At 3-6, the Seahawks know they're running out of chances to turn their season around, or as Pete Carroll put it this week, "If we're going to do something, we've got to get it rolling and we've got to get rolling against good teams."
And on Sunday the Seahawks will definitely be facing a good team with the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals coming to Lumen Field. If the Seahawks are going to begin turning things around with a win over the 8-2 Cardinals, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game.
1. Cardinals outside linebackers Chandler Jones & Markus Golden vs. Seattle's pass protection.
Russell Wilson and the offense is looking to bounce back from the team's first shutout in a decade, and if the Seahawks quarterback is going to improve upon what was statistically one of the worst games of his career, avoiding the drive-killing sacks that have been an issue at times this year would be a great place to start.
So far this season, Wilson and Geno Smith have been sacked 29 times, the fifth-highest total in the league, and the Seahawks have allowed two or more sacks in every game. While it's not fair to put all sacks on the offensive line—sometimes a play-call can be a bad match for what a defense is doing, sometimes a tight end or running back doesn't execute or misses an assignment, or sometimes a quarterback holds the ball too long—the line obvious is big part of pass protection, and on Sunday, Seattle's line will have its hands full with Cardinals outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.
Jones, a two-time first-team All-Pro and three-time Pro-Bowler, started the season on fire with a five-sack game in the season opener, but he's cooled off since, with only one sack in his past seven games (he missed two games on the COVID-19 list last month). But even if Jones isn't putting up big numbers of late, the Seahawks of all teams know they need to make stopping him a priority.
In nine career games against Seattle, eight of them since joining the Cardinals, Jones has 13.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 21 quarterback hits, and four forced fumbles. The last time Seattle saw Jones in 2019—he missed both of last year's meetings due to injury—he had 4.0 sacks, six quarterback hits and two forced fumbles in a Cardinals victory.
But even if stopping Jones has to be a priority, the Seahawks can't overcommit resources to blocking him, not with Markus Golden rushing from the other side of the. Golden, who was drafted by Arizona in 2015 then later played for the Giants, returned to the Cardinals in a midseason trade last, and since that time he has recorded 12 sacks, including a team-high 9.0 this season, 28 quarterback hits, and five forced fumbles over the course of 19 games.
"Chandler Jones is one of the best defensive ends of all time," Wilson said. "With how many sacks he's had, I think he's one of the most underrated players in the game. He's highly rated, but he's underrated, if that's possible. He's really special… Golden's having a great year too, off the edge. He's coming off the edge and making plays. He's such a high effort player and such a tremendous player and knows how to get to the quarterback.
If Wilson and the passing game are going to get back on track, giving him time to work is a must.
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2. Seattle's running game vs. Arizona's run defense.
The Seahawks have struggled to find a consistent and productive rushing attack this season, particularly with Chris Carson missing the past five games with a neck injury, and that was never more evident than in last week's loss when the Seahawks had only 11 rushing attempts by running backs for a total of 43 yards—Wilson added 32 more yards on five scrambles.
"I didn't like that we didn't get to run the ball more," Carroll said. "In a close game like that, I would have expected that we would have run the ball more than we did. The running backs carried the ball 11 times, that's not enough. It's not enough to get into a rhythm and it's not enough to get a feel for the game. We had so few plays run in the first half in particular. We just never got going."
The Seahawks don't need to put up massive numbers on the ground to be successful on offense, not with a passing game featuring the likes of Wilson, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Gerald Everett, but they do need to be more productive than they have been to avoid being the type of one-dimensional offense that is easier for defenses to attack.
A better running game would also lead to more success on early downs, which in turn should help the Seahawks improve on third down and sustain drives. Through nine games, the Seahawks rank last in the NFL in both time of possession and offensive plays run, and that not only means the offense isn't sustaining drives and scoring as much as they need to, it also puts a burden on a defense that is spending too much time on the field.
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3. James Conner and Arizona's running backs catching passing out of the backfield vs. Jordyn Brooks & Seattle's pass defense.
The Seahawks defense has done so many things well in recent weeks, from eliminating big plays in the passing game, to stopping the run, to playing well on third down and in the red zone, but if there has been a weakness that the defense has yet to fix, it has been the way teams have been able to succeed throwing to the running backs with check downs or screens.
The most obvious example of that came in a Week 7 loss to the Saints in which Alvin Kamara was held to just 51 rushing yards on 21 carries, but was still a huge factor in the game by catching 10 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. And it hasn't just been Kamara finding success as a pass-catching back against the Seahawks. Per Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks have given up a league-high 684 receiving yards to running backs, including 123 to the Packers last week. Screens are hardly the responsibility of a single player, but the way most teams draw them up, it can often fall to a weakside linebacker to be the first line of defense, and as Carroll noted this week, that's one area where 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks has room to grow. Brooks has been playing well of late overall, including recording a team-high 13 tackles last week, but he knows there's still room to grow.
"I think I'm doing a lot of things well as far as the passing game and the run game as well," Brooks said. "For me personally, I want to get better at the screen game. Teams are trying to attack us with screens all day, that's all they have. I have to have better eyes for that."
The Cardinals haven't thrown the ball to running backs a ton this season, though James Conner did have 77 receiving yards and score a 45-yard touchdown on a screen pass last week. And as multiple Seahawks players have mentioned this week, the NFL is a copy-cat league, so the Cardinals and other future Seahawks opponents have no doubt noticed some of Seattle's struggles stopping screens, and will likely keep throwing to running backs until the Seahawks show they can stop that play.
"We just have to see it," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "Sometimes they're catching us in coverages where they're running us off. We have to have better eyes and react a little bit faster and understand that's an area that they're going to find their spots. Watching more film on it as a group and putting this fire out.
"A lot of those plays come with experience, come with time and understanding that whenever you're in a 'trips' formation or there's three people to the field, often times that back side is where you'll get your screen. Whoever's on that back side, which tends to be Jordyn sometimes, or it can be myself, it can be Jamal (Adams), it can be anybody depending on the coverage. It's understanding that's when they decide to do it because you have all your players on this side, you have everybody running up, so you kind of lose that whole side. Whoever's on that side, you've got to see that play. I think it just comes with time and experience. K.J. (Wright) didn't come in as the screen master, he developed and turned into that."
Again, the Seahawks defense has been playing very well over the past month and a half, holding opponents to an average of 17.8 points per game over the past six games after allowing 30-plus in the previous two. But if the defense can clean up the screen game as well, it will be very hard for any offense to find success against the Seahawks.
Take a look back through history at the Seahawks' matchups against the Cardinals as the two teams get ready to face off during Week 18 at State Farm Stadium.