Lay back, play conservatively and try to contain Kyler Murray from their heels?
The Seahawks might as well have closed their eyes and turned their backs on Arizona’s dynamic quarterback the last time the Seahawks played the Cardinals. Doing that may have worked about as well as not blitzing Murray did for Seattle last month.
“There’s no question there are some good takeaways,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said Tuesday of that first game.
He was talking about Murray completing his season high 34 of 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona’s 37-34 home win in overtime Oct. 25.
“We learned a lot from playing them the first time,” Norton said.
Coach Pete Carroll said after that first Arizona game he erred in not having Norton call for more blitzes of Murray. Instead he had All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner spy Murray some just behind the line on his drop backs to pass. Speedy linebacker Shaquem Griffin also did some spying of Murray. Griffin played a season-high 40 of the defense’s 84 snaps that night, while also in a situational edge-rushing role.
He hasn’t played a snap on defense since. But he might on Thursday night.
Speed and pressure are the keys for the Seahawks (6-3) to better defend Murray and the now-first-place Cardinals (6-3) this time, in a pivotal NFC West game at CenturyLink Field.
“There’s no question sacks and negative plays really help,” said Norton, coordinator of the NFL’s last-ranked defense. “Third and mediums are really tough, so when you get third and longs after a sack it really helps. …
“It’s important that the (blitz) calls help. Our team, they play well aggressively. They respond well to it.
“Now, it’s just a matter of being able to make the plays — and make sure that the high-risk, high-reward, it doesn’t hurt us in the long run.”
Carroll thought the Seahawks were too low-risk, no-reward, too reactive against Murray in that first game. They didn’t force him to throw; he threw when he wanted to.
Not only did the Seahawks fail to sack the first-overall choice in the 2019 NFL draft in that game last month, they didn’t hit him once in his 48 drop backs.
Wagner was the only Seahawk to even touch him. He got a hand going by Murray as the quarterback eluded the linebacker’s blitz on third down in the first half. Murray scrambled past Wagner for a first down and some of his 67 yards on 14 rushes in the first meeting.
“I don’t think we had a pressure on him,” Wagner said. “I think it might have been one.”
Yes, it was just one. End Benson Mayowa ran free in on Murray on a fourth down to force his incomplete pass, and the Seahawks stopped the Cardinals near the goal line in the first half.
Otherwise, no pressure. And no problem for Murray. He rallied rally Arizona from down 27-14 in the second quarter and 34-24 with 3 minutes left in the game to a tie at the end of regulation.
The Seahawks had a potential winning touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to DK Metcalf on a wide-receiver screen in overtime called back on a holding penalty by receiver David Moore at the time and place of Metcalf’s catch. Arizona eventually kicked the field goal that sent the Seahawks to their first loss this season after a franchise-record 5-0 start.
Seattle has lost two of its three games since then.
The Seahawks played that first Cardinals game without All-Pro safety Jamal Adams. He was missing with a strained groin. This will be his third game back from that. But now Adams has a shoulder injury he played through last weekend in Seattle’s loss at the Los Angeles Rams.
Adams had two sacks in L.A., despite him saying he was playing with just one arm. Asked if the shoulder injury would keep him out of Thursday’s rematch with Murray and the Cardinals, Adams scoffed and said: “Hell, naw.”
The Seahawks’ defense was also without Pro Bowl cornerback Shaquill Griffin for most of that night in Arizona last month. He got a concussion and strained hamstring early in the game. He may still be out Thursday with the hamstring issue.
“I definitely feel like there’s things that we did that game that (are) correctable,” Wagner said. “I think we had opportunities to do so, and we’ve just got to execute. And you know, I don’t think we had Jamal last game. We didn’t have a couple of guys last game.
“So I think we’ll be able to get to him.”
To do it, you can bet your 12 flag the Seahawks are going to blitz Murray more Thursday night.
Through that loss at Arizona last month the Seahawks were blitzing on less than 30% of their defensive snaps through six games. They were blitzing far less without Adams while their best blitzer missed all of October.
Carroll realized after the Cardinals game his front four defensive lineman just aren’t going to be getting any more than sporadic pressure on quarterbacks, at least nothing he can count on. Carroll’s best, Super Bowl defenses the last decade leading Seattle had defensive linemen eight and nine deep that got after QBs and wore down offensive lines late in game. That allowed the Seahawks to cover receivers the way Carroll wants to: tightly, and with seven defenders.
These Seahawks have to rush more than four, and thus must cover with fewer than seven, to have any chance of pressuring the passer. That’s been true even in the two games Carlos Dunlap has played since the team acquired the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end in a trade last month with Cincinnati.
The following week after the lesson Carroll learned with Murray and the Cardinals, the coach had Norton blitz 51% of the time against San Francisco. It was the most Seattle had blitzed since 2010, Carroll’s first season leading the team.
It worked. The Seahawks dominated Jimmy Garoppolo out of the game by the time it was 30-7 into the fourth quarter. Seattle won 37-27.
That’s the team’s only win in its last four games. Blitzing Jimmy Garoppolo when he had only one healthy leg has proven to be easier than blitzing Josh Allen and Jared Goff since then. And Murray is the league’s fastest quarterback. Blitzing him carries its own inherent danger beyond the normal one.
Seattle’s increased blitzing continued at Buffalo (after initially backing off early against Allen and falling behind 17-0) and against Goff at the Rams last weekend. The Seahawks have 10 sacks the last two weeks.
But they’ve lost both games. They’ve allowed 67 points in them. The coverage behind the blitzing has been generally poor, not nearly as sticky as Carroll demands. Replacements in the battered secondary have played 5 and 10 yards off receivers, making blitzing often worthless.
What’s the use of forcing quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly when the receivers are still wide open with acres of turf to run across after the catch anyway?
“We have to not give stuff up,” Carroll said. “We made enough mistakes here that we are giving plays to teams that are executing well.”
The Cardinals are executing very well. Murray is coming off the most exciting finish to an NFL game this season. His Hail Mary to All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins over three Miami defenders in the end zone on the last play sent the Cardinals over the Dolphins last weekend and into first place on tie-breakers.
Hopkins, acquired this offseason in a heist of a trade with Houston, is averaging an NFL-best 7.4 receptions per game. Murray is targeting him an average of 10 times per game. He may throw to Hopkins more times than that Thursday, if the Seahawks again start Flowers and Reed because Griffin and Dunbar remain out injured, as seems likely.
Seattle is last in total defense and passing defense. It remains on pace to allow the most yards in NFL history over a single season.
Yet Wagner joins Carroll in believing his defense is about to improve — and that the Seahawks may finally be learning.
This huge, second test against Murray and the Cardinals will prove whether that’s true.
“We have to learn how not to make the same mistakes twice. We have to be consistent, I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Wagner, a Super Bowl champion who played with Carroll’s best Seattle units of 2012-15. “A lot of great defenses, they learn from their mistakes, and they don’t continue on.
“I think it’s just being positive, as well, understanding that we have to be positive in any situation. We understand that we’re not playing the way we want to play. But we can. And we have the players to play the way that we want to play.
“I believe in the guys in the locker room. I believe in everybody. That’s the main message. You have to keep having that belief.
“You know, we’re sitting at six and three. It’s not like it’s three and six.”