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24 Dec 2013

Any Given Sunday: Cardinals Over Seahawks

by Mike Ridley

Arizona came into Seattle as nine-point underdogs and delivered the Seahawks their first home defeat since Christmas Eve 2011. With a stingy defense that held Seattle to just 3.8 yards per play, the Cardinals were able to overcome four Carson Palmer interceptions and come away with a 17-10 victory.

The Cardinals defense was suffocating, holding the Seahawks to a season-low 10 points despite Seattle having three drives start in Arizona territory -- including one at the Arizona 3-yard line after a Malcolm Smith interception. Todd Bowles' unit was particularly tough on third down, where Seattle converted just 2-of-13 opportunities. Russell Wilson uncharacteristically struggled in this situation, finishing 2-of-11 for just 27 yards and two sacks on third down, giving him a DVOA of -59.2%.

Arizona was able to force Seattle into unfavorable third-down situations by limiting Marshawn Lynch's damage early in their series. Lynch had two long runs to push his yards per carry average up to 3.8, but DVOA's second-best rush defense held him to two yards or less on 11 of his 18 attempts. He finished with just 3 DYAR, the fourth time in five games he's failed to reach double-digits.

The lockdown performance by the defense allowed Arizona to prevail despite a poor offensive performance. The NFL's best pass defense forced Palmer into his third career four-interception game, Larry Fitzgerald was limited to 18 yards on three catches and Michael Floyd was a non-factor for the first 57 minutes of the game; his game-winning touchdown was his only catch. The ground game also struggled. It was able to amass 139 yards, but needed 43 attempts to do so, giving the Cardinals a run offense DVOA of -11.9%.

Now the Cardinals have won seven of their last eight and sit at 10-5. Owners of the fourth-best record in the NFC, the Cardinals still find themselves as long shots to make the playoffs by virtue of being in the top-heavy NFC and the NFL's toughest division. They need to beat San Francisco at home while also having Tampa Bay upset New Orleans in Louisiana. Even if they fail to make the tournament, their performance Sunday proved their defense is championship-caliber.

By the VOA

Seattle and Arizona entered the game ranked first and second in defense by DVOA, respectively. They didn't disappoint.

Dewey's Defense Defeats VOA
Team Off. VOA Def. VOA Special Teams VOA Total VOA
ARI -57.1% -49.0% 6.7% -1.4%
SEA -50.8% -53.3% -3.2% -0.7%

In a game that produced less than 500 total yards and six turnovers, it's not shocking to see such staggering defensive numbers. The two teams combined to have successful defensive snaps on 85 of 121 plays. The Cardinals forced Seattle to go three-and-out on seven drives, but the Seahawks get the slight edge thanks to winning the turnover battle four to two.

The -57.1% offensive VOA by the Cardinals is the lowest in a victory since Week 11 of last season when Atlanta beat Arizona 23-19 with a VOA of -64.8%.

Play of the Game

This game featured a variety of plays that stood out for one reason or another: Steven Hauschka clanking a 24-yard field goal off the left upright; Wilson's interception that may or may not have gone off the arm of Doug Baldwin; the apparent Michael Bennett strip of Rashard Mendenhall that was too inconclusive to overturn. But the biggest play of the game may have simply been a dumpoff to a tight end.

With 6:13 left in the game and the Cardinals trailing by one, Palmer took the snap on third-and-3 from his own 27. After scanning his first options, he scrambled out right to extend the play. Just as he was being hit, he flipped it to Jake Ballard, who caught the dump-off and turned it into 17 yards. Seven plays and a fortunate defensive holding penalty later, Palmer would hook up with Floyd on third-and-6 for 31-yard touchdown, giving the Cardinals the winning score.

Shutdown in Seattle

Larry Fitzgerald had a very minimal impact on the game, recording three receptions for a paltry 18 yards. This continues a string of below-average performances for Fitzgerald when facing Richard Sherman and the Seahawks.

Sherman's first pick of the game came when he dove in front of a pass intended for Fitzgerald. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cardinals quarterbacks have thrown seven interceptions over their last five meetings when targeting Fitzgerald -- including four by Sherman -- while failing to produce a touchdown. The last time Fitzgerald scored against the Seahawks was Week 3 of 2011, four games before Sherman's first start.

Since then, Fitzgerald has been almost completely held in check. Outside of a nine-catch, 149-yard performance on the last day of the 2011 season, Fitzgerald has averaged just three catches and 33 yards over the last three seasons against Seattle. In that time, he has accumulated a DYAR of -17 against the Seahawks and 201 against everyone else. During the last three contests, he's totaled just six catches and 37 yards while being targeted 21 times. Even when adjusting for the black hole that made up the Cardinals quarterback rotation last season, his numbers facing the Seahawks are well below his career norms.

Stop the Committee

Throughout the season, Bruce Arians has chosen to run a backfield by committee, continually splitting reps between the sensational rookie, Andre Ellington (116 DYAR) and the much less-sensational Rashard Mendenhall (-10 DYAR). Even though Ellington has been a better, more dynamic back all season, Mendenhall continues to see the bulk of the carries.

The same was true on Sunday when he received 21 carries to Ellington's 15. On those carries, he managed just a three-yard average and had a long of only nine yards. Ellington, on the other hand, managed to gain 4.3 yards per carry and had a long of 26. Both finished with virtually the same total yards (63 and 64, respectively), but the details behind the numbers are completely different.

Ellington provides a home run threat that Mendenhall simply lacks. Mendenhall's longest run of the season is just 15 yards; Ellington has 11 runs of at least that distance, including an 80-yard scamper against Atlanta in Week 8. He's also more consistent, having just two games with a negative DYAR compared to Mendenhall's seven. He's averaged less than four yards per carry only twice this year while Mendenhall has done it on 10 occasions. Each snap that Mendenhall takes away from him is a lost opportunity for the Cardinals.

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 24 Dec 2013

6 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2013, 1:17pm by Perfundle

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Tue, 12/24/2013 - 4:17pm

You have DEN instead of SEA in the VOA chart.

2
by Mike Ridley :: Tue, 12/24/2013 - 4:56pm

Thanks for the catch. Fixed now.

3
by ERockMUT (not verified) :: Tue, 12/24/2013 - 5:25pm

Great breakdown!

4
by wr (not verified) :: Wed, 12/25/2013 - 1:10pm

"Each snap that Mendenhall takes away from him is a lost opportunity for the Cardinals."

According to an interview with the broadcasters on the Cardinals' radio network,
Arians said he felt he shortened Willie Parker's carrer by overworking him (i.e.
giving too many carries to someone not big enough to take the punishment),
and doesn't want to repeat it with Ellington. I get that, but this leads
to the conclusion they really need to find a replacment for Mendenhall in the
draft of FA on top of drafting a groomable replacement for Palmer.

5
by Scott Crowder (not verified) :: Thu, 12/26/2013 - 11:59am

Every QB has off days, but I think Wilson squashed all the MVP talk around him. Of course, by having such an awful day, he kinda proved how valuable he is to that franchise.

6
by Perfundle :: Thu, 12/26/2013 - 1:17pm

Well, even with how badly he played, Seattle still led before Arizona's game-winning drive, which rather undermines your point.