8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Seahawks -3, Over/Under: 57.5
A pair of division rivals traveling in opposite directions meet tonight with major Postseason implications on the line, as the struggling Seattle Seahawks play host to the upstart Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football from CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington. It’s hard to fathom how they’ve managed to turn things around so quickly, but the Cardinals (6-3, 2nd in NFC West) appear to have expedited their rebuild, as they currently find themselves in a three-way tie for first place within the crowded NFC West. However, let’s turn back the clock and dwell on just how they arrived to this point. Just two short years ago, Arizona set out to rebuild the franchise, hiring Steve Wilks to spearhead their brand new era, while selecting Josh Rosen with the Tenth Overall Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, expecting the young Quarterback to serve as the face of the organization for years to come. However, this regime would last a mere sixteen games, with Wilks fired following a brutal 3-13 campaign, and Rosen ushered out the door as the club earned the No. One Overall Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, which they would use to select 2018 Heisman recipient, Kyler Murray. Replacing Wilks would be Kliff Kingsbury, who after washing out at Texas Tech was all set to take over as Offensive Coordinator at USC, before (Owner) Bill Bidwell and (General Manager) Steve Keim swooped in and anointed him their new leading man, to the surprise of many to say the least. Criticized for their perceived lack of organizational patience, these moves brought a great deal of risk to boot; though extremely athletic, Murray was deemed far too short by NFL Scouts (even in this era), while Kingsbury’s air-raid passing attack had proven to garner little success in the NFL. And it’s with that said, that the first year of this awkward marriage produced some tepid results (5-10-1), though laying the foundation for future success in the years to come.
Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of how the sport has evolved, but those aforementioned concerns are proving to be much ado about nothing in Arizona, where the birds are flying high in the face of conventional wisdom. Keim has done a solid job of further fleshing out the roster to better suit the needs of his Head Coach, while providing his Quarterback with the necessary support to facilitate his growth, which is occurring exponentially these days. Of course, the biggest addition has been that of DeAndre Hopkins (67 REC, 861 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 4 TD), who was acquired in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory; the three-time All-Pro arrived to the desert in exchange for a 2020 2nd Round Pick, 2021 4th Round Pick, and aging Tailback, David Johnson, who in addition to not being able to stay healthy had proven to be a poor fit for Kingsbury’s Offense. In a scheme in which the field is oftentimes flooded with Receivers, the 28-year old is a perfect weapon for any young passer, having already helped further the maturation of one young Pro-Bowl signal-caller, Deshaun Watson, over the past three years in Houston. One of the most consistent pass-catchers in NFL history, Hopkins has really taken to his new surroundings, posting a career-high catch percentage (76.1%), shattering his personal best set two years ago. As you can imagine, Murray (68.2%, 2,375 YDS, 7.13 NY/A, 17 TD, 8 INT, 77.6 QBR) has flourished with such a talent to rely upon, showing marked improvement across the board, completing 68.2% of his attempts for 263.9 yards per game on 7.13 net yards per attempt, a figure that has seen a major boost thanks to improved pocket presence and overall better protection. The Sophomore was sacked a league-high FORTY-EIGHT times in 2019, but has been dropped just thirteen times thus far for a percentage of 4.0%, less than HALF as much as last year (8.1%). His height hasn’t been much of an issue either, with Kingsbury utilizing his explosive mobility to get him out of the pocket where he can extend plays and outright run past defenders; the 23-year old oftentimes looks like a Tailback in the Backfield, rushing for 604 yards on a league-best 6.9 yards per carry, while leading all Quarterbacks with ten rushing touchdowns thus far. This versatility has led to one of the most prolific Offenses in the NFL, leading the pack in a variety of categories, including total yards (432.8), first downs (233), rushing yards (168.9), rushing touchdowns (15), and yards per rush (5.3). Their quality on this side of the football was clearly evident in their previous meeting with the Seahawks, outlasting them in an entertaining 37-34 affair that needed overtime to crown a victor. Trailing 20-7 late in the first half, Arizona scored ten points inside the final 1:14 of play, cutting the deficit to 27-17 at halftime. Following intermission, the hosts would go on to outscore Seattle 20-7 the rest of the way, with a 48-yard field goal courtesy of Zane Gonzalez (who missed the potential winner on the previous drive) ending the affair altogether. Credit must go the Defense, who picked off Russell Wilson on three occasions including a crucial pick in overtime at midfield, eventually setting up Gonzalez’s walk-off field goal. In the end, the Cardinals racked up 519 total yards on thirty-one first downs, including a whopping 427 yards and four touchdowns, with the aforementioned Hopkins hauling in 103 yards and a score on ten receptions, while Christian Kirk (27 REC, 427 YDS, 15.8 Y/R, 6 TD), made the most of his five catches, two of which were touchdowns. It was quite the duel between Quarterbacks as Murray and Wilson combined for a staggering 899 yards of Offense and seven scores, though it would be the former who refrained from making the crippling mistakes that ultimately cost his side the outcome.
When we last saw the Cardinals, they found themselves on the winning end of yet another wild affair in the desert, as they rallied back to best the Buffalo Bills in a 32-30 victory that came down to the final play. Trailing 30-26 following an absolute dime from Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs, the aforementioned Murray would drive the home side to Buffalo’s 43-yard line with just eleven seconds left on the clock, and following the timeout proceeded to roll out to his left and launch the football downfield into the end zone, with Hopkins miraculously coming down with it in a crowd of white jerseys sealing the triumph. Needless to say, it’s not everyday you see a game decided on a Hail Mary, but that was precisely what happened at State Farm Stadium over the weekend, as Arizona knocked off yet another division leader in the most theatrical of ways. The heroics of Quarterback and Receiver overshadowed the hosts having to rally back from yet another early deficit, trailing 23-9 midway through the third frame. However, Kingsbury’s troops once again proved their resilience, swiftly running off seventeen unanswered points to take a 26-23 lead before entering the final stanza. In the end, they amassed 453 total yards on twenty-six first downs, including 217 via the run, led by Tailback, Kenyan Drake (135 CAR, 612 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 4 TD), who churned out 100 yards on sixteen carries, and Murray, who scampered his way to sixty-one yards and a pair of scores on eleven attempts. Once again, the Defense managed to slowly turn the tide in the second half, picking off Allen twice over the final thirty minutes of play, the first intercepted by eight-time Pro-Bowler, Patrick Peterson (30 TKL, 3 INT, 6 PD), and the second by veteran Cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick (32 TKL, 2 INT, 4 PD). With their showing on Sunday, the Cardinals are becoming quite comfortable in these tightly-contested affairs, owning a 3-2 record in games decided by four points or less this season.
Meanwhile, fortunes can change rather quickly in the National Football League, which is a notion that the Seahawks (6-3, 3rd in NFC West) are becoming all too familiar with, as they continue to see a franchise-best 5-0 start spoiled by a recent string of poor performances. Just a week ago, Seattle sat atop the competitive NFC West, but after losing their third outing in four games following their Bye Week, they’ve since fallen to third within the Division, which further underscores their slim margin for error. Ironically, it was that aforementioned meeting with Arizona that started this downward spiral, with the Cardinals revealing (and exploiting) their many flaws in a spirited overtime affair back in late October. Though that’s not to say that Pete Carroll’s side were flawless throughout their perfect start either, for the Defense (as it continues to be now) was getting shredded on a weekly basis, yielding a miserable 471.2 total yards, including 370.4 through the air. The difference between then and now is that they were at the very least managing to force some turnovers, registering ten through the first five contests, granting possession back to Russell Wilson (69.8%, 2,789 YDS, 7.16 NY/,A, 28 TD, 10 INT, 76.3 QBR), who during that period looked like the clear-cut MVP frontrunner. Simply put, nobody takes better care of the football than Wilson, and nobody has proven better in close games of late; the 32-year old had committed just ninety-one turnovers in 134 career games to that point (0.679 per game), which is far less than the 265 total touchdowns that he had accounted for, while leading his team to a ridiculous 15-2 record in games decided by one possession or less dating back to the beginning of the 2019 season.
With that said, those numbers have turned against him and the Seahawks in the cruelest of fashions, for two of the last four outings following the Bye have been decided by seven or fewer points, and both have resulted in defeat. During that period, the six-time Pro-Bowler has tossed SEVEN interceptions and lost three fumbles, which is something that has proven too great for his beleaguered Defense to overcome, for they’ve continued to be eviscerated on 419.8 total yards, including 332.0 yards versus the pass, while producing just five takeaways. And there you have it, folks, for in a sport in which turnover differential so frequently separates the wheat from the chafe, Seattle has posted a minus-5 differential over the past four games, or more succinctly, a minus-7 margin in those three losses. So just what in the name of Steve Largent is going in the Pacific Northwest, you ask? For a franchise that appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls on the strength of their vaunted Legion of Boom defense, which ranked tops in the league in points allowed for four consecutive seasons (202-2015), it’s downright jarring to see them struggle in such a manner. However, Carroll and (General Manager) John Schneider gradually began the transformation to an offensive-oriented team years ago, and one by one, whether due to injury, trade, or free agency, each venerable member of their Defense parted ways with the club, some gracefully and others not so much. This of course coincided with rebuilding the roster around the unique talents of Wilson, who would eventually put pen to paper on a mammoth, 4-year/$140 million contract extension, which while keeping their franchise passer in house for the foreseeable future has unfortunately made it more difficult to replenish the Defense through Free Agency. Even after trading for All-Pro Safety, Jamal Adams (35 TKl, 6 TFL, 9 QBH, 5.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), and former Pro-Bowl Defensive End, Carlos Dunlap (5 TKL, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK in 2 games), there remains a general lack of talent on this unit, which in a scheme that favors athleticism and quickness over deception and versatility has led to all manner of problems; Seattle has allowed 29.6 points per game (28th Overall) thus far on a league-worst 448.3 total yards (32nd Overall), both of which are the most during the Carroll era, with the Pass Defense in particular getting ravaged, yielding 353.3 yards through the air (32nd Overall) on 7.5 net yards per attempt (28th Overall). The pass-rush has been largely ineffective despite logging a middling twenty-two sacks (14th Overall) despite oftentimes selling out to blitz; this group has brought pressure on 34.2% of all defensive snaps (9th Overall), though they haven’t been as nearly as successful as they’d like, posting a hurry percentage of just 8.6% (20th Overall), a knockdown percentage of 7.4% (20th Overall), a pressure percentage of 20.3% (21st Overall), and lastly a sack percentage of only 5.2% (21st Overall). You know you need help up front when your Safety (Adams) leads the team in sacks (5.5) and knockdowns (9), though all that does is take away another capable defender in coverage, but and unlike in the past, there simply isn’t enough talent in the Secondary, particularly on the boundaries to play that way. We’d suggest that Carroll and his Coaching Staff truly rethink their approach over the course of the second half of the campaign, but that is certainly easier said than done when you have six members of the defensive rotation on the injury report, including Cornerbacks, Quinton Dunbar (Knee) and Shaquill Griffin (Concussion), along with Defensive Lineman, Benson Mayowa (Ankle), and Linebacker, K.J. Wright (Ankle).
When we last saw the Seahawks, they continued their descent in a disappointing 23-16 loss at the Los Angeles Rams, an outcome that proved detrimental to their standing within the NFC West. Despite taking an early 7-3 lead, the visitors relinquished back-to-back touchdown drives, with the hosts amassing 170 total yards on those two series alone. Granted, Seattle’s Defense would stiffen up the rest of the way, yielding just seven points over the final 21:19 of play, but they routinely shot themselves in the foot, as Wilson committed three costly turnovers, including a pair of interceptions and a lost fumble, with the final pick proving particularly troublesome; trailing 23-13 in the fourth quarter and driving to the Rams’ 43-yard line, he rolled out to his right and with a wealth of real estate to run towards, the signal-caller instead hoisted the football into the end zone where he was intercepted by a leaping Darious Williams. It was 3rd & 9, and by all intents and purposes he could have picked up the first down with his legs, but instead chose to swing for the proverbial fences, only to pay for it. In the end, it was indeed a rough afternoon for Wilson, who completed 27-of-37 passes for 248 yards, while rushing for another sixty yards on eight carries, but was intercepted twice and sacked on six occasions, one of course leading to a fumble. Defensively, it was a better showing than what we’ve come to associate with the Seahawks of late, but it still wasn’t enough to get the job done, as Los Angeles totaled 389 yards on twenty-four first downs, rushing for 106 yards and three scores on twenty-nine carries, and converting a combined 10-of-16 on third and fourth down, leading to a commanding advantage in time of possession (33:36). Moreover, this loss was damning for Seattle in the standings, for with their second loss within the division they now trail the Rams and Cardinals due to tiebreakers, which is something that they’ll be looking to rectify tonight.