The Arizona Cardinals recorded one of the big shocks of the 2013 season when they won in Seattle in week 16. It caused a lot of panic at the time.
The Seahawks were supposedly unbeatable at home. At least the 2013 version of the Seahawks. They’d come through a couple of toughies (most notably against 0-7 Tampa Bay) and destroyed contenders like San Francisco and New Orleans. Then the Cardinals rocked up and gave Seattle a bloody nose. They made the Seahawks look average.
They harassed Russell Wilson with creative blitzing. They survived four interceptions by Carson Palmer. They had a little luck (well, a lot of luck actually). But they earned it. They deserved the win. You could easily say it was the catalyst for their current success as a 9-1 runaway leader of the NFC West. That win at Century Link was the moment Bruce Arians’ Cardinals made a statement. They were the real deal.
My lasting takeaway from that game is the point I want to linger on today. The receivers. Despite all the blitzing and controlled chaos up front, Seattle had opportunities. And they’ll get them again on Sunday. The Cardinals want to attack you and keep you guessing. They’ll gamble to bring extra pressure because they back their secondary to work 1v1. They have two top-tier cornerbacks, competitive roaming safety’s and a new hybrid safety/linebacker from Washington State. They’ll give you the looks you want. And they’ll dare you to execute.
In week 16 last year Seattle’s receivers had a nightmare. They dropped passes. They couldn’t get up open in man coverage. They constantly got a hand to the ball, only to fail to bring it in. The usual shots that came off during the regular season were missing. They were as rattled as Wilson trying to deal with the blitz. If the Seahawks make 2-3 extra plays on offense in that game, they probably squeeze by. They didn’t.
A growing criticism this year is the performance of the wide receivers. Good enough last year, the group suddenly looks a little more “pedestrian” without Percy Harvin, Golden Tate and Zach Miller. Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are good players. But neither provides a mismatch in single coverage, wherever they line up. Neither are they adept at just finding a way to get open. With Seattle’s passing game being naturally conservative, Wilson has always played with an element of caution. He doesn’t throw into too many tight windows — and I suspect he’s told not to. On Sunday he’s not only going to have to take some chances after a quick, decisive read — the receivers are going to have to make plays.
(I also think this isn’t a game for Wilson to get cute calling audibles. It’s still an area of his game he can improve. This is all about working your protections and finding the soft spot where you can make a quick throw. If he thinks too much he’s going to get hammered — and it won’t be the offensive line’s fault. If you bring six or seven rushers against five linemen… you do the math).
It’s actually a great opportunity for Baldwin and co. to do what they do best — prove people wrong. At a time when we’re all saying this team needs a big target or better talent at receiver/tight end — what a chance to go and prove it’s not quite the critical need. Let’s hope they get it done. Seattle needs a win and this is the time to deliver. I’m not sure it’ll change too much in terms of the off-season, but this is about now.
Obviously they were banking on Harvin being an X-Factor and there’s little point re-hashing the impact of that calamitous trade. This is what they’re left with. If the Seahawks want to keep their season alive and beat Arizona on Sunday, the receivers have to do better against this scheme. They have to make plays.
I watched the Cardinals beat Detroit last weekend and it’s a classic example why this could come down to the passing game. Matt Stafford had very little time to think, but when he did take shots down the field even the great Calvin Johnson wasn’t winning many battles with Patrick Peterson. Megatron had five catches for 59 yards. Golden Tate had two catches for 41 yards. Stafford completed just 18/30 passing for 183 yards. Arizona strangled the big plays downfield, made Stafford uncomfortable with the blitz and demanded he made take chances into tight man coverage. The receivers struggled to compete.
As much as Arians deserves endless praise for a sensational coaching effort (not to mention dealing with a series of injuries — particularly at quarterback), Todd Bowles’ defensive scheme is a winner. He should be the hot candidate for Head Coaching jobs in the off-season. And yet you kind of expect him to stay put — new contract in hand. He’s got a good thing going here. He could probably even replace Arians down the line. His scheme is terrific and matches perfectly with the talent at his disposal. They blitz perfectly and they’ve got the talent in the back end to challenge 1v1. It’s brilliant. Simply brilliant.
As well as Seattle’s defense played at times in 2013 — this Cardinals unit might be even better. The Seahawks brought in big name pass rushers to take the final push to a Championship. This Arizona defense has been crafted meticulously and appears to rely less on individuals. They’d be an easy team to root for if they weren’t in your division. Any fan watching the playoffs from the outside will probably rally behind the Cards. And they’re doing it all without several key defensive players — including their best pass rusher last year (John Abraham).
They’ve developed into the team to beat in the NFC West, overtaking the rival Seahawks and 49ers. For Seattle to match up to this scheme — they have to be more dangerous at receiver. They need to make Arizona think twice about blitzing. Do you think they’ll have any hesitation to throw the house at the Seahawks on Sunday? Sadly not. They aren’t going to worry about getting burned by this group of receivers in man coverage.
Unfortunately, despite all the attention paid over the last two years, the Seahawks are going to have to zone in on receivers again (in the draft or free agency). Kevin Norwood may well develop into a player to combat the Cards’ physical scheme. But right not he’s on the periphery as a 25-year-old fourth round rookie. And while a softly-softly approach is fine for any first-time receiver, it’s worth noting he’ll be nearer 30 than 20 during the 2015 season. He’s already at the age where you’d expect him to hit his peak.
If there was ever a time to test Paul Richardson’s deep speed, this might be it. It’s harder to use press-man coverage if you’ve got a guy who can fly. If he can mix it up at the line and get deep this could end up being a coming out party for Richardson. It’s a big if, but it is about time Seattle’s top rookie joined the other receivers making a splash this season.
When it comes to the time to add that needed receiver (or receivers) in the off-season, the options aren’t unlimited. As we discussed earlier in the week, nobody should expect Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas to make the market. It’s more likely a top tight end like Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron gets free — but Thomas has only had two productive years with the ultimate passing offense and Cameron has major concussion issues. Cleveland’s incredible cap situation would allow them to franchise Cameron on a prove-it one year deal and still do whatever else they want in free agency.
The draft has a few options but the depth isn’t anywhere near last year. Are the Seahawks prepared to take a receiver with their first in the draft for the third straight year (counting Harvin)? Especially with so much pass rush talent available — not to mention the possible need to replace Marshawn Lynch (more on that later)?
I’ve not studied Duron Carter (see video at the top of the piece) that much because the access to full CFL game tape is non-existent. Jason La Canfora says Seattle are showing interest, but so is most of the league. It strange to say this about a troubled CFL project, but he might be their best bet. He has the size and the potential. He’s available. He has the bloodlines. And with limited options elsewhere he could be provide some much needed help.
If La Canfora’s report is accurate, the Colts are favorites to land Carter. It could take an All-Pro recruiting job by Carroll to change that — one we know he’s capable of. On the one hand you get to go and play for a prolific Indianapolis passing offense and one of the best pure-passing quarterbacks. You’ll get stats and opportunities. Or you can play for a run-heavy offense, maybe get 2-3 targets a game and by the way, your Dad had a very public war of words with potential team mate Doug Baldwin.
It’s not looking promising is it?
Still, perhaps Seattle would provide a quicker route to a starting role. Indianapolis may re-sign Reggie Wayne. They have T.Y. Hilton and two productive tight ends. They brought in Donte Moncrief to develop. They have other options too. The Seahawks can at least offer Carter the chance to compete to be an immediate impact player. It’d be down to him to prove he’s ready to make the most of his potential, after a torrid college career (something La Canfora touches on).
Carter can officially start working out for teams next month, but he’s not permitted to sign any contract until February.
Finally there’s another Marshawn Lynch update today. Carroll was finally asked about the situation by the local beat writers and gave a mixed response:
On first glance it all looks positive. Carroll “wants” him to stay as long as he can play. Then you look a little closer. “We’ll do everything we can to get that done.” What needs to be done? He’s under contract. They can afford his salary in the aftermath of the Harvin trade.
It hints at perhaps a concession on Lynch’s behalf, possibly in terms of not asking for more money again. At the very least it shows something needs to happen to get it done. It’s no foregone conclusion that he returns, unlike other key players under contract for next season. That’s a little different than simply denying the story and saying he’ll be in Seattle. It’s an admittance that something, whatever it may be, needs to happen for it to come off.
The answer offers hope and takes it away in equal measure. The door is left open for a return — and yet reports saying he’s done in Seattle weren’t totally ruled out. At a time when the Seahawks are facing up to possible repair work to the defensive line and receiver, it’s still hard to work out how they can move on from their very best offensive player. A player so crucial to the identity of this team. A player some would argue they cannot afford to lose.