Seahawks Opponent Preview – Arizona Cardinals

.NET reporter Scott Eklund continues his weekly look at the Seahawks' 2004 opponents. Up this week: the Arizona Cardinals who the Hawks travel to face in the desert on October 24th and whom the Hawks host the day after Christmas, December 26th.

Overview: After they moved from the heartland to the desert in 1988, hopes were that the Cardinals franchise would be able to generate the income and fan interest necessary to compete in the ever-evolving NFL.

Six coaches later, this franchise feels like it may have turned a corner in finally becoming a competitive franchise. After firing Dave McGinnis following the 2003 season, the Cardinals hired what might be the best coach to help right the ship. Dennis Green comes out from retirement to inject life into this moribund franchise that has gone 89-167 since it came to Arizona, with one playoff appearance since 1982.

Green brings with him the experience of turning the Minnesota Vikings into a winner, missing the playoffs only twice in the 10 years he was coach.

Immediately in mini-camps and during the offseason, Green began to mold the franchise into what he wants it to be. He challenged veterans and brought in athletic youngsters to plug into his systems.

Also on the docket for this franchise is their new stadium that is being constructed in the West Valley and is expected to be finished in time for the 2005 season.

Offense: This unit has lots of untapped talent, and it will be up to Green and offensive coordinator Alex Wood to get the most of the players.

Green runs a hybrid West Coast offensive scheme that demands quick reads by the quarterback and athletic wideouts who can run after the catch.

At the very least, on paper, Green has the receivers to fit his system. First-round selection Larry Fitzgerald, the third overall selection in the draft, has amazing body-control, great hands and enough speed to get deep on occasion. He will be counted on to take pressure off the other receivers with his big-play abilities and he is already penciled in as the starter on one side.

On the other side is second-year wideout Anquan Boldin who surprised many with an incredible rookie season. Boldin caught 101 passes for 1,371 yards and eight TDs. His strength is in the intermediate and short option routes, where he can use his strength to get off of press coverage and then make plays with his legs. He isn’t a burner, but his speed is deceptive and even if he has fewer catches in 2004 he will be just as dangerous as he was as a rookie.

The third wide receiver, Bryant Johnson, should flourish in this new system. He was a bust as a first-rounder (seeing as Boldin was a second-rounder), but his speed will allow him to play on the outside and he should have some success with all of the focus being on Fitzgerald and Boldin. In 2003 Johnson caught 35 passes for 438 yards and one touchdown. Look for Johnson to double the yards and catch 15 more passes this season as the third option.

At tight end, Freddie Jones is ready for a breakout season. He can block, run, and catch and his abilities up until now have gone overlooked. Look for Jones to put up big numbers in the “red-zone” this season as Green loves to find the tight end when the offense lines up inside the opponents’ five yard line.

Throwing the ball to this talented corps of pass catchers will be third-year QB Josh McCown. McCown was named the starter by Green almost immediately and he has worked very hard this offseason not to let his head coach down. McCown has only started three games in two seasons, but Green likes his arm strength, mobility and, most of all, his decision making.

In limited playing time last season, McCown completed 57.2% of his passes for 1,018 yards, five TDs and six INTs. He also ran for 158 yards and one TD. Too many times last year McCown looked to run when he felt the pressure. Green is counting on him to mature enough so that he uses his mobility to buy more time so that he can find Fitzgerald, Boldin and Johnson open for big-plays instead of settling for a five-yard run.

If the Cards can develop a consistent running-game it could significantly ease the pressure on McCown. Green surprised many when he named aging veteran RB Emmitt Smith as the starter in the backfield. Smith still has good vision and cutting ability, but his main focus will be protecting McCown on blitzes. There isn’t a better pass-blocking back in the league than Smith and he will be used in a lot of different sets.

In 2003, Smith ran for 256 yards (2.8 yard average) and two touchdowns. He is still a pretty good option out of the backfield, catching 14 passes for 107 yards.

Behind Smith is promising three-year veteran Marcel Shipp. Shipp has good acceleration and has no problem lowering his head and getting tough yards. Shipp does not avoid contact and thus the jury is still out on whether he can take the load of an entire season. Last season Shipp rushed for 830 yards, but no touchdowns. Green thinks that Shipp should be able to get seven to 10 TDs if this offense puts up the yardage he expects.

The offensive line has undergone a big-time facelift as one of the starters was released the day that players were to begin training camp. Eight-year veteran Pete Kendall, who was installed as the starter at center less than three weeks before, was given his outright release due to a “lack of chemistry” per Green. Taking his spot will be rookie C Alex Stepanovich who is smart and quick, but it is a lot to ask of a rookie to make line calls and adjustments.

LT Leonard Davis is huge and athletic, but many feel he has underachieved. He has played his first three seasons at guard and it remains to be seen whether or not he can live up to his enormous potential. RT Anthony Clement is better suited at guard, but he can hold his own on the outside. The guard spots are manned by RG Cameron Spikes and LG Reggie Wells. There is little to no depth with rookie G Nick Leckey likely to see time this season if he is ready.

The offense has interesting parts at wide receiver and quarterback. The running backs are adequate but lack any kind of big-play ability. The line is the weakness and their lack of depth will show if there are any significant injuries. McCown could be running for his life most of the season as the Cardinals get used to the new offensive scheme.

Defense: This unit is undergoing a complete facelift this season. Former first-round selection Wendell Bryant has been a complete bust since he was drafted in 2002 and a recent drunk driving arrest has complicated his future with the team. Manning the defensive tackle spots will be rookie Darnell Dockett and Russell Davis, with Kenny King and Bryant adding depth to the line.

Dockett so impressed the coaches with his ability to stuff the run and his strength at the point of attack during the offseason mini-camps that they couldn’t keep him off the field. At Florida State, Dockett set the team record for tackles for loss.

Davis is solid, but he does not make many plays so King could see ample time at the other tackle spot.

One defensive end spot is set with free-agent acquisition Bertrand Berry stepping into the RDE spot. Berry is quick and has a plethora of pass-rush moves. Last year for Denver he posted 11.5 sacks and he is being counted on to help this group produce more of a rush this season as the line only registered 10 sacks in 2003.

The other defensive end spot will be a fight between third-year pros Dennis Johnson and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and fourth-year veteran Fred Wakefield. Wakefield has the edge heading into the season with his big body. Vanden Bosch would be the odds-on-favorite for the spot, but he has been plagued by injuries since he came into the league. Johnson is tall and lanky and he lacks the initial burst off the line to be a true force off the edge.

The linebacking corps of Cardinals is athletic but young. Raynoch Thompson is the star of the group and in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s aggressive scheme he will be the featured player.

Thompson missed four games last season when the league suspended him for violating the leagues substance abuse policy. Even though he missed time he still finished fifth on the team in tackles with 63 while also registering three sacks and forcing a fumble.

MLB Ronald McKinnon is the heart of the defense and he was all over the field in 2003. He led the team in tackles with 105, 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He stuffs the run well and even though he lacks size, his desire and heart more than make up for his lack of God given talent.

The other outside spot will be an interesting camp battle between second-year player Gerald Hayes, third-year veteran Levar Fisher, and rookie Karlos Dansby. Hayes is solid and has great instincts. Fisher plays the run well and is a good tackler, but he has been nagged by injuries and he might not be able to hold off his young challengers.

Dansby is the wild-card. He is fast, a good tackler, and he has pass-rush ability. Where he will struggle is covering backs out of the backfield, but coaches believe with his athleticism they can teach him what he needs to know.

The defensive backfield is an unknown heading into the season. CB Duane Starks, brought in via free agency in 2002, missed the entire 2003 season when he tore up his knee in the first preseason game. Even when healthy he was only average and his abilities as a shut-down corner have come into question.

As long as Starks is healthy he will man one spot and Renaldo Hill and David Macklin will battle it out for the spot on the opposite side. Macklin, who was signed away from Indianapolis via free agency, is the front-runner for the job, but his size may hamper him from playing on the outside.

Hill is not very athletic and not fast at all, but he is very smart and he studies his opponents well. Hill finished second on the team with five interceptions and 11 passes defensed. It will be a hard-fought battle between Hill and Macklin all throughout camp.

FS Dexter Jackson is a talker who has no fear in calling out teammates as well as his opponents. Jackson is a playmaker and his skills in the deep patrol are sorely needed. Jackson finished second on the team with 86 tackles and led the team with six interceptions and 14 passes defensed.

Adrian Wilson mans the strong safety spot and while he has the speed and athleticism to be a great safety, he makes too many mental errors to be elite. Wilson finished third on the team with 79 tackles, two forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. If he buys into the system and stays true to his coaching he could be a great one.

Special Teams: Mercurial K Bill Gramatica was released and Neil Rackers was brought in to replace him. Rackers is solid, appearing in seven games last year he hit 9 of 12 field goals, going 3 for 3 from outside 40 yards. Rackers has a good leg, but he struggles with accuracy so it could be an adventure when they bring out the kicking team. P Scott Player lacks leg strength, but he is consistent and he kicks well in pressure situations.

The last time the Seahawks and Cardinals met: It was the final game of the 2003 regular season and the Seahawks needed wins in their final two games to have a chance at a playoff appearance.

Cardinals QB Josh McCown was making only his second start ever and the cold and crisp air at Seahawks Stadium, as well as a raucous crowd, meant trouble for the youngster.

The Seahawks got off to a good start as RB Shaun Alexander ran nine yards for a touchdown on the opening drive. QB Matt Hasselbeck completed two big passes on third downs and the Hawks were on their way.

After playing the “field position game”, the Hawks took over and marched down the field on a five play 45-yard drive that ended with Hasselbeck hitting backup RB Maurice Morris on a four-yard TD pass.

Cardinals K Neil Rackers hit a 49-yard field goal early in the second quarter and there were signs of life on the Cardinal sideline.

Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander soon dampened the spirit of their guests with a long touchdown run that all but sealed up the game before halftime. Alexander took a handoff, cut behind the block of RT Chris Terry and ran 44 yards to paydirt and the Seahawks led the Cardinals as they headed into the locker room 21-3.

The third quarter saw some sloppy play and a couple turnovers, but that was only a prelude to the excitement that was brewing.

After McCown hit rookie WR Anquan Boldin on a 60-yard touchdown pass, in which Boldin appeared to push off of a fellow rookie, Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant, the crowd began to realize who was ready to enter the game.

Veteran Seahawks QB Trent Dilfer, who had dealt with the death of his five-year-old son Trevin during the offseason, took the field to the roar of the crowd and you could see the smile on his face and the fire in his eyes as he was greeted by his teammates as he entered the huddle.

Dilfer marched the Hawks 41 yards on 10 plays, ending with his only touchdown pass of the season, a three-yard strike to WR Bobby Engram with less than four minutes to play to cap the scoring.

Final score: Seahawks 28, Cardinals 10

Some fans cheered, some cried, but you did not leave the stadium that day without a good feeling in your heart. Seeing the human spirit persevere even in the face of the most difficult of circumstances is as inspiring as it is heart-warming.

The grin on Dilfer’s face as he walked off the field was a priceless moment in a memorable season of Seahawks football at Seahawks Stadium. The Hawks finished the season 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history and ended up making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

On the day, Hasselbeck was an efficient 17 of 24 for 179 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Dilfer completed 2 of 3 passes for 11 yards, the one touchdown to Engram and one interception.

Alexander was the big player of the game running for 135 yards and the two touchdowns and TE Itula Mili was the leading receiver catching six passes for 70 yards.

Boldin led all receivers with 10 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown and McCown had a solid day completing 25 of 40 passes for 274 yards and the touchdown to Boldin.

The Seahawks trail in the series 4-6, but they have won four of the last five.

2004 Projection: The prediction of a 10-6 record by Green may seem ludicrous, but what he is trying to do is instill an expectation of winning…something this franchise has lacked over the years.

The players are young and it may take a couple years for them to mature to the point that they are divisional and playoff contenders year in and year out. Green will have them playing well and he may squeeze out an extra couple of wins, but an 8-8 season would have to be considered a monumental success for a team with a young, inexperienced QB, little talent or depth along the lines and a spotty secondary.

Look for the Cardinals to crawl out of the cellar of the NFC West and to possibly sneak up on a few opponents this season. With their playmakers on offense they should be exciting if not spectacular.

.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories