MMQB: Cardinals 31, Seahawks 20

The first touchdown of Justin Forsett's NFL career wasn't enough for the Seahawks to avoid their fourth straight loss to the Arizona Cardinals, likely ending any post-season hopes they may have had entering Sunday.

Arizona Cardinals 31, Seattle Seahawks 20
Sunday, November 15, 2009
University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, Arizona

Play of the Day: On 1st-and-10 from their own 1-yard line, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck lofted a pass deep down the right sideline, which T.J. Houshmandzadeh hauled in before carrying Cardinals cornerback Bryant McFadden for 19 additional yards and picking up a 15-yard Face Mask penalty for a total of 68 yards, the team's longest play from scrimmage this season.

Handouts to the Standouts

Seahawks running back Justin Forsett stepped up when Julius Jones left the game with a chest injury, rushing for a career-high 123 yards and his 1st NFL touchdown on a nifty 11-yard run in the 1st quarter. Forsett also caught 5 passes for 26 yards.

Houshmandzadeh led all receivers with 9 receptions and 165 yards, with the 53-yard catch-and-run the longest passing play the Seahawks offense has generated this season.

Things That Made Me Go "Blech!"

Two items that go a long way towards explaining a Seahawks loss that ended any hopes the franchise had of making the post-season in 2009.

Red Zone Inefficiency

Seattle was 1-for-4 inside the Cardinals' red zone, scoring just 13 points and going 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations. Surely there'll be talk of "execution" issues, but we're in mid-November, so that's a rather flimsy excuse. None of the Seahawks' skill-position players have missed much practice time, and after 3 ½ months of near daily work, any problems should've been ironed out by now. What is being seeing, though, is some fairly bizarre play-calling by offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. An example:

After the Cardinals put their first points on the board, driving 65 yards on 6 plays in less than 3 minutes, the Seahawks got the ball back on their own 19-yard line. After Forsett (3 carries, 34 yards) and Louis Rankin (1 catch, 14 yards) helped move the ball up the field, Seneca Wallace hit Houshmandzadeh for 16 yards on a 3rd-and-2 play, giving the ‘Hawks 1st-and-10 from the Cardinals 15-yard line, with both teams having all 3 of their timeouts remaining.

On first down, the Seahawks go with "Zebra" personnel (1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE) and put Hasselbeck in shotgun formation. He handed the ball to Forsett, who gained three yards, and neither team used a timeout—The Cardinals were content to let the clock run. On second down, Seahawks remain in "Zebra" personnel with Hasselbeck in shotgun. He throws a fade towards the corner of the end zone to the team's shortest receiver, 5-9 (in spikes) Deion Branch. To the surprise of exactly no one, the ball falls incomplete, stopping the clock with 1:21 remaining.

Third down, the Seahawks remain in Zebra with Hasselbeck again in the shotgun. Hasselbeck throws a RB screen to Forsett, which loses two yards and Arizona burns their first timeout. Olindo Mare kicks a field goal to give the Seahawks a 10-point lead, but he'll have to kick off to the Cardinals, who'll have about 65 seconds and two timeouts to score before halftime, after which they'll be getting the ball back.

What happens?

Arizona gains 66 yards on 3 plays, putting the ball at the Seahawks' 14-yard line with 39 seconds and a timeout remaining. The Cardinals actually put the ball in the end zone, but it's negated by a holding penalty and they're forced to settle for a field goal. They get the ball back to begin the second half, drive 82 yards on 13 plays and score the game-tying touchdown.

Poor play-calling in the red zone late in the 1st half, and opting to settle for a field goal against an offense that's capable of erasing scoring touchdowns in the blink of an eye, turned a 10-point lead into a tie game and placed all the momentum back onto the Cardinals' side of the field.

Need another example of horrendous play-calling in the red zone?

Late in the 3rd quarter, with the score tied at 17, Seattle took over at their own 7-yard line. After riding Forsett and Rankin to the Cardinals' 1-yard line, aided in no small part by an undisciplined Arizona defense that seemed hell-bent on giving the Seahawks a touchdown. Here's how Knapp took advantage of 1st-and-Goal from the 1-yard line:

On first down, the Seahawks have "U" personnel (2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE), and line Houshmandzadeh in tight. Houshmandzadeh motions from right-to-left behind the line, and Hasselbeck takes the snap, rolls to his right and his pass to Houshmandzadeh is defended by Adrian Wilson. Second down, Seattle stays with "U" personnel, same formation, and run Forsett up the middle, which the Cardinals' defensive line stuffs for a loss of one-yard. Third down, Seahawks show "Zebra" personnel and Hasselbeck throws a fade to Nate Burleson, which is broken up by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and out marches Mare to kick another field goal.

Arizona's next possession goes 80 yards on 4 plays, ending with a Chris Wells touchdown, and a four-point lead the Cardinals would never relinquish.

The cherry on top came on Seattle's final three plays, beginning from the Cardinals' 4-yard line.

This gem of a sequence featured a fade route to Deon Butler, which wouldn't have counted even if Butler caught it, as Ray Willis was flagged for illegal formation. Second down from the Arizona 9-yard line was a 6-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh. On 3rd-and-goal from the 3, Knapp called for a shovel pass, despite the timing of Seattle's passing game being hindered all game in shotgun formations by center Chris Spencer's thumb injury. Hasselbeck juggled the snap, and his pass to Forsett was intercepted by a diving Adrian Wilson.

Game over and barring a miracle--or unspeakable tragedy--season over.

6 and 7 Defensive Backs

Seattle's best two defensive players, and also two of its highest-paid players on defense, are linebackers Leroy Hill and Aaron Curry, who are guaranteed nearly $50M combined over the next six years.

On Sunday, these two players combined for five tackles.

Considering the Cardinals had 55 offensive plays (30 rushes, 29 receptions, minus 4 touchdowns) where a tackle could conceivably occur, that's a very low percentage for two players eating up that large a chunk of your salary cap space and Paul Allen's money.

To be fair, neither player was on the field for much of Sunday.

Whenever the Cardinals put a fourth wide receiver in the game, Seattle unveiled a six- or seven-defensive back formation, sliding Jordan Babineaux to cornerback and putting 36-year old safety Lawyer Milloy into the game.

I know that Jim Mora and Gus Bradley have been devising packages to get players some playing time, but good luck convincing anyone that the Seahawks' defense somehow improves with both Hill and Curry standing on the sidelines.

And as long as Ken Whisenhunt is the head coach in Arizona—and coming off a Super Bowl and what appears to be a second straight NFC West title, his job is much more secure than anyone's at the VMAC is right now—will this be the defense's strategy every time they face the Cardinals in the Ruskell/Mora/Bradley Era? If so, why has Ruskell devoted so many of the team's resources at the linebacker position, when only one of them is going to be on the field for a third of your divisional games?

Considering the circumstances—injury and a recent loss in his family—let's not dwell on how $2.3 million dollars was spent on a cornerback specifically to shut down Larry Fitzgerald, and who today, was the team's seventh defensive back.

Offense

For the second straight week, Hasselbeck attemped more than 50 passes, airing it out 52 times, completing 26 (50%) for 315 yards and a touchdown. Hasselbeck struggled in the second half, where he was intercepted twice, finishing with a passer rating of just 59.4.

Hasselbeck was sacked four times, was hit on several occasions, and was forced into some early throws by the pressure the Cardinals were generating. The timing of the Seahawks passing game was hindered when in shotgun formations by Chris Spencer's thumb injury, which resulted in some adventurous snaps that resulted in a 2nd quarter sack by Clark Haggans.

Houshmandzadeh was the focal point of the passing attack, with Hasselbeck targeting him 17 times. The much-maligned Deion Branch had four receptions for a season-high 50 yards, and also drew a pass interference flag on Bryant McFadden. Third-round pick Deon Butler saw his most extensive action of the season, catching 3 passes for 26 yards, and Seneca Wallace was used twice, catching one pass for 5 yards and throwing a 16-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh in he 2nd quarter.

Despite catching a 31-yard touchdown to give the Seahawks a 14-point lead, second-year tight end John Carlson was largely ignored on Sunday, with only two passes thrown his way. Arizona had struggled all season to cover opposing tight ends—Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen had three touchdowns against them last week—so why Carlson wasn't more involved is a question that needs answering.

Seattle ran the ball for 164 yards on Sunday, their highest output since posting 167 yards on the St. Louis Rams in the season-opener. Forsett led the way with 123 yards, while Rankin added 24 on three carries. Jones had 10 yards before leaving the game with a chest injury.

As tempting as it may be to feel that the running game has turned the proverbial corner, it should be noted that 25 of Forsett's 123 yards came on a pair of 3rd-and-long runs that failed to move the sticks. What is encouraging, though, is that both Forsett and Rankin showed excellent speed, the ability to make defenders miss, a willingness to fight for additional yardage, and alertly protected the football as defenders piled on. These two former Pac-10 rivals gives the ‘Hawks two, low-cost players at a position the Seahawks have lacked a play-maker at since 2005.

Defense

On the bright side, Aaron Curry and Leroy Hill were the driving forces behind an impressive goal-line stand in the 1st quarter. Hill was credited with the tackle, but Curry stonewalled fullback Dan Kreider, giving Tim Hightower no place to run. Seattle's defense also allowed the Cardinals to make good on just two of 12 third-down conversion attempts.

The downside is that the Cardinals had three touchdown drives of 80+ yards, and only ran two third down plays on those drives, scoring on one of them.

Seattle's defensive gameplan appeared to involve crowding the secondary with as many bodies as possible, often rushing just three and often putting next-to-no pressure on Warner, who wasn't sacked and was only hit once, by Cory Redding. Warner completed 29-of-38 passes for 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but Seattle did get some pressure on him early, and he struggled. For a quarter-and-a-half, the Cardinals best offensive plays were pass interference flags on Josh Wilson (46 yards) and Marcus Trufant (19 yards), the latter appearing to be an instance of Trufant and Larry Fitzgerald's feet getting tangled. (Who do the officials think Fitzgerald is? Miles Austin?)

Seattle kept Fitzgerald (7 catches, 73 yards, 1 touchdown) under 100 yards for the first time since December 9, 2007, but Anquan Boldin (8-105) topped the century mark for the first time this season. Steve Breaston had four receptions for 79 yards, and was wide open on a 28-yard touchdown that cut the Seahawks' second quarter lead to 7.

After bottling up Arizona's running game in the 1st half (29 yards on 12 carries), Cardinals running backs Chris Wells (16 carries, 85 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Tim Hightower (10 carries, 37 yards) were often dominant in the second half, running downhill and often shedding Seahawks defenders who appeared unenthusiastic about having to bring down the physical backs, which shouldn't go over well in the film room on Monday.

For the fourth time in as many starts, Hawthorne led the Seahawks in tackles (11), and since the Cardinals were averaging nearly 7 yards per play, he was followed by defensive backs Josh Wilson, Jordan Babineaux, and Marcus Trufant, who had 7 tackles apiece on Sunday. Defensive end Darryl Tapp (4 tackles) had his strongest showing on the road in quite some time, while Brandon Mebane flashed his athleticism early, just not often.

Special Teams

Olindo Mare was solid on Sunday, nailing each of his kicks and consistently putting the ball into the end zone. The lone time he came up short, the Cardinals had good field position for their 65-yard touchdown drive in the 2nd quarter.

For the most part, Jon Ryan kept the ball away from Breaston, one of the more dangerous return men in the game. Ryan's punts were short (42.6 gross avg) but Seattle covered them well and Breaston was held to just one decent return of 16 yards, which occurred when Nick Reed missed a tackle. Ryan's 40-yard net average is his highest since Week 5.

Burleson was a non-factor in the offense, but gained 60 yards on 4 punt returns, including a long of 27 yards. He had another 27-yard return negated by an illegal block in the penalty on Milloy, whose block occurred on a player who happened to be downfield illegally. The penalties offset, and Burleson gained 9 yards on the subsequent return. One critique of Burleson would be his letting a Ben Graham punt hit outside his own 10-yard line, and Arizona downed the ball at the Seahawks' one-yard line.

Forsett began the day as the primary kick returner, but Jones' injury elevated him to the #1 running back, which meant Rankin would be paired with Ben Obomanu. Rankin twice took it out of the end zone, but failed to make it to the 20-yard line.

Will Herring, Lance Laury, and Obomanu played well on special teams.

Game Notes: Mike Teel (3rd QB), Owen Schmitt, Derek Walker, Cameron Morrah, Mike Gibson, Mansfield Wrotto, Red Bryant, and Jamar Adams were inactive for Seattle…The Seahawks are now 0-4 in University of Phoenix Stadium…Burleson was held without a reception for the first time in a regular season game since December 24, 2006.

Summary

Mathematically, it's still possible, but anyone who's watched enough of the 2009 Seattle Seahawks is painfully aware that this is not a playoff-caliber football team.

There's no telling how much change will occur at the VMAC next off-season, but one thing is for certain: Unlike this year, there can be no talk of the Arizona Cardinals "renting" the NFC West crown. Regardless of how the Seahawks "lost" it in 2008, it's the Cardinals division now and the Seahawks shouldn't expect to have it handed back to them anytime soon.

In addition to writing for NorthwestFootball.net, Brian McIntyre blogs daily at Mac's Football Blog. You can follow Brian on Twitter, and if you'd like to e-mail him, you can always do so by clicking here.

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