematically unimpeachable fivethirtyeight.com
rankings as well.
Arizona has faced two defenses in the top ten in terms of yards allowed. They lost to the #5 Rams, and they were held to their lowest yardage total (300) and yards per play total (5.8) against the #9 Chicago Bears.
Seattle is #2 in the NFL in yards allowed, and are nearly 40 yards better per game than the closest defense the Cardinals have faced.
Trouble with good running teams
Arizona has faced two offenses that rank in the top half the league in rushing yards per game. They lost to #4 St. Louis and #5 Pittsburgh. They boast great run defense stats, but those have largely been compiled against truly bad run teams, and that has been compounded by those teams playing from behind and being forced to abandon the run.
The two teams who have run for more than 109 yards against the Cardinals this season have both beat them. Seattle has yet to rush for less than 110 yards in a game this year.
Cleveland was one of just two teams to lead the Cardinals at halftime, but are the second-worst running team in football. St. Louis was the other team to lead at halftime. That is no easy task as the Cardinals average a league-leading 18 ppg in the first half. The Seahawks are averaging 20.9 ppg for the whole game!
Pass rush problems
The Cardinals sacked the Seahawks seven times in their first meeting last year, more than any other team that season. Seattle made adjustments and allowed just one sack in the second meeting while piling up a season-high 596 yards.
Arizona looks ferocious in the pass rush with Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker and Cory Redding and their myriad of blitzes, but the numbers indicate it may be more bark than bite.
Arizona ranks 29th in the NFL in sacks per game and are 27th in sack percentage. They are having a heck of a time putting pressure on the passer, which explains why they signed Dwight Freeney off the street a few weeks back.
The only teams the Seahawks have faced with a sack percentage close to the Cardinals are the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Chicago Bears. It may just be a coincidence, but the Seahawks are 3-0 in those games.
Live by the turnover…
Arizona seemed to catch every break, at least on the field, during their 9-1 start to last season. Turnovers were a big part of that. They enter this game less reliant on it than last year, but are still 10th overall in turnover margin.
When they lose the turnover battle, they are 1-2. Their only victory was against the Browns, and they trailed 20-7 in that game before mounting a big comeback. Interestingly, the key to besting Arizona in turnovers is more about protecting the ball than taking it away. They rank 5th in the NFL in takeaways per game, but rank 23rd in giveaways.
A Seattle team that has struggled to get their turnover swag on may have found the right opponent to get untracked. It will not matter, though, if the Seahawks offense fails to protect the ball.
Arizona will be a big test for the Seahawks, but will not be the toughest team they have faced so far. They are probably better than the Packers on a neutral field, but that game in Lambeau was a tougher test. The Bengals are certainly a more complete team than Arizona, and that game was on the road as well. Carolina had a much tougher defense, especially given their ability to stuff the run, but the Cardinals are a more complete team and will represent a harder challenge than the Panthers.
The common thread in all three of those prior games was that Seattle lost each of them. They also led late in every one of them, and were ahead by multiple scores in the fourth quarter in two of them. This game represents an opportunity for Seattle to beat a quality opponent.
It may seem hopeful to talk about winning given the Cardinals powerful offense and the Seahawks meager scoring so far. Seattle has strengths that happen to line up well with where Arizona may be most vulnerable. This should be a colossal matchup that very well may decide the division. Given the location, the history between these two teams, and way these teams are designed, the Seahawks get the slight edge.