Credit Arizona coach Bruce Arians for a brilliant plan, and the defense for executing it. The Seahawks were exposed, and have one more game to cover up.
Don’t think for a minute that the outcome Sunday turned on officiating calls or bad breaks. The Cardinals beat the Seahawks 17-10 by exposing shortcomings in the offensive line and the return game, and by minimizing their own vulnerabilities. That’s due to good coaching. Suddenly, Pete Carroll doesn’t have just Jim Harbaugh to worry about in the NFC West.Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had the players and the plan to do what was believed nearly impossible this season — beat the Seahawks at the Clink.
“We had a run-defense plan that was outstanding,” he said. “We knew that if (Seattle were) to get the lead, they were going to have to throw. Even with play-action passing, they have to keep trying to run.
“But we were able to get good pressure and chase Russell around. We chased him off his spot on some passes.”
The Arizona defense was so good that even Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin had to marvel.
“They did things we hadn’t seen from them the first time,” referring to Seattle’s 34-22 win in Phoenix Oct. 17. “Sometimes, I’d come to the the line (of scrimmage) and say, ‘They’re in the perfect coverage for this play.’”
NFC West familiarity, it seems, breeds conquest. The Seahawks have lost two of their past three games to teams that know them best.
Besides forcing Wilson into his worst game and first home loss as a pro, RB Marshawn Lynch was held to 11 yards rushing in the second half. When beleaguered QB Carson Palmer pulled his team together for a 10-play, 80-yard drive to the game-winning touchdown with a little more than two minutes remaining, Arians had a rare, great experience — the Clink sellout fell silent as a baby’s sleep.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Arians said. “This is why you play the game — to come into a venue like this (that’s) fantastic, with great fans, and win.”
Jubilation was as justified in the Cardinals’ quarters as vexation was among the Seahawks. Carroll, clearly outcoached, was baffled.
“I don’t know why we had so much coverage on us today,” he said. “The spacing wasn’t there as much as we were used to. The protection was really good. He had plenty of time, but they were covering us up pretty well. For whatever reason, we just couldn’t find guys open.
“You have to give them a lot of credit.”
No problem there. The Cardinals won for the seventh time in the eight games since the Seattle defeat. At 10-5, they are perhaps the NFL’s hottest team with a season-ending shot at San Francisco Sunday and a chance for the playoffs.
Arians was asked to explain the difference between the Seattle games.
“When we played them earlier, we were coming off a very tough loss against San Francisco,” he said. “We only had two days of practice and had to play on a Thursday. We weren’t ready for that.
“I think a week of practice and preparation showed that we were a little bit better than we were then.”
Arians knew the Seahawks run more play-action than any team in the NFL, and trained his guys to read well the keys to the deception. He knew the Seahawks relied heavily on Lynch, and did as others have done lately — load up the box to stop him. But because the Cardinals’ front four is so good and the Seahawks line is so average, even when healthy, Arians confined the rush pressure largely to them, leaving seven to defend the run, and made sure they kept Wilson in the pocket, where he is least effective.
The result was 192 yards of total offense (80 in the second half) that included 10 first downs and seven three-and-out possessions. Wilson was 11 for 27 for 108 passing yards, minus four sacks and 19 yards in losses. Significantly, Wilson had just two runs, one a 27-yarder that was Seattle’s longest rush of the game.
“Our defensive line coach was on us all week,” said Arizona DT Darnell Dockett. “He said, ‘Knock these guys back and make 24 (Lynch) bounce outside. We worked hard at it, and hard work paid off today.”
The apex of the plan and its execution came not at the end of the game but at the end of the first half. Tied 3-3 inside the final minute, Palmer had a pass deflect off DE Chris Clemons into the arms of LB Malcolm Smith, who returned the interception 32 yards to set up Seattle with the easiest sequence of the afternoon. The Seahawks failed.
With a first down at the Arizona 3-yard line, Lynch went up the middle for a hard two yards. After a Seattle timeout, Lynch tried right tackle and found nothing, stopped by linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. On third down, Wilson tried to outsmart Arizona by dropping back, but he missed a short pass to fullback Michael Robinson.
That forced fourth down and a field goal attempt, but not before the Seahawks false-started and were forced to back up five yards — one of nine penalties for 102 yards, another wretched day at football’s criminal court. Then PK Steven Hauschka, Mr. 100 Percent this season (except for a block), banged his gimme putt off the left upright.
A virtually guaranteed six dropped to zero, and a feeling swept over the 68,266 in the house that this was not going to be Seattle’s day.
“We should be able to knock that one in,” said Carroll. “We’ve been great in the red zone. We’ve been doing all kinds of good stuff, and today we just couldn’t get it. We had trouble in all phases with them.”
So true. Now trouble lies ahead. The final regular-season game is Sunday at home against the 7-8 Rams, who already had the Seahawks number defensively Oct. 28, even though Seattle prevailed 14-9. Now the Rams can study an even better plan.
The opportunity remains, as it has for the past couple of weeks, for Seattle, with a triumph, to claim the NFC West title, the No. 1 seed the first-round playoff bye that goes with it. But they must go against another division rival that knows them well, and knows that the Seahawks no longer live in an invulnerable castle upon the Sound.
This is the NFL. Things change fast. Mind your hat, your step and your hopes.