The Cardinals and the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks are set to meet Sunday in Seattle for a Clash of the Titans matchup. If the resilient Cardinals win this game, it will put them in control of the NFC West and one of the top two playoff berths, provided they don't have a total collapse over the rest of the season. For the Seahawks, there has to be an element of desperation surrounding this game; they have to know that if they lose at home to the Cardinals, their chances of making the playoffs drop dramatically. Both teams will lay it all on the line to try to get that dub on Sunday.
Here are the three questions that I think will be most important in determining the outcome of the game.
1. Can the Cardinals contain Russell Wilson?
Last week, Arizona held Lions quarterback Matt Stafford to less than 200 yards on 30 passing attempts, no touchdowns and an interception a 14-6 win. Yes, the Cardinals were at home, but they were effectively playing in a dome on field turf in conditions that should have favored Stafford in that offense. That is especially true when you consider the fact that it was Calvin "Megatron" Johnson's second game back, and he had 7 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown the week before that. The Cards held Johnson to five catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns. Golden Tate had two catches for 41 yards.
In other words, the Cardinals pass defense put the clamps on the Lions in a game between two division leaders vying for the top seed in the NFC.
Now take a look at the skill positions, other than running back, for the Seahawks and try to explain how Wilson will fare any better than Stafford this Sunday, home or not, in a game that could have major playoff implications for both teams. I've thought this over and I just don't see how Wilson can have a big day throwing to the likes of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson. Not when the Cardinals are going to be sending Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie and the rest out there to cover them.
Hey, I'm sure you're thinking, "well who gives a crap, the Seahawks have the No. 1 rushing offense in the league anyway!" I've thought that over too, but then you have to remember that the Cardinals also have the third-best defense in the league against the run.
The problem I see for the Seahawks is, no matter how well they run the ball, they will still have to find a way to move the chains with their passing game. It will all come down to what Wilson can do with his feet on passing downs as much it will what he's able to do with his arm.
I've written before about Wilson's uncanny ability to avoid pass rushers and break containment outside when he scrambles. I believe at the time I referred to him as a "wizard" while describing some of the ridiculous plays he made just to get to the perimeter of defenses specifically set up to not let him do that. With Wilson in their division, I'm positive the Cards know all about his running ability and also realize they can't let him outside this week. But it's one thing to know it and another to be able to do something about it.
Wilson breaking contain against the Cards would be very problematic for several reasons. First, the Cardinals blitz so much that, should Wilson find a way to escape outside, there is no telling how far away the next closest Cardinals defender will be. Peterson and Cromartie might be covering their asses off down field only to look up and see Wilson running for yet another first down. He sure isn't afraid to use his legs this year to make yards; he has rushed for over 70 yards in four different games already this year, going over the century mark three times.
Wilson buying time by running wide as opposed to right up the field also allows his receivers to break away from the defender and get open as the rest of the defense scrambles to adjust. It's hard enough these days for guys to cover downfield without getting a penalty for illegal contact or some other ticky-tack foul when the receivers are running normal routes. When they start scattering and breaking off their routes because the quarterback is scrambling, the pressure on the secondary to stay with those guys without committing a penalty will only intensify.
The problem for the Cardinals is that they don't have many guys who are adept at rushing the passer, or for that matter, anyone up front who's all that fast. Yeah, Alex Okafor has five sacks as an outside linebacker. That's great and everything, but they only have a total of 16 sacks as a team, which is probably why they blitz so much in the first place. On Sunday, the Cards had better find some magic of their own and keep Wilson in the pocket, blitzing or not, or it could be a very long day for that defense.
2. Will the Seahawks find a way to force some turnovers on defense?
Last season on their way to winning the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were plus-20 in turnover ratio for the season. That included 28 interceptions. This season, they only have six picks after 10 games. They also racked up 43 sacks as a team in 2013, many of which also led to turnovers. This season, they only have a measly 13 sacks after 10 games.
For a team that's built on running the ball and playing great defense, it's not hard to tell why they've struggled some this year after looking at those statistics. If they want to beat the Cardinals on Sunday, they're going to have to get back to taking the ball away. That's especially true knowing that their offense, which has been sputtering in recent weeks, and may struggle mightily to move the ball this week.
That means it's going to have to start up front for the Seahawks. Pressure is what led to a lot of those interceptions last year. There is always an opportunity to strip the quarterback when you get a sack. Seahawks defensive tackle Michael Bennett (who should still be wearing a Bucs uniform, and yes, I am still bitter about it) has been doing his thing this year. He has four sacks, but he is going to need some help!
Cliff Avril, with his meager two sacks, is going to have to get his ass off a milk carton. So is O'Brien Schofield, who plays defensive end opposite Avril on passing downs. That's the same Schofield who doesn't have a sack to his name this season. It's long past time for former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams to pick up the slack inside as well. Somebody is going to have to step up for the Seahawks to get back to playing their style of defense.
The Cardinals are going to be playing with a backup quarterback, and while Drew Stanton has looked good this year filling in for Carson Palmer, I have my doubts about whether he is really ready to play in the kind of atmosphere that awaits him at CenturyLink field. It's the perfect opportunity for the Seahawks to get back to doing what they do best, putting heat on the opposing quarterback and forcing him to make bad decisions with the ball. I can tell you this much, if Stanton isn't feeling uncomfortable in the pocket on Sunday, then I don't give the Cardinals much of a chance of winning that game.
3. How committed will Seattle be to running the ball?
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is where the rubber is going to meet the road. Knowing that the Seahawks have had their struggles in the passing game, I fully expect the Cardinals to load up the box against the run and dare them to throw the ball. They do have the kind of secondary that can go man across against almost anybody, especially a group of Seahawks wide receivers that is pretty average. What I'm interested to see is whether the Seahawks will stay true to their game plan and run the damn ball.
That's who the Seahawks are on offense: a running team. Handing the ball off to running back Marshawn Lynch is almost always their best option from play to play. But what happens if the Cardinals stuff him early on? Will the Seahawks panic and start trying to chuck the ball all over the field? Hell, for that matter will the Seahawks even come into the game trying to run the ball early or will they be scared off from watching the film? It's worth remembering that last season, Lynch never had more than 91 yards in either game against the Cardinals, and in the second game, which the Seahawks lost, he only had 17 carries.
In order to win, the Seahawks are going to have to give Lynch a minimum of 20 carries and probably closer to 25 carries. Even if he isn't getting yards early on, the way Lynch's punishing style can wear down any defense over the course of the game is key, as long as you keep feeding him. It may look like he is running right into a brick wall in the first half, but if the Seahawks stay committed to running the ball, eventually that brick wall will crack and crumble.
Now, that's easy for me to say from the comfort of my couch, but what happens if the Cardinals jump out early on offense and get up a touchdown or two? I'm just telling you that if the Seahawks deviate from feeding Lynch the ball, they aren't going to like the end result.
Conversely, if you are the Cardinals, you have to emphasize shutting down Lynch right off the bat. The more it looks like he isn't going to be able to break a big one, the more likely it is that the Seahawks will get panicked. Arizona would love to see the Seahawks try to open up their offense with their dearth of talented receivers, but the only way that's likely to happen is if the Cards can find a way to shut down Lynch down early in the game.
We are talking about the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL taking on the No. 3 rushing defense in the NFL; it should be an epic showdown. Whichever team comes out on top of that battle will likely win the game.