8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Seattle -3
Bitter rivals clash in the Pacific Northwest, as the Seattle Seahawks host the division-leading Arizona Cardinals tonight at CenturyLink Stadium. With half the season in the books, the Cardinals (6-2, 1st in NFC West) can go a long ways towards establishing a stranglehold of the NFC West by putting Seattle boot to heel tonight. Though this is the first of two meetings between these teams, a win would vault Arizona to a commanding three-game lead, and in the process severely diminish their opponent’s postseason prospects. In his third year in the desert, Head Coach Bruce Arians has done a tremendous job rebuilding this team from what many would consider spare parts, oftentimes taking players branded past their prime or damaged goods and turning them into valuable assets. After all, is that not the mark of a great coach? Tailback Chris Johnson was left for dead after a disappointing term in the Big Apple, and very nearly lost his life in the offseason after sustaining a gun shot wound to his shoulder, yet was later signed by the Cardinals in hopes that he would help ignite their long-dormant rushing attack. In return, the artist formerly known as CJ2K has appeared to be revitalized, leading the team with 84.5 rushing yards per game, the three-time Pro Bowler and now 30-year old’s highest mark in six years. In fact, Johnson has topped 100 rushing yards in each of his last two outings, averaging 115.5 yards over that span. On defense, aging veterans Dwight Freeney and LaMarr Woodley have seemingly found the fountain of youth as Third Down Specialists, offering their pass-rushing prowess on obvious passing downs, with three sacks between them. That ideology has extended to the Draft, where Arians and General Manager Steve Keim have truly struck gold in the later rounds; versatile Defensive Back Tyrann Mathieu ranks second on the team in tackles (42) and interceptions (2), while pacing his teammates in pass breakups (9), while Receiver John Brown has become one of their prime weapons in the passing game with 562 yards and three scores on thirty-seven catches. Both players slipped to the Third Round of their respective Drafts. Tailback David Johnson has proved to be their most recent gem, unearthing the rookie out of Northern Iowa with the 86th selection in the 2015 Draft; he’s proven to be a proverbial Jack of all Trades, amassing 109 yards on twenty-five carries, another 208 yards on fourteen receptions, along with 391 yards on Kick Returns, all the while scoring a total of six touchdowns, three different ways. Did we mention that this kid is 6-1, 224 lbs?
With all that said though, we’d be remiss if we didn’t spend some time discussing the return to form of two players that have been absolutely essential to Arizona’s rise to the top of the NFC West this season. First and foremost, can we give Receiver Larry Fitzgerald some love? No. 11 looked ineffective and run down last season, exhibiting a statistical decline across the board; his receptions (63) and receiving yards (784) were the lowest figures posted since his rookie campaign back in 2004, and his two touchdowns were the fewest of his twelve-year career. With sinking numbers and a hefty price tag, many around the league believed that Management would indeed part ways with the eight-time Pro Bowler. However, Arians and Co. chose to retain his services, and the longest-tenured Cardinal has repaid them in kind, enjoying arguably the finest season of his illustrious career. Through eight games, Fitzgerald has amassed fifty-five catches on seventy targets for 706 yards and seven touchdowns, and is on pace for career-highs in all three categories. Of course, it helps to have a competent Quarterback delivering the ball, which is something that this guy knows all too well. No Hall of Fame caliber Receiver has ever had such a lackluster cadre of passers throwing him the ball; apart from Kurt Warner’s four-year tenure under Center, Fitzgerald has had to suffer the play of Shaun King, John Navarre, Josh McCown, Matt Lienart, Derek Anderson, Max Hall, Ryan Lindley, Kevin Kolb, and Drew Stanton. Quite a Motley Crew, no? So is it any wonder that his current Quarterback has seemed to be nothing short of a godsend? Carson Palmer isn’t just in the midst of a career renaissance, for the one-time Heisman-winner and No. One Overall Pick has quite frankly never looked better. Think about it for a second; after forcing his way out of Cincinnati in 2011, followed by a very forgettable eighteen-month tenure in Oakland, Palmer was traded to Arizona for nothing more than a Sixth Round Pick in 2013 and a Seventh Round Pick in 2014, and at the age of thirty-four wasn’t expected to do much more than play out the string. A Sixth and a Seventh? That speaks volumes as to how the league as a whole felt about how much he had left in the tank. Fast forward three years, and now we’re asking if perhaps he’s simply a late bloomer? After a sloppy first term in the desert, No. 3 has completed 63.8% of his passes for 4,012 yards (8.3 y/a), 31 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in a fourteen-game stretch of starts that was split in half after he tore his ACL six games into the 2014 campaign. Now 36-years of age, he has posted career-bests in Touchdown Percentage (7.7%), Yards per Attempt (9.7), Yards per Completion (14.2), Yards per Game (298.3), and Total QBR (84.76). However, the most telling number is always victories, which was something he hadn’t done enough of in his twelve-year career; Palmer has gone 22-8 in thirty starts with Arizona, and looks poised for what would be another career first: a Playoff Win. Late bloomer indeed.
Meanwhile, to say that things have not gone according to plan for the Seahawks (4-4, 3rd in NFC West) would be a gross understatement. The two-time defending NFC Champions fashioned themselves as the clear-cut favorites to return to a third consecutive Super Bowl, but with half of the season already filed away, their hopes of doing such are in extreme jeopardy. Now we know what you’re thinking; didn’t Seattle get off to a slow start last season, only to catch fire over the second half of the campaign? Correct, for Pete Carroll and his charges overcame a disappointing 3-3 start to win nine of their final ten outings, en route to a second straight NFC West crown. A back to basics approach proved to be precisely what the doctor ordered, as the offense doubled down on Marshawn Lynch and the rushing attack, while the defense collectively rolled their sleeves up and relegated five out of their final six opponents to seven points or less. In fact, the vaunted Legion of Boom relinquished a mere three touchdowns over that period of time. Of course, as is usually the case in such comparisons, the circumstances are very different a year later. Aiding their return to the top of the division was Palmer’s aforementioned knee injury, which ultimately doomed then division-leading Arizona to a Wild Card Weekend defeat at the hands of Carolina. In both meetings with the Cardinals in 2014, Palmer was on the mend, allowing their vicious defense to feast upon the likes of Stanton and Lindley in what ended up as 19-3 and 35-6 Seattle victories, in which those hapless Quarterbacks could muster a total of 327 passing yards. Fast-forward to the present and a healthy Palmer is igniting the league’s most explosive offense with no signs of slowing down. However, that’s the least of their concerns, for the Seahawks’ problems are very much internal and it makes for a very valid argument whether or not they can figure things out at this juncture of the season.
Ironically, the offseason transaction that many around the league thought would further prolong their reign over the NFC has instead potentially shattered their postseason prospects. Shortly after the beginning of Free Agency, Seattle acquired Saints’ Pro Bowl Tight End Jimmy Graham in exchange for their First Round Pick in the following NFL Draft, along with starting Center Max Unger, who spent the first six years of his career in the Pacific Northwest. From 2011 to 2013, Unger started forty-four games at Center, before missing all but six regular season games with an injury in 2014. Essentially, Management deemed him surplus to requirements, particularly when balanced against getting a pass-catching weapon the caliber of Graham, so off he went to the Big Easy. After all, Graham, a three-time Pro Bowler, caught fifty-one touchdowns in his five years in New Orleans, making this trade an absolute coup for a passing attack that had ranked among the league’s worst over the previous three years. On paper, it made volumes of sense. On the field however…. Let us begin this assessment by saying that despite paving the way for the league’s top rushing attack in each of the last two years, Seattle’s Offensive Line has oftentimes been a mess. Many of the more significant positions along the Line have been revolving doors due to injuries, or sometimes just poor play, leaving any continuity or chemistry difficult to obtain. Furthermore, this unit has long been one of the most heavily penalized groups in the NFL, which is a very curious thing for a team that has been as successful as this one has. With eight games in the books, it’s now looking as if Unger was the lone component holding this fragile balance together, for Carroll and Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable have been searching for solutions ever since. Never before has an Offensive Line been forced to playing so many of their number out of position; aside from Left Tackle Russell Okung, the Seahawks have had to move last year’s Second Round Pick Justin Britt inside to Guard after playing Tackle at Missouri, while former Tight End Garry Gilliam has struggled mightily after transitioning from Tight End, which he played at Penn State just two years ago. And that’s just the right side of the Line, folks; Guards Mark Glowinski, Alvin Bailey, Patrick Lewis, and Lemuel Jeanpierre have floated all over the interior of the unit, while former Defensive Tackle Drew Nowak has had the unenviable task of keeping everything together as Unger’s replacement. Defense to Offense is a rare transition in the trenches, particularly at a position as important as Center, but it hasn’t been unprecedented with this Coaching Staff, which moved current Left Guard J.R. Sweezy over from the defensive side a few years ago. With such chaos ensuing in the trenches, is it any wonder that Seattle’s passing attack has largely been one long Russell Wilson scramble after another? Surely, a less-mobile Quarterback would crumble under such protection (31 sacks!?!?!?), but as we all know, Wilson is very fleet of foot; the fourth-year signal-caller has done remarkably well given the circumstances, completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 234.8 yards per game (8.0 y/a), and nine touchdowns to six interceptions, while rushing for another 37.9 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry. Of course, when the Offensive Line fails in pass protection the solution is typically more blockers, particularly Tight Ends, which in turn brings us to Graham. Much has been made of this guy’s ineptitude in terms of blocking, and in that his detractors are absolutely right. He’s awful. However, would you buy a Mercedes to go off-road? Graham never had to block much in New Orleans because they had a stellar Offensive Line in place and he was utilized to great effect as a glorified Wide Receiver. One does not haul in over fifty touchdown receptions blocking in the trenches. If anything, his acclimation to the offense has been neutered by the poor play of his teammates in the trenches in Pass Pro. If Wilson has to abandon his reads to escape the pass rush so often, how the hell is Graham supposed to make an impact downfield? And all things considered, his production isn’t that far off when compared to his final season with the Saints; No. 88 has averaged 56.3 yards per game (55.6 in 2014) on 11.8 yards per reception (10.5 in 2014) thus far. The difference though has been in touchdowns, for he found the End Zone ten times a season ago, and only two this year. Perhaps they can coax Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson out of retirement…