It’s good to be back after taking my own Week 9 Bye as there was no matchup to watch…or even game… Well, we’re back now and it is time to address one of the hot button issues for the Seattle Seahawks all season – the Offensive Line. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the progress the line has shown, and considering how bad they have been this year it is easy to believe that even a regression to the mean would be a positive move for the squad. If we are to test this theory of an improved Offensive Line, the D-Line for Arizona is a great team to test it against. The Cardinals don’t have a top defensive front, but they have a solidly above average one.
If the Seahawks are looking to win and close the gap in the division, this is a key game. A sweep of Arizona would be great, but at the very least Seattle has to expect to win the home half the of the season series. This is probably to biggest game of the year so far, and the ability of the Offensive Line to allow time for passes and space for runs is critical. Palmer and Chris Johnson can put up yardage, so Seattle knows it will need to score points.
So just how good is this Arizona D-Line? The verdict is still out a bit, though indications are that they are a quality run defense but the ability to rush the passer is a bit suspect. The Cardinals own just 13 sacks on the season, putting them 28th in adjusted sack rate at 4.2%. For some perspective, the last two teams the Seahawks played where the line is believed to have shown progress were against the San Francisco 49ers (16 sacks, 5.1% adjusted rate) and the Dallas Cowboys (14 sacks, 5.8% adjusted rate). Clearly rushing the passer is not the strength of this line.
So how do they stand up against the run then? That is a completely different story. The Cardinals’ D-Line ranked 2nd in run stuff % and comfortably in the top 5 in yards per carry for runningbacks. Net total they are looking like an easy top 5 run defense, which ought to match up in interesting ways with a Seattle run offense that currently ranks 9th in efficiency in the NFL.
If you are talking about the Defensive Line and especially the Pass Rush for the Arizona Cardinals, that conversation centers around Calais Campbell. The freak of nature beastly lineman is without a doubt the most dangerous weapon along the line for Arizona, but so far this is registering as a down season for him. Campbell has just 1.5 sacks on the year and has yet to create a turnover. He does have 8 run stuffs and a pass defensed, but those are not the big plays that this defense needs him to generate. Though the spike in run stuffs are a great sign, he is on pace for 3.0 sacks, which would be his lowest total since his rookie year and half of his previous low of 6.0 (2010). This would also represent just the second season in his career without a forced fumble or a fumble recovery. There are two ways to think about this – either Campbell is having an off season that will continue to be off or he is a beast that is due to awaken from his slumber in the second half and turn in some big games. If this is one of those games, he is too much of an athlete for even an improved Seattle O-Line to fully stop.
The other players along the line are fine, but don’t represent a big threat. They are fairly capable and functional, but not exceptional football players. Frostee Rucker has a pair of sacks on the year and plays well, though in 5 career games he has only 1 sack against the Seahawks and never has had an impressive game in Seattle. Corey Peters at NT in their 3-4 is a fine player, but he is no more than serviceable and offers little in the way of pass rush (11 career sacks in 6 seasons). Alex Okafor is their primary pass rushing LB and he has been hampered by a calf injury this year and his effectiveness may be limited. He had a couple sacks in 2014 against the Seahawks, but if he isn’t 100% he may not be a big threat.
So we have established that the Arizona Cardinals will be testing the ability of the Seattle O-Line to open up holes in the running game. We also can figure that if the Seattle O-Line has truly gained momentum and improved play in pass blocking they ought to keep it up against an Arizona D that ranks worse than Dallas and San Francisco in pass rush despite playing arguably a weaker schedule than either other team.
How about that improved pass blocking? Well, there is something to that after all. After allowing 4.4 sacks per game over the first 5 games of the year, they have averaged 3.0 allowed the last 3 games. That number is of course heavily impacted by the 0 sacks allowed against Dallas, but it still does show an improvement. Right now they are giving up 3.9 sacks per game on the year which is dead last, but that 3.0 number is very close to the 2.7 that they allowed last year when the line was good enough to get them to the Super Bowl. The mix of the team playing as well as it has all year in pass protection and facing an Arizona team that just hasn’t been bringing the heat this year feels like a net advantage for Seattle.
How about the running game? As mentioned above, Seattle ranked 9th in rushing efficiency this year. That is respectable, and looks even better when you consider they were without Marshawn Lynch for part or all of 4 games so far. If Russell Okung and Marshawn Lynch are feeling better, they look a lot more like that top 5 rushing offense we know and love. If you look at the lone top 10 run offense that Arizona faced this year in the form of the Steelers, they held Le’Veon Bell relatively in check at 3.7 YPC but were GASHED by Michael Vick for 9.4 YPC on 5 runs. Behind this line the Seahawks Runningbacks rank in the top 15 overall in productivity (RB carry yards, stuffs). So this is a team than can clearly run the ball well enough to challenge Arizona, especially if Russell Wilson is able to get loose the way Michael Vick did in Week 6.
All of this is without looking at other positives you may see along the line. Garry Gilliam has been almost impossibly bad at RT so far this year, and as he has been a project and now had two weeks of what we hope has been intense coaching by Tom Cable to prepare him for the second half it seems nearly impossible that he would be just as bad from here out. I am not saying he will become an All Pro over night, but something closer to 2014 Justin Britt would even be a massive improvement. Okung is healthy again, which gives us our best player on the line once again. Additionally, the coaching staff seems to have a lot of belief in Patrick Lewis, who has been plagued by injuries this year that have kept him off the field even after winning the starting job a few weeks ago. If a change in Centers to a player who is more experienced on the O-Line leads to better communication that could be a source of considerable change as well. After dealing Unger a lot more pressure fell on Russell Wilson to handle line adjustments for pressures, but having a player like Lewis around may ease some of that burden that must be acutely felt with Justin Britt adjusting to the move inside and JR Sweezy still a converted D-Lineman with just 4 years experience on offense.
For Arizona to win this matchup it would require a breakdown by the Seattle O-Line. The run offense and defense really cancel each other out in this game. If Russell Wilson really puts it to the Cardinals, or Marshawn rips off a long run it could change the numbers a lot, but I really see one of those 3.5 or so yards per carry games where the running works but doesn’t really carry the offense. This one is coming down to whether or not Seattle can stop the pass rush or Arizona can put one together. We all know that the blitz is going to be coming all day (Arizona blitzes on 44% of pass plays on the season), and the stats have shown Seattle’s struggle against the blitz (26th in yards per attempt against the blitz). One of those has got to give this week, with either the Cardinals getting to Russell Wilson or Russ and the line handling the blitz and putting up numbers and points.
If I had to bet, based on the dual threat nature of Russell and the weapons he has available, my money would be on Seattle.