The Seahawks head to Arizona this weekend looking for a second straight victory, and they're facing a Cardinals squad looking to get on track after an 0-3 start to the season. While the Seahawks always prefer to play in front of their fans at CenturyLink Field, they have fared well on the road against the Cardinals in recent years, going 4-0-1 since 2013 in what is now known as State Farm Stadium.
"This is the first opportunity to jump into the division," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "It's really important that we play well on the road—better than we have—so this is an important game for us."
If the Seahawks are going to keep up their winning ways in the desert, here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game.
1. The rookie QB vs. a ball-hawking secondary.
Through three games, the Cardinals are averaging just 6.7 points per game and rank last in the NFL in scoring, total offense, rushing offense and passing offense, and those offensive struggles are a big part of the reason Arizona is winless so far this season.
In an attempt to get the offense going, the Cardinals made a change at quarterback late in last week's game, turning to first-round pick Josh Rosen, and on Sunday the rookie out of UCLA will make his first career start. Standing in Rosen's way will be a Seattle defense that has been among the best in the NFL at taking the ball away, with eight takeaways, including seven interceptions from the secondary. Seattle's defense has played very well overall in the past two games, and showed it could get to the quarterback last week, recording five sacks in a win over Dallas.
"They're very opportunistic," Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said of Seattle's defense. "That's been their trademark in the past, that mantra is still there. They take the ball away, they force fumbles. We have to do a great job of protecting the football, number one, and really creating separation within our routes and really just be detailed in everything that we are doing."
While the Seahawks hope Rosen's inexperience will help them find success against Arizona's offense, they also know that the talented rookie represents something of a wild card in his first start because there is so little game tape of him to go off of in film study.
"The challenge is how they're going to utilize him, how they're going to mix their stuff and what they think," Carroll said. "We won't know until we play. We have to go on what they've done, but anticipate that we may have to adjust, so we've just got to wait and see. He's a real capable thrower. He can throw everything, so it's not like we can narrow it down and figure out what they're going to do. We don't know right now. So, we're going to play good football and adjust as the game goes."
2. David Johnson vs. Seattle's run defense.
While the Cardinals are hoping a change at quarterback will jumpstart their offense, they know one of the biggest keys for them on Sunday will be getting more production out of running back David Johnson. Johnson, who missed all but one game last year with a knee injury, was one of the NFL's top offensive weapons in 2016, gaining 2,118 yards from scrimmage and scoring 20 touchdowns. This season, Johnson has been limited to 116 rushing yards and a 3.4 yards-per-carry average, and 63 receiving yards through three games.
Any team with a back as talented as Johnson would try to feature him in its offense regardless of other circumstances, but the Seahawks expect that to be the case even more so this weekend with a rookie quarterback making his first start.
"You're not going to put the game solely on his shoulders," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "You're going to lean on 31 (Johnson) a little bit more."
Seattle's defense has done a lot of things well of late, but their run defense has been inconsistent at times, so they know they'll have to clean things up if they're going to contain Johnson and force the Cardinals to be one-dimensional on offense.
"He's such a versatile player," Carroll said. "He does everything out of the backfield. They can move him out, they do all kinds of stuff. We have a lot of experience in seeing that, so we kind of have everything in mind we have to get prepared for.
"We've always zeroed in on him and their style of running. They're a different staff now and a different style and a different play caller and all that. We don't have any of that advantage after all the years we've played them. I think he's really difficult to bottle up, and you can bottle him up in the running game and he'll beat you in the throwing game. He's a fantastic football player."
3. Seattle's pass protection vs. an aggressive Cardinals defensive front.
After giving up 12 sacks in their first two games, the Seahawks cleaned things up considerably in that department last week, allowing just two sacks against the Cowboys, and none until the middle of the third quarter. Building off of that won't be easy against an aggressive Cardinals defense that loves to bring pressure under first-year head coach Steve Wilks. Arizona's defensive scheme will look different than it has in past years because of Wilks' influence, but it should still look familiar to the Seahawks because of Wilks' background in Carolina, a team the Seahawks have played almost every year dating back to 2012.
"They just bring a lot of pressure," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "They're playing some different stuff—they're playing a lot of sub (packages) right now, a lot of nickel defense with extra DBs in the game. Obviously, the pressure numbers are really high. They've got a couple of guys that they bring more than other guys. They've played a couple of pretty good offenses, but they cause problems… It'll be a challenge. They're a team that can get on you in a hurry with some of the pressure packages that they have."
And it's not just scheme that makes Arizona's pass rush dangerous, they also feature some tough matchups, most notably defensive end Chandler Jones, who has 28 sacks over the past two seasons, including 17 last year. Third-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, a first-round pick in 2016, is also off to a good start this year with two sacks and a forced fumble.
As is always the case, more goes into avoiding sacks than just good pass protection. One reason the Seahawks took fewer sacks last week is that they ran the ball more often and with more success than they had in the first two games, avoiding predictable passing situations and long down-and-distance scenarios—that was also a big factor in Seattle being better on third down. So while the pass blocking will need to be on point to handle an aggressive Arizona pass rush, the Seahawks can also help themselves by maintaining the balance they showed in last week's win.
"We know we want to play with a balance," Schottenheimer said. "We want to get to that number of over fifty, close to fifty-five rushing attempts and completions. We were able to do that this week, but each week is a different story. We want to sustain it, but there's more to it than just calling runs to sustain it. You've got to do a great job on third down, you've got to stay ahead of the sticks, defense has got to do a great job giving the ball back, which they did. We think we can (stay balanced) and that's the expectation."
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Cardinals as the two teams get ready to face off during Week 11 at Lumen Field.