With Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith, the Cardinals have two of the hardest hitting, most versatile safeties in the NFL. Everyone is anxious to see how good Antrel Rolle can be. The players that could make a difference are David Macklin, Robert Tate, and Eric Green. All three are excellent #3 cornerbacks and could be a mediocre #2 for most teams in the league. Macklin just happens to be the actual #2 for the Cardinals.
While they have a number of very talented pass catchers, Seattle lacks that one guy that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. Since Seattle's receivers and Arizona's "other three" are essentially interchangeable, both sides will have the ability to mix and match in formations and try to find the best individual match-ups. Who wins these individual match-ups will go a long way in determining who wins the game.
Matt Hasselback is very much a rhythm passer. If he gets into an early rhythm and begins to complete passes at will, it's over. In order to keep the score within reason, Arizona needs to cover tight and close to the line of scrimmage, with a maximum of a five yard cushion on Seattle's receivers. They need to play either flawless man coverage, or completely cover their zones. They also need to tackle the receiver immediately, since the Seahawks gain an awful lot of yards after the catch as a team. Since Seattle tends to only stretch the field vertically off of play action or to exploit a very favorable match-up, the Cardinals need to guard against the short catch, tackle the Seahawks receivers, and make Seattle work to drive down the field. In an offense that is entirely dependent on timing, it is very difficult to run the offense perfectly over 12, 13, or 18 plays and sustain a drive. If Seattle has to work and sustain long drives to score, they will not be as effective.
While it is doubtful that Seattle will attempt to go over the top early in the game without the benefit of play action, it is imperative that Wilson and Griffith keep an eye on the deep zones and allow the linebackers to the fill the lanes in the short and intermediate routes (more on this later). And, obviously, it is of the utmost importance that the secondary support against the run in an attempt to stop Seattle's most lethal weapon on offense; Shaun Alexander.
Seattle, even without All Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, still has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Floyd Womack has filled in well for Hutchinson and, inside-out, they are solid with Robbie Tobeck at center and arguably the two best players at their positions in RT Sean Locklear and perennial All Pro Walter Jones at LT. While the Cardinals have two excellent ends in Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor, they are nowhere near as strong up the middle with run specialist Kendrick Clancy and a host of other tackles that includes physically gifted but maddeningly inconsistent rookie Gabe Watson.
In the running game, Arizona is thoroughly overmatched. Jones and Locklear are better players than Berry and Okaefor and the interior of Seattle's line is far superior to Arizona's tackles, with or without Hutchinson. The bright side of all of this is that Seattle's line is considerably better than most defensive lines in the NFL. And, they're worlds apart and above the talent level of Detroit's line, who shut down Seattle's running game in Week 1. In fact, the last two teams to contain Shaun Alexander (Pittsburgh and Detroit) have one thing in common: Excellent coaching. While not the most physically gifted of defensive lines in the NFL, these two teams have had success against the Seahawks and Alexander for one reason: Gap Discipline.
Detroit Head Coach Rod Marinelli used to coach the defensive line in Tampa Bay, so he knows how to instruct his charges to maintain their responsibilities and gaps at the point of attack to allow the linebackers to flow to the ball and make the tackle. While Clancy learned a great deal about this critical aspect of run support from his days in Pittsburgh (and with the New York Giants under former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis), the rest of the line's skill set is focused primarily on rushing the passer.
Seattle's running game keys off of Alexander's ability to lead the defense to one side of the field, then suddenly cutting back to the strong side of the formation on counters and cut-backs (remember that from the Offensive Preview?) In order to slow Alexander, Arizona's linemen need to stay disciplined in their gaps and win the battles at the point of attack. Since everyone knows that the Seahawks have (or had) the best left side in the NFL, they've been incredibly successful starting left (to the weak side) and countering or cutting back (to the strong side). The most critical aspect of this game will be the ability of the Cardinals' linemen to hold their blocks and allow the linebackers and secondary to come in and make the tackle. It's also important to remember the that strong side linebacker and the middle linebacker, as well as the free safety are responsible for staying at home and making the play on Alexander when he brings the play back to them.
In the passing game, the line needs to attack and try to collapse the pocket, as Hasselback tends to skip his feet when he gets pressured up the middle. If they're unable to get pressure because they're on the wrong side of the talent match-up, they need to push as far as they can and get their hands up. The key to stopping any West Coast (or West Coast derivative) Offense is to disrupt their timing. Tipped passes, pressure up the middle to affect Hasselback's footwork, and forcing a throw to the "hot" receiver" or any throw prematurely will bring Seattle's offense out its comfort zone.
Two words: Discipline and Tackling. The linebackers need to maintain their lanes, cover the strong side and the weak side against the run, and make sure they tackle Alexander when they get a shot at him. While the line is tasked with the responsibility of putting the linebackers in the position to make plays, the linebackers need to make them. If not, Alexander will have a huge day, Seattle will build an early lead, and the defense and the crowd will take over.
In the passing game, the keys are discipline and well-timed blitzes. The linebackers need to fill short and intermediate zones (especially the short zones) and prevent Hasselback from playing pitch and catch with his talented corps of receivers. When they do blitz, it needs to be a calculated risk and the blitz needs to come from Darryl Blackstock or Adrian Wilson, who are the best suited members of the back seven to rush the passer. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast needs to stay focused and encourage his unit to stay the course. The best way to get beat by the Seahawks and their potent passing attack is to over-blitz and be too aggressive. Their protection is too sound and Hasselback and Holmgren are too smart for that tactic to work.
The defensive line needs to maintain their gaps and hold at the point of attack, allowing the linebackers and safeties to make plays in the running game. The linebackers and safeties need to make those plays when given the opportunity and not allow Alexander to get too far past the line of scrimmage.
In the passing game, the front four needs to be able to find a way to crash the pocket and bring pressure up the middle through stunts or pure hustle. Blitzing needs to be tempered and only used when necessary to create pressure that the front four cannot deliver. In order to force the Seahawks to continually execute and work to drive down the field, the linebackers and secondary need to stay true to their zones and responsibilities and execute nearly to perfection.
The key to the game will be to get Seattle off the field quickly early in the game and disrupt Hasselback's rhythm and Alexander's effectiveness. If Hasselback is able to get into an early rhythm and Alexander is free to counter and cut-back for huge gains, gouging Arizona's defense, it's going to be a long day for the Cardinals. The more uncomfortable they can make Seattle's offense in the early going, the bigger the dividends paid in the second half.
When up against considerable odds, you need to take a chance. Less blitzing and more gap control might just be the chance that helps the Cardinals defeat the Seahawks.