Stay on top.
That's a directive preached to Seahawks defensive backs on a near daily basis, and it's a key tenet in Seattle's defensive philosophy that will be tested in a big way when the Seahawks play at Arizona Sunday.
It's one thing for a defense to say it wants to avoid giving up big plays in the passing game, it's another to actually accomplish that against a Cardinals offense that has scored the most points in the NFL this season, thanks in large part to passing game that averages a league-best 8.8 yards per pass attempt, and is among the league leaders in nearly every statistical category when it comes to passing offense.
When the Seahawks hosted the Cardinals in Week 10, Arizona scored 39 points, the most allowed by Seattle since Pete Carroll's first season here, and they had 451 yards and 30 first downs.
"They're a very bold throwing football team," Carroll said. "They really attack downfield, and (their receivers) all seem to fit it very well. It all fits together very well, that's why they're so successful."
The Seahawks have plenty of reason to believe they perform well against Arizona's high-flying offense. For all the concern this season over what has gone wrong with Seattle's pass defense, the Seahawks still rank second in passing yards allowed, total yards allowed, third in points allowed and have given up a league-low 13 passing touchdowns. So high is the standard for a Seahawks defense that those rankings equate to an "off" year to some observers, but overall Seattle's defense has played at a very high level this season.
"It's always the same," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We limit people, we don't give up a lot of yards. Whether the outside world realizes it or not is indifferent to us. Obviously, we're always going to be in top two, top three, number one most of the time in yards, scoring. I'm sure we're top three in all of those, passing yards, rushing yards. People just lose that sometimes in a season. We just stay the course and continue to do what we've always done."
As Carroll mentioned, part of what makes Arizona's passing attack so potent—in addition to the play of quarterback Carson Palmer, who is having an MVP-caliber season—is a diverse group of receivers led by Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, who have combined to catch 215 passes for 2,951 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"I really like this group because of the diversity in their styles, we appreciate that," Carroll said. "Larry, he's got a 100 catches plus. He does all kinds of things that he does uniquely, in a way with timing that is so special with Carson. They're great at it, and he's got his own kind of role that he plays. Johnathan Brown is a bigtime downfield threat, catch and run guy as well. And Michael Floyd has just developed as a really good, clutch guy to go to, and he plays the bigger role. So they really have their roles in the offense that hopefully we'll try to keep under control. But it's why they've had so much success. There's a real diversity in those styles. (Cardinals coach Bruce Arians) is doing a great job of using them, and Carson has done a great job of recognizing and being consistent with getting to them."
Yet for as dangerous as the Cardinals are in the passing game, the Seahawks feel they are better equipped to face them this time around. Jeremy Lane was still on the physically unable to perform list when the two teams played in Week 10, and Cary Williams was still a week away from losing his job at right cornerback to DeShawn Shead.
Shead and Lane have been battling for time at right cornerback the past two weeks, and while Carroll wouldn't say who will start there this week, the flexibility of both to play outside and as the nickel cornerback gives the Seahawks flexibility to match up with Arizona's versatile receivers in ways they couldn't seven weeks ago.
"We just think it's going to just make us better for whatever the needs are," Carroll said of his cornerbacks' versatility. "And then we look at the matchups too that we'll have on the slot. Marcus (Burley) has done a good job for us too. So we just feel that we have some flexibility, so as we get prepared through the weeks, we'll look at the matchups and make some decisions and kind of unveil that on game time."
While Shead and Lane might not know their exact roles from week to week—"I prefer (playing) wherever helps the team," Shead said—the Seahawks do feel good about how they can match up regardless of who is playing where.
"They've got versatility, we've got versatility; it'll be a good matchup," Shead said. "They put their guys all in different places to try to get them the ball, and we try to do the same thing to stop them from getting the ball.
"This week, we've got to stay on top. We've got to find ways to stay on top and eliminate the big plays. They're an explosive passing offense, and we've got a great secondary, so it's going to be a great matchup."