Riding a wave of momentum after snatching their first win of the 2018 season, the Seattle Seahawks will aim to pick up their first road victory and gain ground in the NFC West against the win-less Arizona Cardinals.
In the same vein as Seattle, much has changed in Arizona since the two teams last met during the final week of the 2017 season. Long-time Cardinals coach Bruce Arians retired and the front office hired former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks as his replacement. Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer also walked away from the game and the organization drafted UCLA standout Josh Rosen in the first round as his long-term successor.
With Wilks at the helm, the Cardinals defense has also undergone significant schematic changes as well, though Seahawks coach Pete Carroll expects them to stay aggressive bringing extra pressure. Previously using a 3-4 hybrid system with multiple defensive coordinators working under Arians, Wilks brought a vastly different 4-3 scheme to Arizona seeking to achieve similar success in comparison to his tenure in Carolina.
Which matchups will ultimately decide who captures a signature divisional win in Week 4?
--Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks vs. Cardinals RB David Johnson: Johnson, who played in only one game last season due to a wrist injury, led the NFL in scrimmage yards in 2016 and can be a nightmare to defend due to his lethal play-making ability as both a runner and receiver. The Cardinals installed a new offensive system with Mike McCoy taking over as offensive coordinator and Johnson hasn’t done much damage through three games, but Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows his team’s past success shutting him down means nothing heading into Sunday’s game.
“They’re a different staff now and a different style and a different play caller and all that. We don’t have any of that advantage after all the years we’ve played them.” Carroll said. “I think he’s really difficult to bottle up and you can bottle him up in the running game and he’ll beat you in the throwing game. He’s a fantastic football player.”
Wagner and Kendricks must play a sound football game not only with their run fits, but also in coverage defending against Johnson when he leaks out of the backfield as a receiver. Wagner expects Arizona will lean on their star running back with Rosen making his first start and he’ll be the player Seattle keeps a spotlight on all afternoon.
--Seahawks G D.J. Fluker vs. Cardinals DT Robert Nkemdiche: Nkemdiche has been a bust since joining Arizona two years ago, failing to record a single sack in 17 games. But something has clicked for the former first-round pick this season, as he cemented a starting role coming out of the preseason and the physically-gifted 296-pound defensive tackle has recorded 10 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and a forced fumble in three games. On the flip side, Fluker may have played his best game in pass protection during his Seahawks debut last week and the 355-pound guard loves to bulldoze opponents as a run blocker. He and Nkemdiche initially failed to live up to their respective first-round pedigrees, but with both players motivated and currently playing at a high level, this should be one of the most enticing matchups to watch on Sunday.
--Seahawks safeties Earl Thomas and Bradley McDougald vs. Cardinals QB Josh Rosen: Young quarterbacks often struggle with the speed of the NFL game compared to college football, but Rosen has plenty of moxie. He won’t easily be rattled, he’ll bounce right up after taking hits, and he’s got short memory forgetting prior mistakes. Norton Jr. will be searching for ways to rachet up pressure on the rookie signal caller, but Seattle’s greatest advantage in this game will be its talented safety tandem of Thomas and McDougald. The two players have combined to intercept five passes already this season, and especially in the case of Thomas, both defenders know how to bait quarterbacks into making bad decisions with the football. Thomas already tricked Broncos starter Case Keenum into a telegraphed pick in the season opener and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him or McDougald put Rosen into a similar predicament in this game.
--Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald, a surefire Hall of Famer who sits third all-time in career receiving yardage, missed Wednesday’s practice with a hamstring injury but should be ready to face Seattle on Sunday. Battling against star CB Richard Sherman over the years, Fitzgerald enjoyed several dominant outings against the Seahawks, including catching 10 passes for 113 yards in a 22-16 loss at home last season. With Sherman now in San Francisco, Griffin has taken the torch as Seattle’s top corner and played at a Pro Bowl level, recording two interceptions, three passes defensed, and 13 tackles. Despite his advancing age, Fitzgerald will be one of Griffin’s trickiest tests yet, as the 35-year old receiver still excels as a route runner and has mastered the art of getting open during his illustrious career. He should benefit from a quarterback change after only catching five passes for 37 yards over Arizona’s past two games and Rosen will be leaning heavily on the veteran as a security blanket in his first NFL start.