I know, I know…people are wondering when we are going to get to the Offense again on one of these What to Watch articles. Well, the fact of the matter is that with Russell Wilson having been hurt and Germaine Ifedi just coming back, along with the early season question mark around the Jimmy Graham and Runningback situations, it is taking some time to nail down the Offense. There are numbers like a 17th overall Offensive DVOA and 8th ranked Run game, but what do these really tell us right now? I promise I will get to those soon, but there are just so many tasty morsels to look at on the Defensive side of the ball. Have you seen this team play? The Defense is REALLY good.
It is this fabulous Seattle Seahawks Defense we will look at once again, and how it will attempt to slow down or perhaps even stop the surprisingly run oriented Arizona Cardinals. A shift in philosophy and personnel makes this the ultimate Strength vs Strength matchup in the NFL for Week 7.
The Arizona Cardinals started the season 1-3 with losses to the Patriots, Bills, and Rams while only having defeated a struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad. In those games David Johnson averaged 16 carries. They have since beaten the 49ers and Jets in back to back weeks with David Johnson carrying the ball for an average of 24.5 times per game. That is a significant increase in touches, and when factoring in quality of opponent he has really been consistent throughout the season is what he is doing with those touches. Johnson is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, running for 8 touchdowns. He has broken off longer runs of 58 and 45 yards, but he mostly has a lot of 4 to 10 yard carries that help an Offense chew up field and sustain a drive. All of this has come together with contributions from talented backups Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington to make up the 6th best Rushing attack according to Pro Football Outsiders efficiency numbers.
Aside from having one of the top Runningbacks in the league in the form of David Johnson, it has been their Offensive Line that has played perhaps the biggest role in this change. As Carson Palmer has struggled with accuracy, his line has played fairly middling quality Pass Blocking. They’ve allowed 13 sacks and sit squarely in the middle of the league, though one has to figure that number is slightly higher because of the team’s tendency to attempt longer developing down field passes. As a Run Blocking line though, the Cardinals’ squad has been one of the very best in the league. They rank 2nd in adjusted line yards with 4.39, and 1st in Power Running Success Rate. This tells you that the key to a lot of the success in the run game comes from Johnson moving through the line untouched as he makes his way to longer rushes. They are 12th in Stuff Rate, which means they do get their fair share of neutral or negative plays, but when they are able the seal things off the runs regularly go for good yardage.
A quick look at the numbers also tells you where Arizona is and is not seeing success on the ground. They are 4th in runs off the left side, gaining nearly 6 yards per attempt. This makes a lot of sense considering the above average speed in their backfield. However they are also 27th in the league over the right side. What is the difference? First is the Jared Veldheer / Mike Iupati combo on the left side that brings size and movement in a mobile outside blocking scheme. Even John Wetzel has been very good at this aspect of his game filling in for Iupati while injured. On the right side is DJ Humphries, who essentially redshirted last year and is likely the weak link on this line. However, this team isn’t a one trick pony. They are #1 in the NFL in yards to the Guard/Tackle gap on the right side, and rank 10th and 11th going to the Guard/Tackle and either Zero gap (between Guard and Center). So here were have that right side showing strong. The difference? Running to the outside on the right relies on the Tackle (DJ Humphries) being mobile and clearing out space along the edge. If the Runningback is cutting inside, he just needs to occupy his man with power and turn him to the outside, a much smaller ask.
This run game is not without flaws, but clearly for teams to have success they need to limit the touches that David Johnson is going to get by getting a big enough lead to force the Cardinals to throw, and rely on getting a good number of those run stuffs.
Arizona has played the Patriots (7th), Buccaneers (14th), Bills (12th), Rams (11th), 49ers (28th), and Jets (5th) Run Defenses so far this season. This week they will play a Seattle Seahawks Run Defense that is elite, ranking 2nd according to Football Outsiders, and surrendering a minuscule 74.6 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry (good enough for 2nd in the NFL). They are allowing just 3.2 line adjusted yards, and are allowing next to nothing once teams reach the 2nd level. Statistics tell us that this team may not be stuffing the run with their line, but the Linebackers and Defensive Backs are making plays. However, this is one of those places where going to the tape will really help explain what is happening even better.
The 3 primary players rotating snaps at Defensive Tackle for the 2016 Seattle Seahawks are Ahtyba Rubin (6’3, 330lbs), Jarran Reed (6’3, 307lbs), and Tony McDaniel (6’7, 305lbs). These are three mammoth players who know how to use their size and strength to bully Offensive Linemen and demand double teams. One of the most promising things I have seen this year came in Week 6 against the Atlanta Falcons, when I saw rookie Jarran Reed routinely getting double teamed in the run game. The fact that Reed is demanding this level of respect already from Offenses is very promising, because that is the key to the numbers you saw above. Runningbacks are getting nothing against Seattle Linebackers and Defensive Backs because 2-3 Seattle Defensive Linemen are demanding double teams and that frees up those other players to pursue the ball carrier unblocked. Throw in long armed and physical edge players like Michael Bennett, Frank Clark, and Cassius Marsh, and you can see why this front is giving other teams fits.
With the front 4 requiring so much attention from linemen, that means Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas are allowed to do what they are all great at – read the play and respond. With blockers having to put so much effort into the players directly in front of them you are seeing guys like Wagner streak into the gap or shuffle and slide along the line as the Runningback looks for any room to cut for positive yards, often being met in the hole by a Linebacker or a Safety who wraps them up as the rest of the team converges. This recipe has allowed them to hold Devonta Freeman to 2.9 yards per carry, Matt Forte to 1.9, Todd Gurley to 2.7, and Arian Foster to 2.9. The only primary Runningback to get over 3 yards per carry was Carlos Hyde of the 49ers at 4.9, but that required a heavy dose of garbage time carries against backups when the game was already decided. This is the same formula that worked to perfection for those talented Baltimore Ravens Defenses of the 2000’s, and so far this year the Seahawks are executing it to perfection.
So once again, this is strength vs strength. This is a big test for a Cardinals team that still hasn’t really shown up big against a quality Run Defense, but seems to have all the pieces to make it happen. This would be a big notch on the belt for a very good Seattle Seahawks Run Defense that has already faced some teams that were having success. The matchup does appear to slightly favor Seattle when this all washes out, but it will be key in deciding the outcome on Sunday Night. If the Cardinals Run Offense can get going and milk the clock, it will take pressure off of Carson Palmer and reduce the number of points they need to score at home to come away with the victory. That feels like a game the Cardinals can win close. However, if David Johnson and the Offensive Line can’t get it going against the massive wall of humanity that is the Front 4 for Seattle, then you have an inaccurate Carson Palmer with a middling Pass Blocking Offensive Line trying to throw down the field against the Legion of Boom. That certainly would bode well for a Seattle victory.