As always on the day before (to steal Pete Carroll’s phrase), here are five things to watch in Thursday’s Seattle-Arizona game. And as always, in no particular order:
1, The running game: Arizona’s biggest statistical strength, well, runs right up against Seattle’s — its run defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL, allowing 90.7 yards per game. Seattle, meanwhile, is second in the NFL in rushing per game at 157.7. Seattle has obviously been getting a lot of those yards in an unconventional manner, through the scrambling of quarterback Russell Wilson. But combined with the steadiness of Marshawn Lynch (487 yards in six games) the Seahawks remain effective on the ground. The Cardinals, though, have the ability to limit that ground attack and make Seattle have to take more chances through the air.
2, Turnovers: Turnovers can seem a cliché as a key. But given the emphasis Seattle puts on turnovers it’s hard to ignore — and especially in a game like this when the disparity is as great as it is. Seattle is tied for third in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-seven while the Cardinals are tied for 22nd at minus-two. That includes 11 interceptions thrown by Carson Palmer, most of anyone in the league other than Eli Manning. The Legion of Boom has undoubtedly taken note.
3, Sherm and Fitz: The best individual matchup of this game will occur when Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman faces off against Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a certain future Hall of Famer. Fitzgerald is battling injuries to both hamstrings and may not be in prime time form. Still, he remains plenty dangerous, as his 75-yard TD catch-and-run last week at San Francisco illustrated. Sherman typically lines up on the left side and doesn’t usually move around to try to defend a specific receiver. Sherman, though, will relish the chances he does get against a player who has also become a good friend — the two played in each other’s celebrity softball games in the off-season.
4, The passing game: This is an area of much angst among Seahawks fans, but less so among the Seahawks themselves, who point out that being 5-1 is more important than putting up gaudy passing numbers. Still, as mentioned in the above item on the running game, this might be a night when Seattle will need to lean on the passing attack a little more. If that happens, the hope will be that the offensive line will be able to protect well enough — and it helps that rookie right tackle Michael Bowie appears to be getting a little better with each outing — and that the skill players will be able to connect when the opportunities are there.One thing to come in mine when assessing the passing game is that while the Seahawks may not be putting up huge overall numbers, they are making their plays count — Russell Wilson’s average of 7.97 per attempt is sixth in the NFL behind Peyton Manning (9.08), Michael Vick (8.98), Aaron Rodgers (8.95), Philip Rivers (8.47) and Drew Brees (8.26).
5, Special teams: Seattle has had big breakdowns the last two weeks leading to easy touchdowns for the opponents — a blocked field goal against the Colts and the fumble on the field goal against the Titans. Obviously, the field goal faux pas last week was a one-of-a-kind deal that won’t happen again and shouldn’t be considered as indicative of any systemic issues with the special teams. And given that, I’m almost reluctant to throw special teams out there as a category to watch since it’s overall been a positive for the Seahawks this year. But it goes almost without saying that Seattle has to play a cleaner overall game than it did a week ago to win a division game on the road, special teams included.