Double Coverage: Seahawks vs. Cardinals
A closer look at Seattle’s Week-12 game against Arizona with the help of Adam Green, who covers the Cardinals for ArizonaSports.com:
Henderson: Greetings, Adam. I’ll go ahead and admit it right of the bat: I didn’t think the Cardinals could contend for the division this season – let alone run away with it – after they lost three members of their extraordinary front seven. How surprised are folks down there about the team’s success, particularly on defense? And who are the players that have stepped up to fill those holes on defense?
Green: Hey Brady, long time no talk. To be honest, I didn’t think the Cardinals were going to be able to surpass San Francisco or Seattle in the NFC West, and especially not after they lost so many key players. But here they are, and though their success was most definitely a shock earlier in the season, by now everyone has pretty much accepted that “next man up” is a way of life and not necessarily as detrimental as once thought. As for why the defense has done so well, you have to look squarely at the secondary. The star power is there with names like Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Tyrann Mathieu, but it is also the lesser-known guys like Jerraud Powers (tied for team lead in interceptions), Tony Jefferson (second on team in tackles), Rashad Johnson (first in tackles, tied for lead in interceptions) and Deone Bucannon who are key to what’s happening in Arizona. Their versatility affords defensive coordinator Todd Bowles so much flexibility with his calls, and without them there is no way the defense would be as good as it is.
Now, a lot of people down here are wondering what is up with the locker room for the defending champs. So many stories have come out about guys being unhappy, which is a stark contrast to what the Cardinals seem to have. I for sure want to get into some thoughts on the team’s offense and defense, but are things really as bad as they seem in ‘Hawks land?
Henderson: They’ve had their share of issues this season, no doubt. But as far as the tightness of the locker room, I don’t think that’s a problem. The only documented and substantiated issue between teammates involved Percy Harvin, and he’s no longer a part of the team for that reason. Marshawn Lynch’s unhappiness has been a big story dating back to training camp, but by all accounts his issues are with the front office and not his teammates. Based on how they talk about him, he’s beloved in Seattle’s locker room. And whatever discontent he has over his contract and his future certainly hasn’t affected his play. Now, that’s not to say there’s no tension in their locker room whatsoever. That tends to come with losing, and the Seahawks have already lost more games than they did all of last season. But if there is any aside from what happened with Harvin, it’s not something that has bubbled to the surface.
I mentioned being surprised at what the Cardinals have done despite all those significant defensive injuries. It’s even more remarkable that they’ve done much of it without their starting quarterback, Carson Palmer. It’s tempting to assume Drew Stanton is a “game manager” type considering he’s been a career backup. Has that been the case or has he been more of the reason for the games they’ve won?
Green: The answer to that question is really a game-by-game proposition. His first start, in New York, was won by the defense and special teams. However, he came back the next week and was a big factor in the home win over the 49ers by throwing a pair of touchdowns. He wasn’t great against the Broncos and besides the two first-quarter touchdown passes to Michael Floyd, didn’t do much against the Lions. He has shown the ability to make plays when called upon and head coach Bruce Arians does not go into conservative mode (if that’s even a mode on his dial) when Stanton is in, so how much of a “game manager” he’ll be largely depends on how the defense is doing. And that right there is the key for this Cardinals team: If all goes according to plan, they won’t need Stanton to win them games – their defense and special teams will do it. Can he throw for 250 yards and a couple of touchdowns per game? Absolutely, and as long as he does not turn the ball over that should lead to plenty of wins. But can he throw for 350 yards and four scores? Maybe, but odds are the Cardinals would rather not need to find out.
That actually sort of leads me into my next question, which is about Seattle’s defense. Everyone knew how great it was last season, with the “Legion of Boom” leading the way for a dominant group. But this year, the stats show them giving up a full seven points more than last season, interceptions are way down and quarterbacks have a rating nearly 30 points higher than 2013. What has happened to that side of the ball?
Henderson: It’s a good question. It’s easy point to the defections on that side of the ball, but I to don’t think that’s the whole reason, only part of it. Seattle’s depth at cornerback took a hit when Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond left in free agency, but Byron Maxwell had essentially overtaken Browner on the depth chart late last season. The Seahawks released both of their starting defensive ends, and maybe they’ve missed Chris Clemons’ ability to rush the passer, but it’s not like their run defense has taken a step back without Red Bryant. Whatever the root of the issue might be, the biggest difference from last season to this one has been takeaways. The Seahawks led the league last season with 39 but they’re averaging one fewer takeaway per game this year. There’s a few reasons for that. One is their pass rush hasn’t been as effective, partly because teams are getting rid of the ball quickly and partly because it just hasn’t generated as much pressure. The Seahawks have also dropped quite a few would-be interceptions, and as much as it sounds like an excuse, the ball hasn’t bounced their way when it’s been on the ground. Some of that has improved over the last four games, and the result has been nine takeaways in that span compared to only five over the first six games. Another area that’s seen a big dropoff is Seattle’s red-zone defense. The Seahawks led the league last season in that category, allowing a touchdown on only 36 percent of their opponents’ red-zone possessions. That has almost doubled this season, and it’s not as easy to put a finger on why that is.
The Seahawks have been strong against the run overall this season, but they’ve been burned in a few games. Free safety Earl Thomas recently pointed to one reason, saying that patient runners have taken advantage of Seattle’s aggressiveness on defense. What type of back is Andre Ellington and how has he played this season?
Green: Interesting, especially given how effective Arizona’s defense has remained even with its own losses. As for Ellington, it’s kind of been a mixed bag this season. Arians proclaimed in the offseason that he wanted the former sixth-round pick to get 25-30 touches a game, and so far Ellington is averaging 22.7. However, his average of 3.4 yards per carry is very pedestrian, and that is becoming an issue. You could point to struggles along the offensive line as a reason for that, along with the fact that Ellington has missed a lot of practice time due to a lingering foot injury. He has played with it all season and been able to go on Sundays, but the coaches believe the time missed during the week is a bit of an issue. The second-year pro out of Clemson is still very fast and shifty, but he’s not the type to break tackles on his way through the hole. He is apt to bounce runs to the outside, which is something the Seahawks will likely key on. The run game has been a point of emphasis in recent weeks – and especially now with Stanton under center – and it’s something the team knows it must get going if it is to make a deep playoff run.
As long as we’re talking offense, I’m curious about Seattle’s. Russell Wilson seems to be having another good year (running the ball more than usual) and Lynch is his usual beastly self, but it seems to us on the outside that something just isn’t right. Given that Harvin wasn’t much of a factor for last year’s Super Bowl champs, why is that side of the ball struggling to find consistency? Do they really miss Golden Tate that much?
Henderson: It’s not just Tate. When the Seahawks let him walk in free agency, it meant that Harvin was no longer a luxury like he was in 2013 when he missed most of the season. He was now a necessity for an offense that had just lost its leading receiver from the previous season. Now the Seahawks have neither. They also haven’t had their starting tight end Zach Miller, who went down with a season-ending ankle injury after the third game. Sidney Rice retired in training camp, too. Add all of that up and you have a much different cast of characters in Seattle’s passing game. Less experienced players have been forced into bigger roles, and I think we’re seeing the inevitable growing pains. Seattle’s pass protection has been better than it was a year ago, but Wilson still seems to be under pressure too often. He’s played well for the most part under the circumstances, but even he would admit that he hasn’t quite been himself over the last three games. In fairness, though, two of them were played in heavy rain and the other in sub-freezing temperatures, which is not exactly conducive to throwing the football or catching it for that matter. The Seahawks aren’t going to consistently put up huge numbers in the passing game. They’re just not built that way. But they need much more than what they’ve been getting.
Green: Time to give a score, eh? Well, these are two good teams who both want to win, but I’d say only one of them needs to win, and that’s Seattle. Not that the Cardinals will take them lightly or come out flat – because I don’t think a Bruce Arians team will ever do that. However, I have a hard time seeing Stanton going into CenturyLink Field and leading the Cards to a W. It will be close, but I’ll say: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 13.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put a helmet on in case Cards fans want to hurl objects in my general direction.
Henderson: I could see this game going either way. On one hand, the Cardinals are clearly playing better football and their aggressive defense poses problems given Seattle’s shaky pass protection. It certainly did in the second meeting between these teams last season. On the other hand, the Seahawks are awfully good at defending deep passes, which is a staple of Arizona’s offense. And while the Cardinals have proven that Seattle isn’t invincible at home, CenturyLink Field remains an exceedingly difficult environment for opponents, especially those with less experienced quarterbacks. So what’s the tiebreaker? I’ll go with the team that is more desperate to win, and with the Seahawks facing the possibility of falling four games back in the division, that’s certainly Seattle. Seahawks 24, Cardinals 17.