Here are five things to watch in the Seattle-Arizona game Sunday at 1:05 p.m. at CenturyLink Field:
1, Pressuring Carson Palmer: A key to Seattle’s 34-22 win in Arizona in October was its ability to constantly pressure Palmer — Seattle’s seven sacks were a season high. Arizona’s offensive line has gotten better since then, though, and while Palmer remains hardly mobile, the sacks have subsided a bit, one reason Palmer has been more consistently lately — he had a passer rating of 110.0 in November and has a rating of 100.1 in December. Seattle’s defensive line, meanwhile, is coming off one of its best games of the season, holding the Giants to 25 yards rushing last week — the fewest allowed by the Seahawks since 2002.
2, Seattle’s passing game: Seattle begins every game with the goal of using the run to set up the pass. But with Arizona featuring a stingy running defense and a suddenly injury-riddled secondary, the Seahawks might take to the air a little more consistently. Arizona gave up 402 yards passing last week to Tennessee quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the first game the team played with rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, who is out for the year with a knee injury. Mathieu was emerging as one of the top rookies in the Class of 2013. Then last week, safety Rashad Johnson suffered an ankle injury and is likely out for this week. That could force backup rookie safety Tony Jefferson into the starting lineup. The Seahawks will likely notice.
3, And, well, Seattle’s running game: As I noted earlier this week in our weekly Stat Geek feature, while the Seahawks appear well on their way to earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the running game has statistically been a little below its usual pace of late. Tailback Marshawn Lynch has just 218 yards in the last four games, averaging 3.0 yards per carry. With two games left in the season, Lynch has 1,089 yards and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry compared to 1,590 yards and a 5.0 average in 2012. Arizona, meanwhile, leads the NFL this week in rush defense, allowing just 83.2 yards per game. So this won’t be the easiest opponent for the Seahawks to break out against. Lynch had a solid game the first time around, though, with 91 yards on 21 carries, including this stiff-arm of Darnell Dockett.
4, Keeping Russell Wilson upright: Arizona’s defensive resurgence has been keyed by a dangerous front that has helped the Cardinals amass 41 sacks this season, tied for seventh in the NFL. The leader of the sack pack is 35-year-old John Abraham, who the Cardinals signed as a free agent in the off-season. Abraham, who has 133.5 career sacks, ninth all-time and first of any active player, leads the Cardinals with 11.5 sacks, officially playing an outside linebacker position in Arizona’s 3-4 defense. He’ll be a tough matchup for the Seattle offensive line, and probably more specifically tackles Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung, though the Cardinals like to move him around and keep defenses guessing.
5, Revenge of the Birds: Among other Arizona players, Dockett has been particularly vocal this week about his memories of Seattle’s 58-0 win over the Cardinals at CenturyLink last December, hinting at wanting to get back at Seattle for that game. Not sure this stuff really matters at the NFL level — and the teams already have played once since then, in October in Arizona, so you’d think if the revenge motive really was an issue then it would have manifested itself then. What may be most relevant is that this simply is a much different Cardinals’ team than that one, having won six of seven and with still in the playoff hunt.
Statistics from Pro Football Focus, though, indicate Lynch is still running well. Lynch had 47 yards on 16 carries against the Giants Sunday, and PFF determined that 30 of Lynch’s yards came after contact as he forced three missed tackles. Lynch also had six receptions in the game for 73 yards, getting 64 yards after contact.