Tale of the Tape: Cardinals Defense Among NFL’s Best

Many people picked the Cardinals to repeat as NFC West division champs and contend for a Super Bowl this year. Their bandwagon has lost quite a few passengers after a 1-3 start that saw Carson Palmer struggle. This game against Seattle represents a pivotal moment in the season for both teams, as a loss would put the Cardinals three games behind in the loss column—and really four games due to the tiebreaker—with a game in Seattle still on tap for later this season. The Cardinals will bring their best to this game. They feature an underrated defense and a dynamic running game. Seattle fans should not expect another easy win in Arizona.

The way this works: Each offense will be pitted against the opposing defense and compared on an array of key statistical attributes based on their respective rank in the NFL. The tables that follow show the rank of each unit for each of these categories. 


Seahawks Offense vs Cardinals Defense

Ordinarily, the Seahawks offense has some key advantage over the defense they are going to face. Not this time. The Cardinals feature one of the best defenses in football. They defend the run, rush the passer, and take the ball away. Arizona ranks 3rd in defensive DVOA, per FootballOutsiders.com. They face a Seahawks offense that is struggling to run the ball and has yet to find it’s stride.

Cardinals key advantages on defense

Arizona has marquee talent in their secondary. That has helped them create turnovers in the past, and has been made stronger this year by the addition of a healthy pass rush. Their 14 takeaways ranks third in the NFL, and they have had at least one in every game this season. They have held opposing quarterbacks to a 65.8 passer rating, which ranks second among NFL defenses.

Expect them to bring pressure, like always, with the hope that the young Seahawks offensive line will suffer communication breakdowns. Eight of their 18 sacks have come on 3rd and long (7+ yards). They will look to bottle up the Seahawks running game on early downs and force them into those 3rd and long situations.

While the rankings may not bear it out, the Cardinals run defense is probably their biggest advantage. Seattle has been dismal in that aspect of their offense, and Arizona has some disruptive talent along their line. A big part of how the Seahawks have dominated the Cardinals in Arizona the past few years was a healthy running game with Russell Wilson playing a key role. It seems unlikely that type of success will be repeated on Sunday.

Seahawks key advantages on offense

Wilson has tortured the Cardinals defense, especially in Arizona. He has had some of his most dominant statistical performances in that stadium. Seattle will need him to do it again. Despite the big name talent and the gaudy numbers for the Cardinals secondary, the Seahawks match up well in the passing game.

Seattle has the ability to play the quick passing game, which neutralizes the pass rush, and likes to exploit defenses down the field when they blitz. Pass protection has been one of the strengths of this offense so far, and the deep ball has been productive. Seattle took fewer shots downfield against the Falcons.

Look for them to get back to some of those deep throws in this game. Paul Richardson could be brought out of hiding to test some of the secondary depth. Jimmy Graham is an intriguing and unpredictable factor in this game.

Arizona ranks 1st in the NFL in defending the tight end, per Football Outsiders. The reality is they have not faced any quality players at that position. The Patriots were without Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Jets are bereft of any dangerous tight end talent. Graham will at least draw a lot of attention.

Tyler Lockett will once again be a major factor in how this game unfolds. He was still not himself this past week. The Seahawks ability to move the ball reliably through the air requires a third receiving threat beyond Graham and Baldwin. Lockett is that guy when healthy.

Luke Willson is out for the first time, which leaves additional opportunities for Brandon Williams and Nick Vannett. Neither player has figured prominently in the Seahawks offense so far, and could provide a chance to catch the Cardinals off-guard. It will also be interesting to see if the Seahawks decide to utilize their elephant package more that they unveiled this week, featuring backup center Joey Hunt at fullback, and 330 pound J’Marcus Webb entering as a tackle eligible.

Assume the running game will struggle, which means Wilson and pass protection become the keys to the offense. He has proven he can eviscerate this Cardinals defense on the road, so it is reasonable to expect a solid performance.


Cardinals Offense vs Seahawks Defense


This is usually the battle to watch in this series; a great Cardinals offense tests the best defense in the NFL. Seattle has held up their end of the bargain, but Arizona has scuffled a bit out of the gates. Most surprising is the source of their struggles has been Palmer, some of the talented receivers, and Bruce Arians’ high-flying passing game.

Injuries to the offensive line should further weaken Arizona, but they are coming off a promising outing against a stout Jets run defense. Seattle played the best offense in football last week without Kam Chancellor or Frank Clark. Both players are expected back this week. Chancellor would play a key role in defending the run.
Arizona showed signs of regaining some rhythm in the passing game on Monday. Seattle showed it is not infallible. Whichever side plays better in this game likely determines the outcome.


Cardinals key advantages on offense


Technically, the Cardinals have no advantages on offense. Even their powerful rushing attack is met by an even more powerful run defense. Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis are out. Backups, including Earl Watford, played well in relief. David Johnson is running roughshod over the league, but has yet to get untracked against the Seahawks. He had just 25 yards on 11 carries last year in Arizona in his only start against Seattle.
Arizona absolutely has to generate a rushing attack in order to unlock their offense in this game. Seattle naturally takes away the deep ball and has one of the leagues best pass rushes. It is hard to imagine the Cardinals having much success without Johnson threatening 100 yards on the ground. If they do that, they stand a good shot at winning.

Seahawks key advantages on defense

The pass rush is going to be a headache for the Cardinals all night. Assume that Clark returns. The combination of Clark, Cassius Marsh, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and timely blitzes from Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright is going to give the patchwork Cardinals line fits.

Palmer will have to be good about getting rid of the ball quickly and Arians will have to be willing to eschew the deep ball he loves so much. This is a game where Palmer could get pounded if the running game cannot get untracked. Seattle should have a huge advantage at the line of scrimmage both in the run game and in rushing the passer.

Arizona has self-destructed a couple of times this year when they had 5 turnovers two different times. Seattle has six turnovers all year. Palmer has not been as sharp throwing the ball, as evidenced by the 31st ranked completion rate in the NFL. It will only take a few off-target throws to create a huge advantage for Seattle. The Seahawks offense took advantage of some short fields created by turnovers against Atlanta. It could be more of the same here.


Special Teams

Seahawks kicking vs Cardinals returning

Cardinals kicking vs Seahawks returning



Arizona is missing their normal punter due to injury. His replacement has done a good job with pinning teams inside the 20, but there could be a chance for Seattle to gain some meaningful field position with Lockett in the punt game. Arizona is surprisingly benign in the punt return game. They have dynamic athletes, but is has not translated into good special teams play.

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  1. I gotta say for some reason I like this match up. Russell is money against the blitz.

    With Carry Williams gone, they won’t be able to feast on his mistakes. Shead will play the deeper passes very well.

    Plus i’m going there to watch the game so there is no way we can lose!

    1. I also don’t think they have faced a defense with the luxury of a slot DB the quality of Lane. I don’t see a big game for Fitz in this one.

  2. I think their defensive numbers are inflated by who they have played; LAR,SF,NYG, and TB are pretty easy pickins. I was worried before the ATL game if I was hitting the cool-aid too hard based on we had played many of the same opponents. I think the way we played three quarters (everything except 3rd) showed we have elite type defensive potential.
    I know DVOA is supposed to account for strength of opponent, but it wouldn’t surprise me if their defense isn’t going to be as good as their fans think the entire year.
    Has ARI faced any good rushing talent yet this year? I am not saying we have shown above average skill there, but it might be better than they have faced so far. I do think one has to assume that the Cards defense is legit.
    You can just feel a break-out rushing game coming….will this be the game?

    1. That is a very good observation. Seattle and AZ both are high on DVOA measurements (1st and 3rd defensive DVOA), even w/ the weighted on schedule, which both ranked 30th and 28th respectively. Regarding our rushing attack, IMO, I don’t think we will improve due to RW’s injury, and the OL seems to be better at pass protection versus run, which is odd since we have always portraited to be a better run block team (incidentally during Beast Mode and RW era, our rushers had always been on top for yards after contact so that can be deceiving) CM has a decent average, and I don’t know if this is true, John Clayton has said he has the highest yards after contact (i.e. 5+), which does not make any sense if you look at his overall average of 4.5 yards per carry, which can translate that he has a lot of big runs and get stuffed more frequent. But if you look at his DVOA, he has high successful rate but very low DVOA. So I don’t know. However, I think we need to balance our attack a bit more, too heavy on passing right now (i.e.. 57-43 splits) I think PC wants to be more like 52-48. We lack in big, explosive plays. Maybe Lockett or Baldwin is not a 100% or afraid of the OL (the tackles to be precise). Whatever the reasons might be, we need to take a few deep shots. Need those chunk plays.

      It would not shock me if we will have a high scoring game, based on the last game result. Not saying CP is MR right now but if he does not make mistakes, then they can score. The turnovers are the biggest issue for them right now w/ 10. With an exception defense like the Rams, they haven’t played any other world beater defensive unit. We can say the same thing about our defense as we get exposed when facing a really good QB and wide receiver corps. We have to stop DJ, which means we probably will stack the box, if that is the game plan, then we will miss Kam. Don’t know if John Brown will play, if he does then they probably will have him outside along w/ Floyd and Fitz in the slot. I’d prefer to have Shead on Fitz due to his physicality play. Hopefully, Sherman is back to his standards, getting torched for the last two games, one with a mediocre QB, didn’t really help. RW seems to play better on the road since last year compared to his previous seasons. Kind of odd. We shall see. Go Hawks.

      1. ATL had a really hot rushing attack coming in and we shut them down, I doubt DJ runs all over us. ATL as a team had 52 yards of rushing. Agreed that I would feel better about this is Chancellor was playing.
        I am most interested if in what can we do running the ball.
        I really thought we could throw the ball on ATL and would expose their secondary. That never happened with Wilson not getting 300 yards. Again ARI has the 26th ranked pass defense. I hope Wilson can throw to setup the run in this game.
        It might come down to who wants this game more. ARI might fight like a cornered dog, or the might fold. I would imagine we will play inspired football.

  3. Hawk.Lips,

    Don’t underestimate DJ, I believe since the 8th or 10th game from last year to this year, he is leading the league in yards from scrimmage. Atlanta has a good running game, but the only good defensive team, besides Seattle, was Denver. It had over 100 yards (122 to be precise) but on 32 carries. So don’t oversell the strength of its running game.
    I’d agree on our passing game, but I don’t know if Bevell “trusts” our tackles to have more passes. Actually, AZ is second in passer rating defense at 64.8, we are at 4th w/ 74.9. But of course, they haven’t played a QB like RW. We shall see.

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