What to Watch was again focused on the Defense this week, so we’ll have a decidedly Offensive focus on our 3 Keys. If the Arizona run game can be held in check, the passing game has pretty much neutralized itself so far this year. Even with Kevin Pierre-Louis Out and Kam Chancellor Questionable, the talent on this Defense ought to be enough to handle the 2016 version of the Arizona Cardinals. However, the same could likely be said about the Arizona Defense handling the Offense of Seattle. If Seattle is to win, here are the keys to seeing that happen:
1. Handling the Heat (…and staying in the kitchen)
Arizona employs a group of big time athletes, and keeping those athletes off of Russell Wilson long enough to allow plays to happen will likely be the biggest factor in a Seahawks victory. If Seattle is going to win then we must see that the gains they have made over the last couple of weeks have had much more to do with the return of Germian Ifedi and sustainable playcalling help then simply the mirage of playing Defenses in the form of the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons that are just not very good and getting to the Quarterback. The Seahawks have risen from dead last in the NFL in Pass Blocking to the now moderately respectable rank of 18th according to Football Outsiders. That rise coincides with, among other things, this rise of Jimmy Graham and the return of Germain Ifedi. This makes sense for a few reasons, as the return of Ifedi moved a struggling J’Marcus Webb to the bench and took some pressure off of Justin Britt and the inconsistent Garry Gilliam. According to Football Outsiders the Jets are 16th and Falcons are 23rd in pass pressure, which is a far cry from the 8th ranking Cardinals. For comparison sake, the Seahawks are 7th in the same rankings. I don’t think anyone would be comfortable trusting the Seahawks Offensive Line against the Seahawks Defensive Line, so that should give you an idea of how to feel about this game. The good news though is that the Seahawks don’t need to keep the pocket as clean as the combined 3 sacks the last 2 games, they merely need to do better than the 5 sacks allowed to the Dolphin’s quality Defensive Line in Week 1. If Russell Wilson is able to run a little bit and the quick pass and run games are working to take some pressure off the line, the addition of Germain Ifedi and Christine Michael’s emergence as a very solid pass blocking Runningback should combine with those 2 TE sets the team is running more often and make for a better showing. Let’s face it, the more the team does to reduce the workload of Left Tackle Bradley Sowell, the better. Sowell has been statistically one of the worst starting Offensive Tackles in the NFL. Nick Vannett could also be something of a secret weapon as a plus blocking TE in this situation, which would be a boon to the team effort. If sacks can be limited to 3 or less and the rest of the Offense is functioning, that will play well to a win for Seattle.
2. Blow Up the Outside
The Offensive Line and scheme limiting pressure is one thing, but in order to score points you can’t just rely on preventing the negative play. Seattle will need to see production from the passing game against Arizona, and based on the strengths of the Arizona Defense that production likely needs to come from throws to the outside receivers. Jimmy Graham has been the heartbeat of the passing game the last few weeks, leading the team with 18 catches for 302 yards. That is all well and good, and Graham is unlikely to be fully shut out this week, but the Cardinals have been excellent against Tight Ends this season as they’ve held them to an average of just 27.7 yards on 5.9 targets per game. A big part of this is having hybrid Safety/Linebackers and freak athletes like Deone Bucannon who have the mixture of size and speed to prevent mismatches against TEs. However, Patrick Peterson is their top Corner and more of a playmaker than a shutdown guy, and injuries plus attrition leave Marcus Cooper, Justin Bethel, and rookie Brandon Williams trying to stop outside receivers. All this leads to very middling ranks of 14th vs WR1s (63yds/gm), 16th against WR2s (52.9 yds/gm), and 17th against other WRs (61.1yds/gm). That means Seattle’s best opportunity for big plays and scoring plays will come on throws to Wide Receivers. Doug Baldwin has been relatively quiet since his 8 catch 164 yard dismantling of the 49ers in Week 3, and Tyler Lockett hasn’t looked the same since he burned the Rams for 99 yards on just 4 catches in Week 2. The wonderful thing is that we know both of these receivers are able to get loose and make big plays any given week, so it is in no way a stretch to believe that one or both could break out against this Arizona Secondary. All of that is not to mention the ever-stable Jermaine Kearse and a player in Paul Richardson who is finally mostly healthy and has started to look like a real weapon in his limited snaps. Look for the passing game to show big with two of these receivers going off for 75 yards or more and a couple of touchdowns if Seattle pulls away with a win.
3. Run C-Mike, Run!
As mentioned in the first point, the ability to score feels like it will ultimately be what decides the fate of the Seahawks on Sunday. In order for that to happen, it requires exploiting a run stopping unit that thus far in the year has been the weaker unit for Arizona. However, that same running attack has been the weaker component for Seattle as well, so something will have to give here. That has partially changed with the return of Germain Ifedi at Right Guard, as in that time Seattle has moved into the top half of the NFL in success rate and yardage running to the right side. Run plays in the Guard/Tackle gap and runs to the outside on the right side are both averaging over 4 yards per carry, which is enough to work as the foundation of a solid running game. Actually, when it comes to having a solid running game Christine Michael has really shown himself to be a very capable back. He’s 9th in Success Rate among NFL Runningbacks with at least 48 rushes, gaining a positive result based on down and distance on 51% of his runs. That really confirms the eye test, as we’ve seen that despite lapses on the line and occasionally Defenders meeting C-Mike in the backfield, he is reeling off 4 and 5 yard runs at a very solid clip. The Cardinals rank out similarly (13th in DVOA) to the Rams (11th in DVOA) against the run, and in that game in Week 2 Christine Michael averaged 6 yards per carry with a long run of 16 yards. The difficulty was that he only received 10 carries in the game, as opposed to more committed running efforts against the 49ers (20 carries), Jets (18 carries), and Falcons (18 carries). If Russell Wilson is capable of taking off for yards or at least threatening with the Zone Read that will make a big difference for this Seattle Run Offense, but what remains the most important is simply the commitment to the run. Seattle needs to feed the ball to Christine Michael at least 18 times and keep the run game as a threat all 4 Quarters.