The Final Cut: Cardinals vs. Seahawks:
This week, the Cardinals travel to the Pacific Northwest to take on the 800 pound gorilla in the division, defending NFC and division champion Seattle. How can the Redbirds, a perennial cellar dweller have a chance to compete against their juggernaut rival? The answer is simple: Match-ups.
Neither team has a marquee name on their return team. Troy Walters and J.J. Arrington handle kickoffs for the Cardinals, while Jimmy Williams (not the guy that played for Virginia Tech last year, someone else name Jimmy Williams) and Maurice Morris field kicks for the Seahawks. A couple of back-up running backs, a fourth string receiver, and a fifth string cornerback aren't exactly the caliber of players that cause coverage units fits, so don't be surprised if the kicking game isn't a deciding factor on Sunday. Arizona may have a slight edge on kickoffs, since J.J. Arrington has been desperate to prove to the Cardinals that he deserves a roster spot ever since they signed Edgerrin James.
Walters handles punts for the Cards, Williams handles punts for the Hawks. Again, nothing too significant about this match-up.
Where the Seahawks have a decided advantage is in their coverage unit vs. Arizona's return unit and vice versa. Since Seattle is a very good team with a ton of quality depth, they have talented players on their coverage and return units. The Cardinals have very limited depth, except at wide receiver, so their special teams guys aren't as accomplished or likely to author a game breaking play. And, as evaluations of special teams units go, both teams are considered average to good. Therefore, either team, or both teams might have a long return in the game, but the outcome will ultimately be decided by the two other facets of a football game; offense and defense (they're generally more important, which is why we covered them first).
Josh Brown is a fine kicker, but he's no Neil Rackers. It probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone that the Cardinals hold a pretty serious edge here, given that they have a Pro Bowler at the position and Seattle does not. However, it's unlikely that what's keeping Mike Holmgren up at night is that his team is overmatched at the place kicker position. Scott Player handles punting duties for the Cardinals, rookie Ryan Plackemeier takes over for the departed Tom Rouen. Player is more of a directional punter, while Plackemeier (don't really know anything about him, just working off a pretty valid assumption) is young. Young = strong leg, poor placement skills. While he may be able to boom the ball 60 yards down the field, it's likely going to fly straight to the returner, giving him a better chance to run the ball back. This points to a fairly substantial advantage in field position for Arizona, which is mostly definitely significant.
The thing to remember, though, is that if Rackers and Player get a lot of work in this game, the Cardinals are going to lose. Rackers got a lot of work last year and that didn't pan out so well for the Red Birds. Arizona ranked dead last in Red Zone Efficiency last year. Seattle was among the top teams in the league. When both teams were inside the 10, the disparity was even greater. In order to win, the Cardinals need to finish drives and score touchdowns. If they constantly settle for field goals, they're going to come up on the short side of the scoreboard, since the Seahawks specialize in finishing drives and scoring touchdowns. Once again, it all breaks down to discipline.
Most red zone touchdowns are scored when a defensive player tries to "be a hero" and gets caught up in play action or over-pursuing the play. The one fact that most defenses seem to overlook is that they have a tremendous advantage over the offense in the red zone: They only have to protect 1/5 of the field, but they're still allowed to keep the same number of players on the field. The key when you get in close is to stick to your assignment, make sure you wrap up the ballcarrier, and don't commit any stupid penalties. Which, to belabor the point, takes discipline.
On offense, Arizona needs to come out throwing timing patterns and intermediate routes, while balancing it with a few draws, counters, and cut-backs. Once they've loosened up Seattle's front seven, they can go back to running some of the slant and stretch plays that they prefer; hopefully to protect a lead. It's critical that the Cardinals get out to an early lead and quiet the home crowd. The crowd's psyche is the easiest factor in a game to control and the best way to crush it is to jump up on the home team 14-0 in the first quarter.
On defense, they need to maintain their gaps, stay in their zones, and tackle anyone that comes near them (provided that person has the ball). Pendergast needs to ration his blitzes and wait for the right opportunity to pounce. The good news is that Karlos Dansby, one of the better pass rushers the Cardinals employ, is going to be active for this game. He doesn't have a position as yet, but he'll be active. Pendergast can use him, Blackstock, and Wilson as his secret weapons, only to be employed in critical situations where he needs to "make something happen." Also, if he is judicious with his blitzing, he can keep Hasselback and Seattle's potent offense off balance.
Last time this is going to be mentioned: Discipline. You don't beat a talented, well coached, focused, disciplined, intelligent team like Seattle on the road by taking a lot of foolish chances throwing deep on every down and blitzing like crazy. Going with that game plan is like trying to convince your grandmother that The Great Depression wasn't that bad. You might make some valid and passionate arguments and raise some valid points, but you'll ultimately fail. Miserably. Therefore, everyone needs to stick to their assignments and make Seattle work to beat them. Eventually, although it's possible this might never happen, Seattle will lapse and the Cardinals need to take full advantage of it. Ask Detroit. Ask Pittsburgh.
I still don't think they have enough. Seattle is most likely very upset about their performance last week. They're at home. It's a division game. And, those intangibles aside, they're a much better team than Arizona. Although the Cardinals do seem to be very focused and intense at the moment, I have serious concerns about how much of that focus and intensity will wilt when they're faced with this team, this crowd, and these odds.
While I believe a victory on Sunday will earn the Cardinals a great deal of respect and an early advantage in their division, I just can't see it happening on Sunday. They don't seem ready. If they had throttled the 49ers at home last week and handily closed out their early lead, I'd be a little more confident. There's a lot at stake and it will all come down to their ability to handle the pressure and rise to the occasion. They're too young. They've been part of a losing program for too long. And Seattle, quite frankly, is too tough and too motivated at this point.
We'll see what happens in December.
Seattle 28, Arizona 17