The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are out to prove that stellar defense can win championships in today's NFL. While the 'Hawks are aiming for their second Lombardi Trophy in as many seasons, the Cards are poised to make a deep postseason run despite a spate of injuries at the quarterback position (and elsewhere).
Arizona can actually clinch the NFC West -- and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- with a win in front of the home crowd on Sunday night. Of course, the naysayers doubt the Cardinals can beat the Seahawkswith third-string QB Ryan Lindley under center. Seattle did beat Arizona 19-3 last month in the madhouse that is CenturyLink Field. But with the game shifting to University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals are a perfect 7-0, I believe Bruce Arians' squad can win behind a monster defensive effort.
After watching the All-22 Coaches Film of the Week 12 battle, I've come up with a game plan. Here's how Arizona needs to approach Seattle in order to pull off the victory:
Scouting the Seahawks
Russell Wilson, QB: The third-year pro is a new-school quarterback, boasting the athleticism to wreak havoc on foes with his legs, as well as the pinpoint passing skills traditionalists covet. In addition, Wilson is a solid game manager capable of turning up his play when the offense needs a spark.
Marshawn Lynch, RB: The four-time Pro Bowler is the engine of the Seahawks' offense. Lynch not only sets the tone with his physicality and toughness on hard-charging runs between the tackles, but he is a dynamic runner with outstanding vision and explosive quickness in traffic. He shows exceptional pitter-pat and agility in the hole, which allows him to consistently pick up yards despite facing eight- and nine-man boxes. As a receiver, Lynch is a strong pass catcher with natural ball skills. He is a capable route runner out of the backfield, but is at his best on swings and throwbacks off bootleg action.
Doug Baldwin, WR: The Seahawks' WR1 is a crafty route runner with sneaky speed and superb ball skills. He excels at working the intermediate areas of the field between the hashes, but is capable of winning on vertical routes down the seam. Given Baldwin's precise routes and dependable hands, he is firmly entrenched as Wilson's top target in key situations.
Jermaine Kearse, WR: The third-year pro is one of the best athletes on the Seahawks' roster. In the wake of Percy Harvin's departure, Kearse has emerged as the vertical threat in the passing game, but he is more than a one-trick pony at the position. Kearse capably runs short and intermediate routes and flashes big-play ability with the ball in his hands on catch-and-run situations. However, he is at his best when running vertical routes down the seam or boundary. With three receptions of 40-plus yards and an average of 14.3 yards per catch, Kearse demands attention from the defense.
Paul Richardson, WR: The rookie pass-catcher is a potential X-factor in the Seahawks' passing game. The slender -- but speedy -- Richardson has the ability to blow the top off the zone with his explosive acceleration and burst. Although he has just one reception of 20-plus yards on the season, he is capable of filling a role as a vertical threat with his speed (clocked at 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine). Given more playing time in recent weeks, Richardson is poised to break out for a big game at any moment.
Luke Willson, Cooper Helfet and Tony Moeaki, TEs: The Seahawks lost a valuable member of the passing game when Zach Miller landed on IR, but the collective contributions of Willson, Helfet and Moeaki have helped the offense sustain the movement-based passing game that tests opponents on the perimeter. The trio has combined for four TD receptions and delivered a number of big plays on the receiving end of Wilson's impromptu scramble tosses. Despite the lack of a legitimate star in the group, Seattle's tight ends deserve some attention when crafting a plan to slow down a multi-faceted attack.
Inside Zone: This is the bread-and-butter play in Seattle's offense. It is designed to hit between the play-side guard and tackle, but the running back has the freedom to cut back if the defense overreacts to the flow of play. Although this play is a staple of every NFL playbook, the Seahawks beautifully accentuate the action by having Russell Wilson execute a run fake following the handoff, to pull a defender or two away from the box.
Zone-Read Keep: The explosive athleticism of Wilson has encouraged the Seahawks to use a variety of zone-read plays to put defenders in a bind at the point of attack. The threat of pounding the ball between the tackles with Lynch lures multiple defenders into the box, creating big-play chances for Wilson when he pulls the ball and races around the end. With the Seahawks periodically using stacked formations -- and positioning receivers well outside the numbers -- Wilson has a cleaner read and more space to run when he keeps the ball.
In the play depicted below, the Seahawks are aligned in a dubs formation, ready to execute a zone-read. After the snap, Wilson sticks the ball in Lynch's belly and reads the reaction of defensive end Josh Mauro. When Mauro crashes hard to Lynch, Wilson pulls the ball and races around the corner for a big gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Bootleg Slide and Delay: The Seahawks' offense features a number of complementary plays that build off the staple plays of the ground game. The most productive passing concepts for Seattle have been Bootleg Slide and Bootleg Delay. The Slide play is a simple bootleg that features run action in one direction and a slide route (WR, FB or TE running across the formation into the flat) flowing to the backside. The WR2 will run an intermediate crossing route to give Wilson a secondary option if a defender jumps the pass catcher in the flat or knocks him off his course in the backfield. When executed properly, the route is nearly impossible to defend and yields big yardage on a simple pass play.
In the next play diagram, Seattle originally aligns in a slot wing formation. Prior to the snap, tight end Luke Willson motions across the formation. In this play, Willson is instructed to slide across the formation and either run to the flat or execute a block, based on a call in the huddle. Meanwhile, wide receiver Ricardo Lockette is running a deep over to give Russell Wilson a target down the field if the Cardinals' defender runs up to take the flat route. After the snap, Wilson spots a pair of Cardinals sitting in the flat, leading him to take a shot down the field. Lockette runs away from cornerback Patrick Peterson and gains 48 yards on a well-executed bootleg pass (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The "Delay" route is a bootleg with run action in one direction and a delayed far route executed on the backside by the tight end or H-back. The flow of the action -- combined with a fake block by the tight end -- fools second-level defenders, leaving the tight end alone in the flat on the release. With Wilson instructed to take the first open receiver when he finishes his run-action fake, the tight end routinely gets the ball on this play, unless a disciplined defender sniffs out the bootleg and clings to him at the line of scrimmage. (Click here to see an example of this.)
Cardinals' defensive objectives
1) Stop the Lynch-Wilson combination on the ground.
Arizona clearly understands that the Seahawks' run-centric offense is built around the explosive talents of Lynch and Wilson. The effective utilization of the zone-read forces the defense to account for the quarterback at all times, leading to fewer defenders assigned to the running back. Todd Bowles' defensive unit did an outstanding job slowing down the run and stopping Lynch (15 carries for 39 yards) in Week 12, but allowed Wilson to squirt out on a few keepers around the corner, including a 40-yarder. Still, Arizona largely demonstrated a sound understanding of how to defend the zone-read with a disciplined approach at the point of attack.
In the play just below, the Cardinals are aligned in their base defense, with the D-line overshifted to the tight end side. Arizona will run a stunt with the LDE angling inside to crash on the inside zone and the LOLB sitting (and responsible for the QB keeper). The LILB attacks the hole when he reads the play and gives the Cardinals an extra defender at the point of attack. When Wilson gives the ball to Lynch, the Cardinals have more defenders at the point of attack -- plus they're still in position to contain Wilson on a potential keeper. The play is stuffed at the line (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the following play depiction, Seattle is aligned in a dubs formation, ready to execute the zone-read. Wilson reads the aggressive reaction of the defensive end and attempts to race around the end, but safety Deone Bucannon reads the play and forces Wilson inside for a short gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Force Wilson to make plays from the pocket.
For all of the attention Wilson receives from his spectacular improvisational skills, the two-time Pro Bowler remains a work in progress as a pocket passer. While he completes a high number of his passes when throwing in rhythm, he is at his best when extending plays and connecting with receivers on scramble tosses. Thus, the Cardinals would be wise to force Wilson to sit inside the pocket and attack the defense with pinpoint throws over the middle of the field. Wilson is capable of stringing together completions on rhythmic throws, but the Seahawks' shaky offensive line makes him vulnerable to pressure from elite defenses. Additionally, the inability of Seattle's receivers to consistently defeat tight coverage on the perimeter can force Wilson to hold the ball for extended periods of time.
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Cardinals sacked Wilson seven times, relying on a mix of heavy pressure and max coverage to disrupt the timing of the passing game. The Cardinals' edge rushers were disciplined with the depth of their rushes -- refusing to go past the level of Wilson's drop -- leaving few lanes for the elusive QB to flee the pocket. In addition, the Cardinals attacked the interior with a number of games and stunts that disrupted the integrity of the Seahawks' protection in the middle. With big-bodied rushers like Calais Campbell wreaking havoc along the front line, Arizona was able to contain Wilson and force him into a scattershot performance in Round 1.
The Seahawks love to use a variety of empty formations to dictate terms to the defense. The spread formation typically forces defensive coordinators to scale back their aggressiveness, due to concerns about leaving defensive backs in one-on-one matchups in space. The Cardinals, however, have a deep and talented secondary that features a number of rangy defenders with the athleticism and versatility to blanket receivers in man coverage. Additionally, Bowles routinely employs a variety of sub-packages that place safeties and nickelbacks on the second level as quasi-linebackers.
With a host of hybrid players on the field capable of blitzing or dropping into the coverage, the Cardinals should attack Wilson whenever Seattle breaks the huddle in an empty formation. By blitzing five or six defenders at Wilson when he doesn't have a running back in the backfield, Bowles can force the young passer to make quick decisions under duress. Given the fine coverage routinely provided by this secondary, an errant toss can quickly turn into a critical interception that helps the team score some points. (No small thing, given Arizona's QB situation.)
In the following play, the Seahawks line up in an empty formation with Wilson in the shotgun. The Cardinals counter the tactic by bringing an additional defender off the edge to create a five-man pressure. With the extra pressure producing one-on-one matchups at the point of attack, Arizona is able to collapse the pocket, keep Wilson contained and tackle the slippery playmaker for a six-yard loss (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In our last play diagram, the Seahawks are again aligned in an empty formation with three receivers positioned in a bunch to the right. The Cardinals counter the formation with a Cover 0 all-out blitz, with Bucannon and Larry Foote coming off the edges. The Seahawks are outnumbered at the point of attack, leaving Bucannon with a free run to the quarterback for an easy sack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
4) Hold Seattle to 10 points or fewer.
For as well as the Seahawks have played in recent weeks, the offense has repeatedly settled for field goals in the red zone. As a result, opponents have been able to stay within striking distance despite being overwhelmed by Seattle's suffocating defense. The Cardinals are equipped to win a defensive battle, due to their own stifling defense and a wealth of experience in low-scoring games.
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From a strategic standpoint, the Cardinals must be willing to ratchet up the pressure on red-zone possessions, to force the Seahawks into negative plays, and consequently, yield field goals instead of touchdowns. In addition, Arizona must keep the ball in front of the defense and not allow the Seahawks to generate explosive plays (20-plus yards) in the passing game. Although the Cardinals are a blitz-heavy bunch under Bowles, the secondary can't allow the ball to fly over the top. The Bird Gang has surrendered 11 receptions of 40-plus yards this season -- tied the eighth-highest total in the NFL -- so it's important for the safeties to stay over the top on Sunday night. If the Cardinals can make Seattle drive the length of the field without the benefit of a home run, the odds suggest the NFL's third-ranked scoring defense will find a way to keep the 'Hawks out of the end zone.