3TFO: Seahawks @ Cardinals, Week 7
It’s Week 7 in the NFL and we kick off with a matchup of NFC West rivals. Admittedly it wasn’t much of a rivalry in the teams’ most recent contest last December in Seattle, when the Seahawks ran roughshod over Arizona in stunning fashion, 58-0. The Cardinals get a chance at redemption Thursday at home in their only nationally televised game of the year, although they come in having lost seven straight division games in the tough West.
Seattle managed a solid if unspectacular performance last week at home against Tennessee, defeating the Titans 20-13. The offense didn’t put up big numbers, but they were reasonably efficient, while the defense held the Titans to 6 points — the Titans found the end zone thanks to a special teams gaffe from a Seattle field goal attempt-turned-scramble drill as the first-half expired.
Arizona returns from a bruising 32-20 loss to the other NFC West heavyweight, the 49ers, with pretty much the same script as their other losses. The defense plays well (aside from another tight end running wild), but can’t overcome all the mistakes from Carson Palmer and the Cardinals’ offense. Thanks to the NFL schedule-makers, they get all of three days to rest up for another physical division matchup. All that being said, let’s take a look at some of the players who could make the difference in the game.
Marshawn Lynch (+3.6) has had another solid season so far, despite poor play from his beat-up offensive line. His play has lived up to his pounding ‘Beast Mode’ moniker, with 285 of 485 rushing yards coming after contact. Lynch has forced 29 missed tackles so far, 20 on the right side where he likes to run more often. He has 67 carries for 279 yards running to the right, with 207 yards on 50 carries running left. It will be up to him to establish a ground game and open up the play action for Russell Wilson. Wilson leads all quarterbacks by running play action 38.1 percent of the time, and it obviously helps, as his QB rating is 36 points higher when he does.
Containing Lynch will require leaning on an Arizona run defense that held Frank Gore in check for three quarters before succumbing to an 18-play drive that effectively put the game out of reach, highlighted by several punishing runs from Gore and Kendall Hunter. Cardinals linebacker Jasper Brinkley leads all NFL LBs with a +9.3 run defense grade, by far the highest on the team (Matt Shaughnessy is next at +4.6). Expect to see Brinkley on the field a little more often after getting only 13 snaps against the Niners. He is limited athletically however, and it’s hard to take either Karlos Dansby or Daryl Washington off the field given their more dynamic skills. Safety/slot corner Tyrann Mathieu is fourth in Cornerback Run Stop Percentage and has 11 stops on defense, so expect him to be a factor as well. Defensive end Calais Campbell is the Cardinals’ highest graded defender overall, but is questionable to play after a scary injury in San Francisco where he was carted off the field with numbness in his extremities. The Cardinals have just six missed tackles in their past three games (after 31 in their first three), and they’ll have to keep that up if they want to hold Lynch in check Thursday night.
Seattle Offensive Line
For a team seen as a strong Super Bowl contender, the Seahawks’ offensive line has really gotten off to a bad start. No doubt injuries have played a part, with left tackle Russell Okung on IR, right tackle Breno Giacomini missing several weeks after having his knee scoped, and center Max Unger just returning Sunday against Tennessee. Paul McQuistan, playing out of position for Okung, has been the biggest culprit with an awful -13.9 overall grade, but he is hardly the only one having problems. The line as a whole (and tight ends) have combined for a -21.9 grade in run blocking, which makes Lynch’s performance all the more significant (and impressive). Pass blocking hasn’t been any better, where they rank 29th in Pass Blocking Efficiency at 70.6.
Wilson has managed just a 51.9% Completion Percentage Under Pressure, so disrupting his rhythm will be key to the Cardinals’ chances of shutting down the passing game. It can also complicate things though, as Wilson is one of the best at scrambling out of trouble. He has 50 runs for 294 yards this season, and Arizona will need to temper its pass rush with containment, which they have done well the last two weeks against Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Look for the athletic Washington to act as a spy from time to time.
Arizona Running Game
With the worst pass protection in the league (32nd in our PBE) and a quarterback in Carson Palmer who continues to turn the ball over (and miss open receivers) at an alarming rate, it will be contingent on the Cardinals’ running game to establish balance when Arizona has the ball. This will hopefully take pressure off Palmer and prevent the Seattle defense from teeing off on him. Look for Arizona to try and pound it up the middle with Rashad Mendenhall, and then design plays to get Andre Ellington in space, be it running, catching out of the backfield, and even lining up wide sometimes. Their most sustained success in San Francisco came once they made a determined effort to run the ball, rather than just throw in a run here or there to keep the defense honest. Ellington especially has been a terrific find for the Cardinals in the sixth round, grading in at +6.9, with 176 yards on just 25 carries, as he has been worked slowly into the offense behind Mendenhall. He continues to climb our Elusive Rating and Breakaway Percentage lists, although it’s still not clear if he can hold up physically to being an every-down back.
Running against Seattle won’t be easy, as the Seahawk defense has racked up 134 total stops (tackles constituting an offensive failure), led by defensive tackle Brandon Mebane’s ungodly +14.3 in rush defense. The defensive ends have also been strong in run support, with Michael Bennett (+6.2) and Red Bryant (+6.1) leading the way. The linebacking corps hasn’t been as stout as the line, as last year’s rookie phenom Bobby Wagner has had a little sophomore slump in the middle, grading at -1.1 against the run in 2013 after such an impressive +11.5 last year. Weakside LB K.J. Wright has been the biggest liability, at –4.9 against the rush. Last week this defense held Chris Johnson to 33 yards on 12 carries, and if they repeat that sort of performance, it will be a long night for the Cardinals’ offense.
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