The Seahawks begin the post-bye portion of their 2020 season in prime time Sunday night in a stadium where they can usually expect the unexpected other than on the scoreboard.
Lots of crazy things have happened through the years when the Seahawks have played the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, including too many sad injuries and that blasphemous 6-6 tie in 2016.
But since 2013 — in the regular season, anyway — Seattle has never walked out of the stadium as a loser.
Seattle is 6-0-1 there since the 2013 season, the wins coming by an average of 17 points.
That includes a 27-19 triumph a year ago — amazingly enough for a team that won 11 games, the largest margin of victory all season.
The contrast has been Arizona winning four of the last five in Seattle, including 27-13 last Dec. 22, making this one of the strangest series the Seahawks have had in recent years.
Let’s take a look at some of the keys to Sunday’s game.
Matchup to watch
Seattle’s wide receivers vs. Arizona’s secondary
Arizona enters the game allowing the second-fewest points in the NFL (112) led by a secondary that is allowing just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, fifth-best in the league. But Arizona has also achieved its 4-2 record against teams who are a combined 11-24, having faced quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo, Dwayne Haskins, Matthew Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. Now comes leading MVP candidate Russell Wilson and the top-scoring offense in the NFL (169 points), averaging 7.6 yards per pass attempt, fourth-best in the league. Via Pro Football Focus, Seattle’s 12 touchdowns by wide receivers are the most in the NFL, while Arizona’s cornerbacks (including Patrick Peterson and former UW standout Byron Murphy) have allowed just three. Something will have to give. Peterson memorably shadowed DK Metcalf in last year’s game in Seattle, holding Metcalf without a catch on just one target in the Cardinals’ win — the only time Metcalf has been held without a reception.
Players to watch
Seattle linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright (and maybe Jordyn Brooks)
Wagner and Wright remain Seattle’s two highest-rated defensive players via Pro Football Focus, Wright second among all linebackers in the NFL and Wagner seventh. But they’ll get a tough challenge Sunday in the dual-threat ability of Arizona second-year quarterback Kyler Murray, who leads all QBs in the NFL in rushing with 370 yards and is 13th overall. Via PFF, Murray is getting roughly half his yards on designed runs (181) and the rest on scrambles (189). He has been particularly dangerous in the red zone, having rushed for six touchdowns, tied for second-most in the NFL. It’ll be a team effort to contain Murray, but Wagner in the middle and Wright in his new role playing primarily on the edge will have the key roles in keeping Murray from breaking any long runs. Each could also get a big assist from Brooks, the team’s 2020 first-round pick who returned to practice this week and will play Sunday. Brooks will likely get the start at weakside linebacker in the base defense, with Wright staying on the field to play that spot in the nickel.
Coaching decision to watch
To defer or not to defer?
OK, so the coin toss is hardly a big deal. But a reader noted this week after the Seahawks won the toss against the Vikings and deferred and then allowed Minnesota to drive for a touchdown that deferring always seems to be a bad decision for Seattle. The reader is correct that the Seahawks usually defer, as do most teams — most years the league percentage is in the high 80s. One reason is teams feel it leads to some favorable strategy in how to play the end of the first half if you know you are getting the ball to start the second, and the ability to try to create getting two straight possessions. But the question compelled us to look up how tosses have gone this year so far in Seahawks games. Seattle has won only two tosses — the last two games — and deferred each time. Miami threw an interception that led to a Seattle touchdown while the Vikings drove for a touchdown. In the other three games, Atlanta won the toss and received and drove for a field goal, and New England won the toss and deferred and Seattle threw a pick six, and Dallas won the toss and deferred and the Seahawks went three and out. But remember, it’s not how you start but how you finish …
Seattle’s right cornerback spot
When healthy, Quinton Dunbar has proven to be effective at the right corner spot — via Pro Football Reference he has allowed a passer rating of just 66.7, basically half the 123.2 of Tre Flowers, who has filled in for Dunbar in two games and spelled him in parts of three others (Shaquill Griffin has allowed a rating of 108.7 on the left side). But as noted, Dunbar has yet to play a full game while saddled with a sore knee that has kept him out of two others, and Seattle may have to manage Dunbar’s knee all season, with opponents sure to notice any snaps he misses. The good news is Dunbar was not listed on the team’s game status report this week, considered healthy to play Sunday. All of Seattle’s corners will have their hands full with Arizona receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who leads the NFL in yards per game at 100.2, a yard ahead of Metcalf. Hopkins is listed as questionable with an ankle injury but he’s played through the injury the last three weeks, as well.
Player who could surprise
Defensive end Jonathan Bullard
While Seattle has signed some big-name vets to help out the defense the last few weeks, the one who has made the most impact so far is the little-known Bullard, who just five days after arriving in town played 23 snaps against the Vikings and earned one of the best grades of any Seattle player this season from PFF at 90.8. In his 10 rush snaps, he was officially credited with one quarterback hit and unofficially credited with four hurries. Now Bullard returns to play against his former team — Seattle signed Bullard off Arizona’s practice squad. He played nine games last season for the Cardinals before being waived before this season.
That’s Seattle’s field goal kicking for the season, a stunningly low total — every other team in the NFL has attempted at least seven field goals. The main reason, of course, is that the Seahawks have been so good in the red zone scoring touchdowns on 16 of 18 possessions inside the 20, best in the NFL. But now, Seattle faces an Arizona defense that has been second-stingiest in the NFL allowing touchdowns in the red zone, giving up just 10 on 24 possessions, 41.9%. The Seahawks may need to kick a few field goals this game.
The final word
Seahawks 31, Cardinals 27
Arizona appears like a team on the rise, especially with the way the Cardinals dismantled Dallas on Monday night. But that also means Arizona will have a tough turnaround this week of a road game to another game six days later while the Seahawks are coming off their bye. It’s tempting to wonder if Seattle can really keep up its road warrior ways — the Seahawks have won nine of their last 10 regular season away games. But why not keep riding the hot hand? Wilson will again find a way to get it done in the valley of the sun.