Nate Burleson has officially claimed the kick and punt return duties for the Seahawks. Since he hasn't been very productive in the passing game and hasn't quite clicked with Matt Hasselbeck yet, Seattle has insured that he'll at least touch the ball a few times a game. Back-up running back Maurice Morris is the other kick returner for the Seahawks, but he rarely gets any touches not that Shaun Alexander is healthy again. For the Cardinals, J.J. Arrington is still, presumably, hanging onto his roster spot because of his 99 yard touchdown return in the Minnesota game and Troy Walters is needed as a fourth wide receiver, so they've got to use him somewhere else.
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 game will not be won or lost in the kicking game. Unless, of course, it comes down to a field goal.
Josh Brown has established himself this season as a clutch kicker and valuable asset for the Seahawks. Neil Rackers, on the other hand, has struggled this season with the game on the line. With both men kicking in a dome, it will come down to who has the confidence to put the ball through the uprights when it matters most. And that favors Brown considerably.
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 is young. Young = strong leg, poor placement skills. He has averaged 45 yards per punt this season, only dropping 17 of his 63 punts inside the 20. 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. Arizona has struggled in the Red Zone this year. Seattle is among the top teams in the league, especially with the return of Shaun Alexander. In order to win, the Cardinals need to finish drives and score touchdowns. If they consistently 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 keep the crowd. The crowd's psyche is the easiest factor in a game to control and the best way to take advantage of playing in your home field is to come out of the gate fast, keep the crowd in it, and let them take over in the fourth quarter.
On defense, they need to maintain their gaps, stay in their zones, and tackle anyone that comes near them. 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 on the roster, is starting to catch his stride as the season wears on. Pendergast can use him, Adrian Wilson, and Orlando Huff as his secret weapons, only to be deployed 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, even at home, 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 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.
I still don't think they have enough. The Cardinals are at home, the offensive line is finally starting to come together, and Seattle is a shadow of its former self, but they're still a very talented team that has playoff aspirations and can clinch the division with a win and a Rams loss. They weathered injuries to their key starters earlier this season and have come out of a nightmarish start to the season with an 8-4 record.
But, they dropped one to the 49ers earlier this season on the road, they've been outscored for the season despite their winning record, and Hasselbeck doesn't seem to be completely recovered from his knee injury and definitely doesn't seem to have adjusted to the speed of the game after a long layoff. The bad news is that Alexander looks to be fully recovered and is once again running with authority. After back-to-back solid performances against Green Bay and Denver, it's safe to say that he's re-gained his MVP form and the offensive line has come together after losing Steve Hutchinson in the off-season.
To make matters worse, Alexander has, historically, crushed the Cardinals. Hasselbeck has struggled, but Alexander has thrived. If he has one of his classic 150 yard, 3 TD games against Arizona on Sunday, it might not matter if Hasselbeck does his best Rex Grossman impersonation. So, it all starts with stopping the reigning MVP. And I just don't think the Cardinals can do it.
Plus which, the gap has closed between these two teams, meaning that it's going to be close. In a close game, you have to go with Brown over Rackers and the Seahawks putting the game away in the closing minutes.
I'd like to add that I picked the Cardinals to lose last week and they won. I'm trying to employ the rarely used "reverse jinx" on this one. It's very possible that Arizona will win consecutive games for only the second time in his tenure with the Cardinals.
Seattle 23, Arizona 20