He had to assume head coaching duties in Indianapolis when Chuck Pagano was battling leukemia. He had to use Kelly Holcomb as his starting quarterback with the 5-11 Cleveland Browns while an offensive coordinator under Butch Davis. He had to face six straight ranked SEC teams as offensive coordinator of the 1997 Alabama Crimson Tide with Freddie Kitchens as his quarterback.
Bruce Arians has faced plenty of challenges throughout the course of his 38-year coaching career, but perhaps none were more daunting than Sunday’s, as he leads the Arizona Cardinals back to Century Link Field in Seattle — the site of their 58-0 shellacking just over a year ago. And the embarrassment suffered at the hands of the Seahawks in the Cardinals’ last visit to The Emerald City didn’t occur in a vacuum. The NFC-best Seahawks have won 14 consecutive home games and a win Sunday secures them home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Arians and the Cardinals, meanwhile, have their backs against the wall in the hunt for the NFC Playoffs — facing their second “must-win” game in as many weeks.
The game, indeed, could be the biggest, most consternating challenge to date for Arians.
Keys for the Cardinals
1. Establish the run, somehow
The Seahawks’ defense is the best in football, allowing only 14.6 points per game and 279.5 yards per game. Their pass defense only allows 174.2 yards per game. All marks are the best in the NFL.
Their run defense, however, is 10th in the NFL, allowing a — still impressive — 105.3 yards per game.
It’s hard to find any vulnerability in the Seattle defense, but if there is one, it’s the ability to defend against the run.
In their first meeting this season, the Cardinals put the ball in the hands of the explosive Andre Ellington only five times for 13 yards. Rashard Mendenhall, meanwhile, averaged just 1.7 yards per carry on 13 carries and the Cardinals only got 30 yards on the ground in total.
If, indeed, the Cardinals can break a few plays on the ground it will help to open up the more difficult part of the offensive gameplan: passing.
2. Stop the run, somehow
“If you tell me that Marshawn (Lynch) gets 75-85 yards on the ground Sunday, I think Seattle has an incredible chance to win,” Brock Huard told Burns and Gambo on Friday.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has the NFL’s best rush defense at his fingertips. Cardinals’ opponents are averaging just 83.2 rushing yards per game in 2013 — equating to only 3.6 yards per carry.
Also fortunate for the visitors is this: as Huard went on to point out, Lynch has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry over the last four weeks and he hasn’t rushed for more than 72 yards in any of the Seahawks’ previous four games. In Seattle’s last loss, the Seahawks only managed 86 total yards on the ground at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
When the Cardinals last faced the Seahawks, however, in Glendale in October, Lynch rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Making the Seahawks’ offense one-dimensional gives the Cardinals a minor edge in a game where they could use any possible advantage.
3. Reach deep into Bruce Arians’ bag of tricks
Clearly, it takes something special to beat the Seahawks at home. It’s been two years since anyone has.
Conventionality isn’t going to work. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t going to overpower the Seahawks’ front seven. If they fall behind early, they’re probably not going to have a shot at a comeback. It’s going to take something different from the Cardinals to do what the Seahawks’ last 14 home opponents haven’t been able to.
Arians and the Cardinals are going to have to roll the dice in order to get any traction against the Seahawks. He can’t morph his gameplan into a reflection of the Seahawks’. Staying aggressive, finding playmakers like Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd downfield, getting creative with the usage of Andre Ellington.
Allowing the Seahawks’ league-best defense to set, getting too obvious with the play calling, won’t bode well for Arians and the Cardinals. A victory at Century Link Field will take something entirely different.
Keys for the Seahawks
1. Flashback to October
When they visited Glendale in October, the Seahawks had Carson Palmer completely out of his element — confused and reeling from pressure. The embattled quarterback threw a pair of interceptions amid taking seven sacks and fumbling once.
Of course, Palmer and the Cardinals look completely different since that meeting.
But if the Seahawks can find a way to apply the same pressure they did in mid-October, that plus the home field advantage ought to make the idea of a loss a seeming impossibility.
2. Get Marshawn going, somehow
The Cardinals may have the NFL’s best rushing defense, but the Seahawks will need their best rusher down the stretch and in the playoffs to get going if they’re going to make a deep run. Averaging just 3.2 yards per carry over the last four weeks, Marshawn Lynch’s performance of late lies as, perhaps, the Seahawks lone vulnerability.
Establishing Lynch will inevitably open things up for quarterback Russell Wilson to make the plays he’s made so often in his career that have propelled the Seahawks’ winning ways.
Effective usage of Lynch will, just the same, allow the Seahawks to control the clock — something they pride themselves on and frequently use to their advantage at home.
3. Remember the implications
With a win, the Seahawks wouldn’t have to leave home until the Super Bowl, should they win their playoff games, as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Though 12-2, and not facing the “must-win” scenario of the Cardinals, there’s a lot on the line, especially considering their dominance at Century Link Field with the help of “the 12th man.”
Letting up and losing discipline due to a previous procurement of a playoff spot can’t cross the minds of the Seahawks’ players nor personnel.
A team that already struggles to stay disciplined — having committed an NFL-most 112 offensive penalties – can’t afford to lose focus anymore, or they may see their home winning streak snapped by the red-hot Cardinals.