Arizona Cardinals: 3 Keys to a Week 1 Victory over Seattle Seahawks
The Cardinals’ offseason was unlike any they have experienced under coach Ken Whisenhunt. You all remember the quarterback competitions of 2007, 2008 and 2010, but the one Arizona settled last week by naming third-year QB John Skelton the starter was one for the ages.
And not in a good way.
Although Skelton gives the Cards a better chance every week, neither he nor Kevin Kolb did anything to make this an easier decision for the coaching staff.
The competition dragged on, the choice finally being made following the preseason-ending home game against the Denver Broncos—a game in which both Skelton and Kolb sat out.
This offseason also saw two of the franchise's best young players signed to contract extensions.
Defensive end Calais Campbell and linebacker Daryl Washington have been locked up through the 2016 and 2017 seasons, respectively. Every star player on Arizona’s defense now has a contract through at least the 2015 season, when safety Adrian Wilson’s deal expires.
With that brief rundown of the Cardinals’ offseason out of the way, here are the three keys to a Week 1 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Make Russell Wilson Beat Them
For the third consecutive year, Arizona opens the regular season against a rookie quarterback.
In 2010, the defense forced St. Louis Rams’ top overall pick Sam Bradford into three interceptions en route to a 17-13 win. Last season, another former No. 1 overall selection, Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton threw for 422 yards, an NFL rookie record. Still, though, Arizona emerged victorious, 28-21.
And this season, the Cardinals' defense figures to be much better than in the previous two openers.
Bottling up Seattle's rushing attack will be the best way for Arizona to put pressure on Seattle's Russell Wilson
Running back Marshawn Lynch is questionable with back spasms (via Seahawks.com), but according to the report, he has a “50-50 chance” of playing. Rookie running back Robert Turbin figures to make an impact this season, but if Lynch is forced to sit out, he will have a tough time making anything happen.
Stopping the run will force Wilson to make plays with his arm, and this is where it gets fun for the defense.
Second-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton will dial up all sorts of blitz schemes to increase the pressure produced by the front seven.
The entire preseason, Wilson shined against vanilla defenses that rarely blitzed. When there was pressure from a four-man rush, it was easy for the third-round pick to sidestep the rush or step up into the pocket and deliver the ball downfield.
With as many as six Cardinals coming from anywhere and everywhere on any down and distance, Wilson could be forced into bad decisions.
Arizona’s defense survived while producing minimal turnovers last year.
Its main objective coming into 2012 has to be generating more momentum-shifting plays. In a June radio interview with Arizona Sports 620’s Doug and Wolf, Horton cited the added number of defensive plays as a reason the unit has improved, but turnovers are what sets teams apart.
We made great leaps and bounds in a number of statistical categories [toward the end of 2011]. But the one thing that correlates most with making the playoffs is turnover margin.
The turnover margin is a two-way street, however.
John Skelton Must Protect the Ball
Turnovers have been an issue for Skelton. With 14 interceptions in eight games last season, that is obvious.
For Skelton, protecting the football means two things: handing the ball off more and making better decisions when called upon to sling it.
He has flashed the ability to make big plays, most notably with his team trailing in late-game situations. But he has also made some bad reads and overthrown receivers, causing turnovers.
Skelton did not scorch defenses this preseason—and preseason means little in terms of how a player will perform during the regular year—but also did not make many glaring mistakes. Schemes will be ramped up across the board, as will the offense, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the certain pressure he will face in real-game scenarios.
The term “game manager” is thrown around the major sports networks when analysts describe average quarterbacks. It’s a term that makes many—present company included—cringe, but it actually fits what the Cardinals need from Skelton.
They don’t need him to force things. That is what leads to turnovers.
Get the Ball to Larry Fitzgerald
Fitz racked up 15 catches for 282 yards and one TD during the teams’ two matchups last season. He shows up to play against every opponent, but the Seahawks tend to get his best.
The Seahawks have a tandem of big, physical corners in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Both stand at eye level with Fitzgerald, who is 6'3", and both have thrived by using their size to shadow receivers.
They can’t stop the Cardinals’ all-time leading receiver, however.
No matter what they do, Fitz finds a way to get open in the most crucial moments—and he makes them pay.
Arizona will unveil its newly found size at receiver this weekend. Not only do they have Fitzgerald, but they also have first-round pick Michael Floyd at 6’3” and undrafted rookie LaRon Byrd at 6’4”.
That size will come in handy against the Seattle secondary. It’s almost as if the Cardinals brought in bigger receivers specifically to counter the Seahawks’ large corners.
Whatever the reason, it may work to reduce the number of bracket coverages used on Fitzgerald. Forcing the Seahawks to pay attention elsewhere on the field will lead to that one opportunity that can change the outcome of the game.
Fitz will be waiting.
Matchup to Watch
Cards’ LT D’Anthony Batiste vs. Hawks’ DE Chris Clemons
The newly appointed protector of Skelton’s blind side, D’Anthony Batiste has not started an NFL game since 2007 and has just four starts to his credit thus far—all at guard (via Darren Urban, AZCardinals.com).
Clemons lived in the backfield during last year’s game in Seattle, routinely beating Levi Brown and generating a personal season-high seven QB hurries and one sack of Kevin Kolb. He was held in check by Brown in Arizona, however.
With Brown on injured reserve this season, Clemons could have a big day against Batiste. Keep a close eye on this matchup. It may have a direct impact on the final outcome.
Defense may be the name of this game. Both the Cardinals and Seahawks could end the season with top-10 overall defenses, and this game will be the kick-starter for both units.
Beanie Wells is listed as questionable with a hamstring issue. As ESPN NFC West lead blogger Mike Sando points out, that is not normally an issue.
Beanie Wells was questionable with hammies twice last season: 47 carries, 198 yards and 4 TDs vs MIN, NYG.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@espn_nfcwest) September 7, 2012
He will play, and he could be instrumental in getting a win. With both he and Ryan Williams coming off knee surgery, expect the two to have an almost equal number of carries. Wells will pound the middle and set the edge, while Williams will begin to make a name for himself by using his trademark stop-on-a-dime cuts and slashes to find creases in the defense.
Skelton will complete around 55 percent of his passes for 220 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
A Wells' touchdown run will be the difference in this otherwise field goal-happy contest.
Final Score: Cards 16, Hawks 10