The Breakdown: Cardinals 'D' vs. Seahawks 'O'

Everyone knows that Mike Holmgren is from the Bill Walsh coaching tree and that he likes to run the West Coast Offense. While many assume that "West Coast Offense" is just another way to say, "Throw Short Passes on Every Down," it all starts with a strong running game. In Seattle's case, Shaun Alexander. Stop him and you stop the Seahawks offense. Can the Cardinals do it? Probably not.

Secondary:

While they have a number of very talented pass catchers, Seattle lacks that one guy that keeps defensive coordinators up at night.  Nate Burleson and Matt Hasselbeck never seemed to get on the same page.  Deion Branch has had a couple of great games, but a number of below average ones.  Darrell Jackson is the default #1 guy in a receiving corps filled with #2 guys.  He leads the team in receptions (58), as well as drops (10).  Bobby Engram has actually given way to D.J. Hackett in most situations and Hasselbeck tends to look his way more than Engram's.

Even though zone coverage is not the strength of the Arizona defense, they need to play zone for most of the game and allow Antrel RolleEric Green, and David Macklin to read Hasselbeck's eyes and react to where the ball is going.  Once they get a receiver in their sights, they must tackle him, since Seattle's receivers excel at making yards after the catch (one of the cornerstones of the West Coast Offense).  The key for the secondary (and, to a lesser extent, the linebackers) will be for them to stay disciplined in their zones and not allow Seattle's receivers to get behind them.  If every play that the Seahawks run end up in front of Arizona's secondary, that will be a small victory for the unit as part of an actual victory for the team.

The X-factor in this game is going to be Adrian Wilson and his ability to make big plays in critical situations, helping him add to his Pro Bowl resume against a good team.  Wilson  needs to roam the field and cover the back half, as the Cardinals will basically need to play a Cover 1 defense, with Robert Griffith (he may be old and slow, but he can still tackle) playing "in the box" as an eighth defender.  If Wilson can wreak havoc in the defensive backfield against Seattle's hodgepodge of #2s, the Cardinals stand a very good chance of upsetting the Seahawks.

That is, of course, contingent upon stopping one Shaun Alexander.

Defensive Line:

Madden Curse, foot injury, and reputation for being soft aside, Alexander is still the league's reigning MVP.  Everything Seattle does on offense starts with him.  And his  talented offensive line.

Floyd Womack has filled in well for Steve Hutchinson and, inside-out, they are solid with Robbie Tobeck at center and arguably the two best players at their positions in right tackle Sean Locklear and perennial All Pro Walter Jones at left tackle.  In addition, the loss of Kendrick Clancy for this game means that Gabe Watson (rotating with Chris Cooper) and Darnell Dockett must to try stand up to Seattle's stout interior at the point of attack.  Bert Berry is lost for the season, but the good news is that replacement Antonio Smith is a better player than Berry in run support.  Chike Okeafor hasn't flashed much of his Pro Bowl potential this year, but the defensive line has played well versus the run for most of the year (a few games against the NFC North notwithstanding).

Arizona will have success against the potent Seattle rushing attack if they can keep one thing in mind: Gap Discipline.

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.

Linebackers:

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 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 Orlando Huff or Karlos Dansby, 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.

Gerald Hayes, above all other defenders, needs to have his best game of the season in terms of monitoring his zone and wrapping up the ball carrier.  In many cases, he will be the first and possibly only line of defense.  Seattle will try to exploit the middle of the field and Hayes needs to make sure that they don't have success.  When a receiver does catch the ball, he needs to collide with the ball carrier and punish him. 

The Seahawks are all about timing and finesse.  If you can take them out of that mode by being physical and disrupting their timing, you can be successful against this offense.

Game Plan:

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.

Overall, the Cover 1 defense and its execution is what is going to make or break this game for the Cardinals.  If Griffith is able to fill in hard in run support and Wilson is able to cover the deep half of the field on his own, Arizona will be able to shut down the run game, force Hasselbeck out of his comfort zone, and abuse the Seattle offense (as much as a team can do that).  If Wilson gets sucked into play action (like he did on Darrell Jackson's long touchdown in Week 2) and Griffith is unable to provide adequate run support from the safety position, the Cardinals are in for a long day and will lose.

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.


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