Any Given Sunday: Cardinals over Seahawks

Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Our DVOA rankings have concluded that there has been a clear upper crust of talent in the NFL this year: Baltimore is No. 1 nd then below them, in some order, are the Patriots, 49ers, Chiefs, and Saints. The Seahawks have gone 11-4 this year, and they remain in DVOA's top 10, but they've been a step below what you'd expect of a team with that record. Looking at preseason projections, Seattle has hit almost exactly where we thought they would in defensive and special teams DVOA. But instead of 8.6 wins, they'll win either 11 or 12 games, in part because their offense has overachieved DVOA projections by about 10%.

For this particular game, it's hard to get away from the swing in run offense and run defense these teams had. The Seahawks had rushed for over 100 yards in every game this year except their Week 1 win against Cincinnati. With Chris Carson banged up -- and now headed to IR -- the Seahawks managed just 91 rushing yards. The Cardinals, meanwhile, racked up 253 rushing yards on an injury-laden Seahawks defense that was starting Rasheem Green, Branden Jackson, Delano Hill, and Akeem King (rather than Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah, Shaquill Griffin, and Quandre Diggs). Run-stuffer Al Woods has also been suspended.

This mostly ended up with Kenyan Drake gashing the Seahawks over and over again.

In this first clip, you can see K.J. Wright (50) protecting the edge instead of shooting the gap, then you can see Hill (42) try desperately to catch up from the middle of the field. In the second clip the Seahawks have two linebackers (Wright and Bobby Wagner, 54) in space, but Drake got Wagner off after Justin Pugh set his tackle and came looking for more work. Wright straight-up misses. Then on the third play, we've got Wagner reading Drake to the outside, but Drake cutting back into vacated space. None of these plays really have a "broken tackle," but the reads that Drake made put him ahead of Seattle's linebackers on each of the plays.

Seattle is another team where -- as we covered with San Francisco last week -- injury attrition has hit hard. Instead of Carson, who was leading all NFL players in broken tackles through Week 15, the Seahawks will turn to ... a 33-year-old Marshawn Lynch. Clowney will reportedly return against the 49ers in Week 17, and the defense should be healthy if not fully in game shape for the playoffs.

But Lynch is going to need to be vintage Lynch for this offensive game plan to succeed without any changes. And even then, Joey Hunt might decide that it's not good enough. Duane Brown may or may not make it back for the playoffs after a small meniscus surgery. (Chandler Jones feasted on poor Jamarco Jones this week.) Seattle's offense is reliant on Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett, and DK Metcalf to overcome these flaws. It might take some flexible coaching to work around. Flexible coaching is not exactly what we expect from Brian Schottenheimer. And speaking of that...

Where the Game Swung

Well, let's see what our boy Pete Carroll did here an-- oh my...

That table of the worst coaching decisions from Week 16 will appear very tiny, especially on your mobile device, so click on it and it will expand.

We have four of the worst 19 in-game calls of Week 16 going directly to the conservative coaching of Carroll. This should not be news to anybody. Carroll came into Week 16 ranked as EdjSports' 30th-ranked head coach in CCI (Critical Calls Index), their measure of good decision-making by down/distance/score. The only coaches who have done worse this year are Jon Gruden and Matt Patricia.

Seahawks fans seem to be well aware of Carroll's issues, and have been dealing with this struggle for months. I think what stands out most to me is that this level of conservatism may have made a lot of sense when you had the Legion of Boom backing all those decisions. When you have a mediocre defense by DVOA that is actually incredibly reliant on turnovers -- Seattle is the only team in the top five in turnovers forced that has a below-average defensive DVOA -- it makes a lot less sense to be so conservative. Carroll is coaching for the team he wishes he had rather than the team he actually has.

By the (D)VOA

ARI 20.3% -54.2% 4.7% 79.2%
SEA -46.4% 10.2% 3.3% -53.4%
ARI 25.4% -40.6% 4.7% 70.7%
SEA -39.3% 19.3% 3.3% -55.3%

This was easily Seattle's worst game of the year by DVOA, as well as easily Arizona's best defensive game of the year. The Cardinals' previous single-high defensive game was against the Giants in Week 7, when they had -38.5% DVOA.

Kliff Kingsbury's 2020 On Paper

Football Outsiders Almanac 2019 set the stakes for Kliff Kingsbury's NFL coaching debut pretty low:

All of this makes the Cardinals offense the most difficult to project this season. Will Kingsbury use similar run/pass splits as he did at Texas Tech, or modify his scheme for the NFL? Will the Cardinals let [Kyler] Murray run wild, or cut back on his running plays to avoid punishing hits? Will they be able to pile up the snap counts, or will opponents play keepaway and slow the game to a halt? And how will the weapons around Murray be implemented?

When Kyler Murray was at his healthiest, he was definitely a big part of the running game. Murray ran at least six times in eight games this season, and began to get integrated more as the season went on. Lamar Jackson (rightfully) sucked a lot of air out of any other quarterback getting run attempts, but Murray has 91 carries in 15 starts, third in the NFL behind Jackson and Josh Allen. Murray is second in rushing DYAR with 103, and his 12.6% rushing DVOA is the second-highest of the quarterbacks with more than 50 carries. (Allen is at 6.5%, Deshaun Watson is at 8.4%, and Jackson finishes the season at an even 20.0%.)

Arizona's running game was massively improved in 2019. The Cardinals had a -21.4% rushing DVOA in 2018, which was second-worst to only the 49ers. In 2019, they are second in the NFL behind only the Ravens.

Arizona's passing offense didn't take quite the same leap, but they were still much improved:

Arizona's 2019 Passing Offense Versus 2018
Year Passing DVOA Rank xCOMP% Comp% IAY Time to Throw
2019 -0.6% 22 66.5% 64.6% 6.9 2.73
2018 -46.9% 32 59.7% 55.2% 8.4 2.77
From NFL Next Gen Stats.
2018 xCOMP/Intended Air Yards stats based on Josh Rosen's starts.

The Josh Rosen/Mike McCoy back-shoulder ball system was replaced by something much more systematically workable, and while Murray wasn't the most accurate rookie to ever work, he was a damn sight better than Rosen in that category. The Cardinals primary quarterback went from the absolute worst in NFL Next Gen Stats' Expected Completion Percentage (xCOMP%) to the seventh-highest among qualified quarterbacks. We spent a lot of time in the Almanac essay this year talking about how unprecedented it was to spend this much draft value on quarterbacks, but the Cardinals absolutely got results from their snap decision.

Arizona opens 2020's offseason with a top-10 amount of expected cap space, though that doesn't include the yearly decision about Larry Fitzgerald. Kingsbury's pass defense has been brutal all season, even with Jones eating souls, so that's an obvious No. 1 area of improvement. Beyond that, the offensive line could use addressing and the receiving corps could be a little more dynamic. Arizona would be a good fit for a No. 1 wideout this offseason -- maybe someone like Odell Beckham if the rumors that he wants out of Cleveland badly are true -- or they could see if Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler can develop into serious weapons.

But the run offense that the Cardinals have created should be praised, and it stands to reason that with a few tweaks, the team as a whole could see a major upswing in 2020 -- particularly if the Cardinals can create a defense that was anywhere near the units they had in James Bettcher's best years.


1 comment, Last at 24 Dec 2019, 1:25pm

#1 by ddoubleday // Dec 24, 2019 - 1:25pm

The Miami Dolphins had no use for Drake. That explains some things.

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