The Seahawks close out their season with a trip to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are still in contention for the NFC West title, needing a win Sunday combined with a Rams loss to the 49ers, while the Seahawks are looking to finish strong and build some momentum heading into the offseason following a disappointing 2021 campaign. If the Seahawks are going to end the season on a high note, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game at State Farm Stadium:
1. Rashaad Penny vs. the Cardinals Run D.
The Seahawks managed only 86 rushing yards on 19 carries in the last meeting between these teams, a Cardinals win, and it was part of a midseason stretch in which Seattle's running game struggled to get on track, failing to gain 100 yards in five straight games, a streak that likely would have been six games if not for a fake punt turning into a 73-yard Travis Homer touchdown run.
Over the last month, however, the Seahawks have had one of the best rushing attacks in the league with Rashaad Penny leading the way. The Seahawks have gained 170 or more yards in three of their last four games, with Penny accounting for 135 or more in those three games, including 170 and two touchdowns last week as the Seahawks rushed for a season-high 265 as a team.
While the Cardinals run defense numbers are somewhat middle-of-the pack—they allow 109.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks 11th in the league, and allow 4.4. yards per carry, which ranks 23rd—they do make teams earn those yards without giving up big chunk plays. Arizona has allowed only one run of 40 or more yards this year, and only five of 20 or more, the fifth fewest in the league. Seattle's running game, meanwhile, has thrived of late in no small part due to Penny's big-play ability. Over the past four games, Penny has six runs of 25 or more yards, a total that ranks second in the NFL for the entire season, and only two fewer than league leader Jonathan Taylor, who has eight runs of 25 or more yards on 317 carries, compared to six such runs for Penny on 96 carries.
"(Penny) really brought it to life," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the running game. "He really has a great knack and a great sense for finding the running lanes, then he has the burst to take advantage of it. He's not making five or six, he's making ten and 12s with a chance to pop it. He's really added to it a tremendous amount. It's the working together, but it was there. I've been saying it for a couple of months, it's really been a couple of months that I thought that we really made a big advancement, but we hadn't been able to cash in. I'm thrilled to see it now."
2. The dual threat of Kyler Murray vs. Seattle's entire defense.
As Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it, "There is nobody like Kyler Murray in terms of his style of play," and due to an injury, this will be the first time the Seahawks have seen Murray this year.
Murray started the year looking like a legit MVP candidate, and while he and the Cardinals offense has cooled off some, he is still incredibly dangerous both a thrower who loves to take his shots down the field, and also as a runner. Murray's rushing numbers are down from last year when he had 819 yards and 11 scores on the ground, but he's still dangerous with 388 yards and five touchdowns, including 118 rushing yards in the past two games. Murray also had his best passing game in the past month in last weekend's win over Dallas, posting a 105.5 passer rating while throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
Murray's running ability could be particularly important this week with Arizona's top two rushers, Chase Edmonds and James Conner both dealing with injuries, leading to Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury saying the team is "going to be smart" with those two in terms of their injuries and making sure they're ready for the playoffs.
"He has his own uniqueness that jumps out at you, you can't deny it," Carroll said of Murray. "Their offense is similar (to what Seattle saw earlier in the season with Murray sidelined), they run similar plays and stuff like that, but the dynamic element that he brings to the game is really just very unique, so it's his ability to take off on designed runs one, but on scrambles that make it such a challenge. He is a fantastic football player, so I am sure that they are happy to have him back."
The Seahawks defense has been solid almost all season long, particularly in the run, allowing just 3.8 yards per carry, which ranks second in the NFL, but thanks to injuries keeping Murray and Chicago's Justin Fields out of games against Seattle this season, this year's Seahawks defense hasn't seen a dual threat like Murray.
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3. Cardinals pass-rusher Chandler Jones vs. Seattle's pass protection.
The Seahawks have faced a number of prolific pass-rushers in the NFC West who have been a headache for the better part of a decade, and ranking right up there with the likes of longtime Rams standouts Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn—who has since moved onto Chicago, with whom he added another sack against Seattle two weeks ago—is Chandler Jones, who joined the Cardinals in 2016 after spending his first four seasons in New England.
In 10 career games against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, Jones has piled up 15.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits and five forced fumbles, numbers that include two sacks, three QB hits and a forced fumble when these teams met in Week 11.
The Seahawks pass protection has been better of late, allowing up just one sack and three QB hits last week, and allowing two or fewer sacks in three of the last four games. Prior to that stretch, which started with allowing no sacks against Houston, the Seahawks had allowed three or more sacks in nine of their first 12 games and at least two sacks in every game.
"He is an amazing player, I've been really influenced by his play this year and how hard he plays so consistently," Carroll said. "He's throwing his body around and just so wildly going after it. He had the big start to the season, remember he had five sacks in the opener, so everybody has given him every bit of attention that you could possibly get. That doesn't help when you start that fast, everybody can't miss chips, the extra lineman, every back hitting him before they go out and that kind of stuff. He's just an incredible athlete, he's so long and lanky and yet still quick and explosive that he just beats guys. He is really a problem to block in any kind of combinations, run and pass. I've really been impressed with his effort, his motor really showed up this year. Maybe I missed it in the past, but I've been the most impressed this season."