8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cardinals -2, Over/Under: 44
NFC West powerhouses meet tonight at University of Phoenix Field as the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals meet in the first of their two annual division battles. In many ways, these 2016 Seahawks (4-1, 1st in NFC West) resemble the 2015 incarnation, as Pete Carroll’s charges have overcome some familiar issues to rise to the top of the division. Once again, the Offensive Line has been a legitimate work in progress (which at times has been a flattering comment) hampering Quarterback Russell Wilson, who has been under persistent pressure from the beginning of the campaign. Seattle’s hodgepodge of Lineman has struggled mightily, particularly in Pass Protection, as Wilson has fallen victim to ten sacks thus far, while hit numerous others. Indeed, many a Seahawks’ Drive resembles the 28-year old having to scrap going through his reads because the pocket has broken down prematurely. It begs the question though, can he last under these conditions? Wilson has been playing through a badly sprained ankle along with a sprained MCL for weeks now, which despite not having a major effect on his passing statistics, has definitely served as an impediment towards his other talents; the fifth-year veteran has completed a solid 65.9% of his attempts for 1,334 yards (6.97 NY/A), five touchdowns and one interception, but has only picked up thirty-five rushing yards on a measly 1.7 yards per carry. This isn’t great news considering that Seattle has yet to find a viable replacement for the retired Marshawn Lynch, as Tailbacks Christine Michael, Thomas Rawls, Alex Collins, and the newly-acquired C.J. Spiller each vie for carries. While Rawls proved effective in a brief span last year, a hairline fracture in his shin has kept him on the shelf for roughly a month now, leaving Michael to get the majority of the carries. After being cut by the Seahawks at the beginning of 2015, Michael has tried to make the most of his second chance with team, rushing for a team-high 354 yards and four rushing scores on a solid 4.4 yards per carry; he started out hot in last weekend’s narrow 26-24 victory over the surging Falcons, opening up the game with a nine-yard touchdown run, his first of the day, before slowing down with just sixty-four yards on eighteen carries. He will need to keep asserting himself is this group is to improve upon their rather pedestrian numbers running the ball, in which they rank twenty-fourth in rushing yards (88.8) and thirtieth in yards per carry (3.2), despite averaging a hefty 28.8 carries per game (7th Overall). As usual, the Offense continues to be afforded the luxury of having every opportunity to find themselves, because the Defense is still one of the best in the league; the vaunted unit ranks in the upper echelon in a number of categories, including points allowed (15.6, 3rd Overall), total yards allowed (283.6, 1st Overall), pass defense (209.0, 5th Overall), and rush defense (74.6, 3rd Overall). However, be warned, for these guys aren’t immune to lapses in play, for it was largely their fault as to why Atlanta vaulted back in the Second Half of last Sunday’s affair. Seattle raced out to a comfortable 17-3 lead at Halftime, only to see the visiting side score twenty-one unanswered points in the third stanza, as the Legion of Boom suffered from some uncharacteristic confusion in coverage, allowing Matt Ryan and Co. to string together a trifecta of lengthy drives consisting of seventy-nine, seventy-five, and ninety-seven yards. With that said, only a game-ending interception from Earl Thomas would save them, which the Pro Bowl Safety collected via a controversial deflection from fellow Pro Bowl Defensive Back Richard Sherman, who was covering Falcons’ Pro Bowl Receiver Julio Jones. Granted, it certainly looked like Pass Interference to us (and Dan Quinn too), but hey you know how the saying goes, Big Time Players make Big Time Plays in…. you know the rest.
Meanwhile, after a slow start to the season it seems as if the Cardinals (3-3, 2nd in NFC West) are starting to round back into shape. A rash of turnovers (ten in a two-week span), combined with dreadfully slow starts to games, and a concussion suffered by Pro Bowl Quarterback Carson Palmer all contributed heavily in their early season woes, but after some positive results of late, it appears that Bruce Arians’ charges have indeed weathered the storm. After a disappointing 1-3 start, the reigning NFC West Champions have strung together back-to-back victories, mostly on the strength of their stellar defense and a new-found commitment to running the ball. Arizona’s Defense has been one of the better in the league for a few years now, so that’s no surprise, as this versatile, talent-laden unit has held their last four opponents under 300 yards of total offense, while forcing seven turnovers in that span. Cornerback Patrick Peterson continues to be one of the finest performers at his position, snaring a pair of interceptions, while fellow Corner Marcus Cooper leads the team with three picks. Newcomer Chandler Jones has helped boost the group’s lone weakness, the Pass Rush, with four Sacks, allowing second-year teammate Markus Golden to flourish with a team-best six Sacks. Just ask the New York Jets how good these guys are; the Cardinals stifled Gang Green’s anemic Offense, relegating the visitors to a dismal 230 total yards, while racking up a pair of takeaways and a sack in last Monday’s 28-3 romp. New York converted on just two of Third Down opportunities, mostly because they could only muster thirty-three rushing yards on fourteen attempts, meaning they were in Third & Long quite a bit. However, the biggest key to their current return to form has been the emergence of second-year stud Tailback, David Johnson. The versatile Sophomore was tapped for big things this season, as he became the team’s primary ball-carrier in the Offseason, but if the early returns are any indication, this kid has quite a career ahead of him. Johnson has rushed for a explosive 94.7 yards per game on 5.0 yards per game along with eight touchdowns, showing an athleticism and agility that betrays this large 6-1, 224 lbs frame. He’s been quite a force in the passing game, reeling in twenty catches for 265 yards to boot, parlaying to a ridiculously productive 147.2 All-Purpose Yards per game, easily the most in the league. He single-handedly wrecked the 49ers and Jets over the last two weeks, rushing for 268 yards and five touchdowns on forty-nine carries. His presence in the Backfield should only help what has been an underachieving passing game get back on track; last year Palmer and Co. comprised the most formidable vertical passing attack in the league, averaging 298.4 yards through the air on a league-leading 7.8 Net Yards per Attempt, but haven’t enjoyed the same success downfield in 2016, averaging 257.8 yards via the pass (18th Overall) on a far more pedestrian 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (23rd Overall). Granted, Palmer’s concussion (along with his age, 37) has had a hand in that, along with various injuries to the likes of Receivers John Brown (301 yards) and Michael Floyd (192 yards, 3 TD), who have dealt with concussions of their own, but let’s not forget that this unit is also without a pair of starting Interior Linemen, Guards Mike Iupati (Ankle) and Evan Mathis (Ankle), with the latter placed on Injured Reserve. Youngsters John Wetzel and Earl Watford have played well in their place these recent weeks, but they figure to receive quite a challenge against Seattle’s formidable Defensive Front.