While Anquan Boldin struggled last week against the Rams, he's still a key player in the best three wide receiver threat in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald seems to be fully recovered from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for a few games earlier in the season. Bryant Johnson has the best long speed of the three, but is usually overshadowed by his more talented teammates.
It has become abundantly clear that Troy Walters and Leonard Pope are no longer part of the game plan on offense. At least for this season. Pope may develop into a great player and red zone threat with his tremendous size and ball skills, but it doesn't look as though it's going to happen this year.
Marcus Trufant is by far the most skilled player in the Seattle secondary. Teams have been challenging him early on in games and have gotten burned. Since Seattle generally plays straight defense with mostly zone coverages, it would be in the Cardinals best interest to get Johnson (or better yet, Walters) matched up against Trufant. While that will effectively take one of the two men out of the game, Arizona can afford to lose Johnson's or Walters' production more than they can afford to give up Boldin or Fitzgerald.
Aside from Trufant, we have the two Kellys, Kelly Herndon and rookie Kelly Jennings at cornerback. While it would seem to most that having two guys named "Kelly" on your defense would be a sure sign of weakness, Herndon and Jennings are both above average players. The point is that they're not as good as Trufant and certainly not at the same level as Boldin or Fitzgerald. If the Cardinals are able to overload the left side of the field, with Boldin and Fitzgerald on the opposite side of Trufant, matched up against Herndon and Jennings, Arizona will be successful in the passing game. If they are unable to do this, it could be a long day of watching Trufant making plays against Boldin and Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, though, the passing game's success will depend upon what the Cardinals were unable to do in the first meeting in Seattle - protect the quarterback. In this case, Matt Leinart, not Kurt Warner.
I will take a step back from my harsh criticisms of Arizona's offensive line for a moment and admit that they seem to have finally found the right combination in Leonard Davis, Milford Brown, Nick Leckey, Deuce Lutui, and Reggie Wells. Some of the guys are playing out of position, some are new to the team, Lutui's a rookie, but it seems to have worked the last few games. That's the good news.
The bad news is that they haven't yet encountered a front four (and, more importantly in the run game, a front seven) like Seattle's.
A unit whose sum is definitely greater than its parts, Grant Wistrom, Rocky Bernard, Chuck Darby, and Bryce Fisher, do an exceptional job of holding at the point of attack in the run game and collapsing the pocket in the passing game. While there are a number of talented players on this line (including the two guys they rotate in to keep Darby and Bernard fresh), the front seven keys off of its exceptional linebackers. Lofa Tatupu is the center of the unit and covers a lot of ground, from the secondary to the backfield to the quarterback. New addition Julian Peterson is a versatile former Pro Bowler that can play the run, cover tight ends and backs, and rush the passer. If second year standout LeRoy Hill is often overlooked by the public, but not by the scout team.
One big key to this game for Arizona's offense will be the offensive line's ability to get Edgerrin James past the front seven and into the secondary. Seattle's secondary is very suspect in run support. Strong Safety Jordan Babineaux was drafted as a cornerback and Free Safety Ken Hamlin still doesn't seem to have recovered from the trauma he suffered last year outside a Seattle night club.
In addition, the Seahawks are going to break the heat from all angles, mostly with their front four, Tatupu, and Peterson. Peterson is probably their best pass rusher and is used early and often in Seattle's blitz schemes. Leinart needs to be able to diagnose where the pressure is coming from at the line of scrimmage and adjust. But, more importantly, the offensive line needs to continue the great run that they're on (only four sacks yielded in the last four games). Not only can the Cardinals gain yards through the air on the hot read in the hole created by a blitzing Peterson or Tatupu, but they should also be able to get big gains over the top against Seattle's suspect safeties.
The key to that will be establishing the running game, slowing down the pass rush, and using effective play action so that Leinart has time for his receivers to get open deep.
Edge will not run for 100 yards in this game. Not even with the "new and improved" offensive line. Not against this defense. He can, however, have enough success to keep the defense honest. Especially if the Cardinals come out throwing, but stay committed to the run.
James excels at running the stretch and slant plays. Unfortunately, Seattle is too fast, too talented, too smart, and, frankly, too much better than Arizona's offensive line for the Cardinals to be successful running the slant and stretch out of a one back look.
While they're a far cry from their league-leading 50 sacks last season, the Seahawks can definitely rush the quarterback. James will be important as an extra blocker in pass protection. Where he will be more important, though, is in the running game. The best way to defeat a defensive line that is trying to kill the quarterback is to run right at them. By running into the teeth of Seattle's defense, they may not gain a lot of yards in the early going, but it will have a cumulative effect as the game wears on on the pass rush.
Edgerrin James does not need to win this game on his own. He just needs to do his thing, get his yards, and keep the defense honest. His real contribution to the game will be when the Cardinals use him as a decoy and when they run misdirection plays with him.
The Cardinals need to play to their strengths in the early going. They need to come out of the gate throwing in an attempt to back Seattle's front seven off the line of scrimmage. With quick timing passes to the receivers, screens, and draw plays, they'll be able to take some of the fury out of Seattle's pursuit. From there, with more room to operate, they should have more success running the slant and stretch plays that James prefers, since the defense will be less likely to be aggressive and attacking, preferring to take a more tentative approach. And, if the Seahawks begin to crowd the line of scrimmage, Dennis Green and Matt Leinart are more than able to dial up a few deep passes, especially off of play-action.
Above all, the receivers need to do what they failed to do in the first meeting: Be physical and aggressive versus Seattle's undersized, poor tackling secondary. When Fitzgerald and Boldin catch slants and slip screens, they need to look for someone to hit, not worry about getting punished themselves. In the running game, they need to lock down on Trufant, Herdon, and Jennings and push them off the line of scrimmage. The more than can abuse men that are, on average, four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than them, the better. Seattle's biggest weakness in pass defense is that their defensive backs can be intimidated and out-muscled. If Arizona's trio of big men can establish a physical style of play early in the game, they can watch as Seattle's secondary wilts and shies away from contact in the fourth quarter. All the evidence you need to see of this is Brandon Marshall's 71-yard catch-and-run against the Broncos.
Where Seattle's run defense is vulnerable is in their tendency to over-pursue and be too aggressive in their quest to tackle the ball carrier. The best way to take advantage of this is to run cut-backs and counters against the flow of the play. The Seahawks will crowd the area where the play was headed, while James will follow the pulling guard to where the play is going. Watch the Super Bowl and see if you notice that the 75-yard touchdown run Willie Parker had was a counter play. Look at all the yards Tatum and Mike Bell were able to gain running behind Denver's zone blocking schemes, cutting back against pursuit.
From the base formation, they need to motion Pope into the backfield as an H-Back, settling to either the left or the right side in front of James. At the snap, Pope and James need to stay at home and either block (in the case of a blitz) or separate from the line of scrimmage in order to give Leinart a safety valve.
In the event of a running play, the tackles need to kick out and push their man to the outside, thus creating a wider lane of pursuit to the ball carrier for Peterson and Hill. Leckey's success in this area is crucial, since he will be responsible for beating Bernard or Darby to the point of attack and sealing the cut-back lane. Pope will be responsible for punishing whoever he encounters as he leads James through the hole. Hopefully, he'll encounter either Hamlin or Boulware, since encountering Tatupu would probably result in a losing battle and mean that the pulling guard was unable to eliminate Tatupu from the play because Leckey failed to win his battle. The Cardinals will need to alternate which side of Pope they run to throughout the game, since it will be easy for Seattle to eventually diagnose the play if Arizona always runs to the strong or weak side.
By running counters, misdirection, and the base offense out of a single formation, the Cardinals will create confusion in a Seahawks defense that is accustomed to a react-and-attack style of play. That moment's hesitation will buy Leinart the time to take advantage of the one match-up where Arizona holds a decided advantage and may be the difference in this game while only possibly sacrificing Pope, who doesn't figure to play a prominent role in the offense anyway.
In addition, they need to throw quick passes early on to the hot receiver. Seattle will likely come off the bus blitzing in an attempt to rattle the Cardinals, get a lot of quick three-and-outs, and build an early lead, deflating the players and the fans. Matt Leinart needs to be able to correctly diagnose where the pressure is coming from at the line of scrimmage, identify his hot receiver, hit the receiver in stride, and watch him steamroll over Seattle's soft secondary. This will open things up for what they want to do the rest of the game and should help establish the physical tone the receivers need to keep up for the entire game.
They need to stay disciplined, focused, and cognizant of the fact that they have nothing to lose. After all, if the Cardinals do lose this game, it was expected. If they somehow manage to emerge victorious, they'll have something to smile about when the season is over and the front office is deciding what they should spend their top-5 pick on.