Quarterback play will be a big difference-maker in Seattle.
Granted, it is a long shot he saves his job at this point with how he has handled the quarterback situation of late—and in the past—but it would be a step in the right direction.
Last week against the Jets in New York, rookie Ryan Lindley looked like the worst quarterback in NFL history. By halftime, he had produced one scoring drive, aided by a 40-yard fake punt after originally going three-and-out.
Whisenhunt stuck with his rookie, blaming receivers and his quarterback’s protection for the first-half struggles.
After watching film of the game this week, Whisenhunt has chosen to start John Skelton in place of the struggling rookie—a move so obvious it would have been suspicious had Lindley received the nod.
Here are your three keys to a Cards win in Seattle.
Successful Early-Down Rushing
The run game was supposed to be a strength in 2012. Running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams were supposed to create one of the better NFL tandems—Wells with his power and Williams with his shifty moves.
Williams is on IR and will miss the remainder of the year, while Wells will be playing in his third game since returning from a torn ligament in his toe.
A successful offense against the Seahawks must start with first-down rushing. Greater success on early-down rushing situations will result in fewer yards to cover and will open up more options in the playbook. In addition, Arizona successfully moving the ball on the ground keeps the defense on its heels and gives their own defense time to rest on the sideline.
With a struggling run game last week, the Cardinals’ offense held the ball only 21:52.
Wells must find running lanes for this to happen. There were lanes available in New York, but he often would sidestep them in favor of bouncing to the outside in an attempt to get to the edge.
That did not work.
Find a Passing Game
Many open plays turned into many missed opportunities the last three weeks (the entire season, really). It was most obvious last week—which is why Skelton will start in Seattle—and to keep it so simple as to say, “Find a passing game” seems too easy and obvious.
But, unfortunately, that is what it has come to these days for those wearing Cardinal Red.
Any semblance of a passing game last week and the Cardinals would have ended their seven-game losing streak. Larry Fitzgerald was open on a routine basis—he caught the first pass of the game for 23 yards then made no further contribution.
Because of that, among other things, the streak is at eight games and Whisenhunt is under a heap of scrutiny.
Yes, that was a subtle segue into letting you know tight end Todd Heap was released after nearly two injury-plagued seasons and playing in only a handful of games. He sadly will not be missed.
The status of receiver Andre Roberts is unknown for Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury, so rookie Michael Floyd may once again be called upon to start in his place.
He was one of only three receivers with at least two receptions last week (Rob Housler, Early Doucet), so if there was a positive to take away from the game, that could be it—however miniscule it is.
However it is done—crisper routes, better throws, better protection—the passing game needs to be better than 72 yards and 2.32 yards per attempt. Those statistics are going to lose football games more often than not.
Get to Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson has been arguably the best rookie quarterback in the NFL this season. Yes, better than Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Will he win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award? Probably not.
But he should.
Wilson is the top-rated passer at home this season (among all NFL quarterbacks) with a stellar 122.0 passer rating. The next closest weekly starter is Peyton Manning, at 109.0.
His home stat line is ridiculous: 69-of-111 (62.2 percent) for 935 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
He has topped a 100.0 passer rating six times this year, tied with Griffin, Dan Marino, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton for second-most all-time by a rookie—only Ben Roethlisberger’s eight in 2004 were better.
But when under pressure, he struggles to find open receivers.
Overall, Wilson is 45-of-102 (44.1) with four TD and three INT while under pressure. He is better at home, however, as those numbers improve to 15-of-32 (46.9) with two TD and no INT.
Expect Cards defensive end Calais Campbell back for this game; he was close last week but was held out as a precaution. His pass-rushing prowess, together with inside linebacker Daryl Washington—who leads the team with 9.5 sacks—will be needed to slow down the rookie phenom.
Matchup to Watch: Cards QB John Skelton vs. Seahawks Pass-Rushers
The first time these two teams met this season, Skelton was sacked just once and hit just once, but he was under pressure most of the day—16 total pressures on 30 drop-backs (one pressure for every 1.88 drop-backs is bad).
As I laid out earlier in the week, the Cards offensive line has improved dramatically since then. Much of that improvement can be directly attributed to the re-dedication of right tackle Bobby Massie and the insertion of left tackle Nate Potter.
Together, the two rookies have helped the line stave off pass-rushers at an alarmingly regular rate considering how the season started.
Skelton needs to perform regardless, but he must find receivers when under pressure. Allowing Seattle momentum on sacks in its own backyard is bad news for any team that makes the trek into CenturyLink Field. That crowd has caused 116 false start penalties since 2005, more than any other in the NFL over that time frame.
Giving them reason to be loud is a no-no.
These two defenses are among the best in the league this season. To expect an offensive showdown is foolish, especially considering the forecast is calling for 47 degrees and rain.
The run game will stand tall for Seattle, and that could be too much for Arizona to overcome. The Cardinals have been faulty in stopping the run of late, and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is among the best in the NFL.
He will top 90 yards and score the team’s only touchdown.
The Cards’ offense will be better in this one (how can they be worse than last week?), and Skelton will perform well enough to keep the game close throughout. Wells will be better as well (refer to the question in the previous set of parenthesis), but he will not get into the end zone.
Can the Cardinals pull off the upset on the road with John Skelton under center?
Fitzgerald will have a big day against Richard Sherman, who allowed 23.0 yards per reception last week including a 56-yarder to Brandon Marshall—both season-highs. A Skelton-to-Fitz touchdown will provide the only offensive touchdown for Arizona.
This battle will come down to the pass rush, and Seattle has been struggling to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Final Score: Cards 13, Hawks 7