There are no shortage of talking points for what to watch in the Cardinals crucial matchup with the Seahawks Sunday, so let’s get right to it, starting with the obvious importance of the game that will be followed by two more in the NFC West against the Rams and 49ers.

As defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said this week, “You have 17 chances to win games in this league, but to have three in a row in the division for where this team is; absolutely it’s big-picture awareness, weekly focus. We know what’s out there. It doesn’t change the week of work, but we’re definitely aware that it’s getting late in the season. And we got three games that can turn our season these next three weeks.

“So that’s definitely out there. It’s one week at a time, but winning this game allows us to focus on the next week. You don’t win this one, next week becomes, ‘whatever,’ but it’s obviously a month for us that we have to make some strides and we’re aware of that.”

Said tight end Zach Ertz, “Everyone knows where we stand and what’s in front of us. At 3-5, you’re looking at what could be a long year, but everything that we want is right in front of us especially these next three weeks. So it really doesn’t matter what happened these past eight games because everything that we are playing for, all of our hopes of getting in the postseason or winning the division we have a really good opportunity these next three weeks to kind of lay that foundation.

“But it’s all for naught if we don’t find a way to win this one. Seattle is playing really well. They believe in each other and they’re playing extremely hard, so it’s gonna be a battle. We’re close, but not making enough plays when we need to. And it needs to change fast because we’re running out of time. Your record says where you are as a football team in this league. Moral victories are long gone. This is my 10th year and there’s no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL. And so for me, it’s just finding a way to win one football game against the Seahawks. And if we do that, we’ve set ourselves up for more success down the road, but we just got to find a way against a really good team.”

Getting the ball to Anderson

Earlier in the week, coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray talked about force-feeding the ball to wide receiver Robbie Anderson, who was acquired in a trade 19 days ago and played a total of 19 snaps in his first two games.

Friday, it was noted to Kingsbury that forcing things also comes with a risk. He said, “There’s only one way to do it at this point after three weeks is get him in there. And there’ll be some growing pains, there’s no doubt with the accelerated learning curve that he’s gonna have. But he’s been great. He’s worked hard, studied hard. He’s got dynamic speed, and we got to get him involved. So we’ll get him out there and see where it goes and have a plan. We won’t overload him, but we’ll have a plan for him.

OLine challenges

There is a degree of stability on the offensive line developing as the Cardinals will play their second game in three weeks with the same group whether D.J. Humphries or Josh Jones is the left tackle.

Ertz said, “We’ve dealt with our fair share of injuries, especially along the offensive line, but the guys that we have are starting to gel. I feel like their best football is ahead of them. And you see the work that they’re putting in with the communication not only on the practice field, but in the meetings. (Center) Billy Price, I’ve been really impressed with his approach. Just seeing him able to articulate and verbalize kind of the entire offense quickly was very impressive and you love playing with a guy that’s able to be loud and be in command because everything starts with the center. He’s got to tell us who we’re identifying as kind of the point or the Mike (linebacker). And he just really hit the ground running in that regard. So I’ve really appreciated his approach to football and being the best lineman he can be.

“And then Cody Ford, Will Hernandez, two guys that are monsters. They’re what you want your guards to look like; first guys off the bus. And then Beach (Kelvin Beachum) and hopefully Hump(hries) this week. Josh Jones played great against the Vikings last week. I thought he battled his butt off against two really good players Za’Darius (Smith) and Danielle (Hunter). So I think the line’s coming together. It’s all about continuity and chemistry with that group. It’s five guys playing as one. If you have four guys and one guy is kind of doing his own thing, the offense isn’t going to be good. Great offensive football play starts with the Oline. And those guys are starting to come along.”

Kingsbury said the “more time on task together, the better. This unit, it’s been in and out. We haven’t had many games where it’s been the same five guys, so now that we’ve got that group, getting Cody Ford healthy, getting Billy Price acclimated, Josh Jones getting in there and getting some playing time was big. I think everybody’s starting to feel more comfortable. And hopefully, it shows up on Sunday.”

The line will be challenged by a Seattle defense that continues to show steady improvement, especially in a winning streak that began with the 19-9 victory over the Cardinals three weeks ago.

After allowing 430 yards per game in the first five weeks, it’s been 290 the last three. Rushing yards went from 170 to 92, passing yards from 260 to 198, sacks from 6.0 in the first four games to 13.0 in the last four and points allowed from 30.8 to 15.0.

After the Giants totaled 225 yards last week and running back Saquon Barkley gained only 53, coach Pete Carroll said of defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, “I think he has done a magnificent job of keeping it together and holding the mentality to where we could take advantage when we start to make our move.”

Said Ertz, “They’re playing extremely confident. They haven’t changed too much. But I feel like their confidence level and intensity has kind of raised as they’ve grown more confident in the scheme. Early in the year, they were playing a lot of four-down fronts. Now they’re playing a lot of five-down. They got some really big guys inside on the defensive line. So they’re trying to maximize those guys’ talents, by trying to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional.

“So we got to find a way to run the ball, especially early in the game where we’re not just throwing the ball all the time. We got a lot of confidence in Kyler and our skill-position group, but if you’re one-dimensional in this league, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. Defenses can key in on that and it’s just going to be a long day. So we got to be balanced early on in and play to the best of our abilities.”

Getting a lead would also be nice. Kingsbury said this week that the team has been behind 91 percent of the time this season and has had a lead for an average of only about six minutes per game. The latter number is accurate, but the first isn’t. The Cardinals have been behind for about 69.5 percent of the time in games and tied for about 20.2 percent. The tied total is 98:17 of which 56:36 was at the beginning of games prior to the first score. They have been behind for 337:47 and ahead for only 50:05.

That six-minute average is misleading because the Cardinals never led in three games and in a fourth, the only lead came on the final play in overtime against the Raiders. In the other four games, they led for 31:50 against New Orleans, 11:22 against Carolina, 3:39 against Seattle and 3:14 against Minnesota.

Seahawks standouts

The Cardinals face the Seahawks in a week where quarterback Geno Smith was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month, while running back Kenneth Walker III and cornerback Tariq Woolen were named the NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Month, respectively.

Geno Smith

His 72.7 completion percentage leads the NFL and is the fifth-highest in history after eight games. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are ahead and each did it twice. Smith’s 102.7 passer rating is currently third in the league.

Explaining his success this week to Seattle media, Smith said, “I just think it’s me having a chance to play now. The attention and all of that stuff, I’m not really feeling it. I have just focused on what I am doing inside of this building. I think it’s more so people just seeing me play. I haven’t played in a bunch of years, outside of preseason, and I think people are now getting a chance to see me play in this offense with these types of players. It’s more so just all of us doing well more than just myself.”

Aside from the skill players, only six players have started games on the offensive line. That includes two rookies at left tackle (Charles Cross, first-round pick) and right tackle (Abraham Lucas, third round) along with center Austin Blythe. Left guard Damien Lewis has started seven games and Gabe Jackson six with guard Phil Haynes starting the games those players missed.

When told that this was the first time since the awards started in 1996 that two players on the same team were rookies of the month, Smith said, “That’s outstanding. It means that we drafted well, obviously, that has been the history here. But also the coaching, it speaks volumes to the coaching, getting those guys ready to play. Then to the individual for going out there and making the plays, taking the coaching, and putting all of those things to use. We have a lot of really good rookies, and they are contributing, all of them are in different ways. It’s really fascinating to see.”

Kenneth Walker III

The second-round pick’s production and explosive ability over the last four weeks since Rashaad Penny was injured has been a revelation. In the last four games, he has 403 yards on 70 attempts (5.8 average) and five touchdowns.

Of those 70 carries, nine have been for 11 yards or more, four for 21 or more and three for 34 or more. Against the Cardinals, he had a 34-yard run and an 11-yard touchdown. He also has touchdowns of 69 and 74 yards.

Stop him, stop him, stop him and then, boom, there’s a big play. Without the three runs of 34 yards or more, Walker is 67-for-226 (3.4 average). Without the four of 21 or more, it’s 66-for-205 (3.1 average). And without the nine of 11 or more, it’s 61-for-131 (2.1 average).

Joseph touted Walker before the teams played on Oct. 16 and when reminded of that this week, he joked, “Trust my evaluation, right? He’s a special back and the more he plays, the better he looks and every game he’s making runs that are special. He’s making guys miss, he’s breaking tackles with his quickness and with his power and his legs. Watching this kid early on, I knew he was gonna be a good player, but boy, he’s coming on fast and every game he’s making a game-changing play.”

Kingsbury said “no doubt” when asked how important it is to keep the big plays from happening.

“(I was) really impressed with him coming out,” he said. “We had high grades on him, interviewed him, like what he’s about. And then to see how he’s transitioned, it’s been really impressive. When they get him going, then they can throw when they want to. It’s tough to stop those guys. And Geno’s doing a great job taking care of the football and running when he needs to run. So they’ve got it going right now. But if you can limit him and not have those 30-, 40-, 50-yard runs that he’s shown he can hit, that will definitely help your cause.”

Last week against the Giants, Walker had a 16-yard touchdown run when he started to the right where the Seahawks had three tight ends in the formation. However, the Giants had it defensed and “on a dime,” Walker went to the left and scored.

“Ken was shut off, so he was able to get back to what was the only cut that he could make right there, and then after that, it was just on his own making a great individual effort,” offensive coordinator Shane Waldron told reporters.

When Waldron was asked about plays developing totally different than how they were drawn up, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that was exactly like it was designed — we are going to run right, go all the way back to the left, break four tackles and score. Ken has done an unbelievable job of understanding what the concept of the play is, where are the yards within the scheme, and then also when it’s time to ad-lib and go ahead and get positive yards, he’s done a really good job of not extending a play during a negative but extending the play where he has that great vision to find cutback lanes.”

Linebacker Markus Golden said, “He’s a helluva back. Young back that’s been proving himself right now. I like what I’ve seen of him. He got a lot of talent. He’s an elusive back; strong guy for sure.”

Added linebacker Ben Niemann, “The first game, we had seen tape on him but not to the extent of what we have now. Physical runner.”

Then, both were asked the $64,000 question: It’s obvious the big plays can’t happen for the Cardinals to be successful, so how do you do that?

Golden: “Doing your job, being disciplined, and flying around. Just fundamental football. With a back like, that you gotta come together and everybody gotta got on the tackle. Get on him and make sure to get him down.”

Niemann: “Have to build a wall up front. Everybody just stay in their gap. Do their job, set firm edges, tackle well, get a lot of hats to the ball. Great teams, great defenses, do the little things right and everybody just has to do their 1/11th and that’s how you ultimately win.”

If it was just that simple.

Tariq Woolen

In the first game between the teams, Woolen, a fifth-round pick, had an interception and fumble recovery. He is tied for the league lead with four interceptions.

He said this week, “I feel like the job isn’t done until it is Rookie of the Year. That’s the mentality that I’ve always had since the beginning of the season. Now that there is a chance and it’s an obtainable goal, I just want to try to grab it, but at the same time, I just want to have fun with my teammates. As long as you do that and as long as we are winning, then everybody is getting noticed. When you are winning, that’s when the awards come in. As long as we keep doing our thing, I’m happy.”

Kingsbury said, “He’s been playing great. I’m really impressed with how he competes and attacks and he’s very long, very fast, can transition in and out of cuts. For a young guy seems to really understand their scheme. And he’s physical. So he’s got it going. He’s a guy that you don’t want to make him the go-to guy that’s for sure if you’re trying to target people, but we’ll just see where it kind of goes on Sunday, but I couldn’t be more impressed with him as a young player and what he’s doing so far this season.”

“You see some special things with him stepping and kicking and pressing at the line of scrimmage. And his awareness,” said Hurtt, who also noted that Woolen hasn’t been targeted as much in recent weeks: “The biggest thing is when guys aren’t getting the football thrown their way, you still have to evaluate them in detail to make sure they are not getting lazy because when you start to relax and think no one is giving me any shots and you relax, the next thing you know they throw a couple balls at you. And it’s those couple balls that hurt you in the football game. But he’s staying alert, he’s attentive of what is going on and is still detailed in the game plan and is staying on top of things.”

The quotebook

Joseph on the Seattle offense: “They have changed in the last three weeks. Playing better defense obviously, so I think Coach Carroll’s plan of running the football and not turning the ball over is definitely the fact that you can see his print on that team. First time we played him, it was a lot more taking shots and being aggressive in the pass game. But now the last few weeks, it has been more run game because they’re more two tight ends, 13 personnel sets and more Walker. So they’re definitely different in what we saw the first time. Teams do evolve; that happens each week. So we’ll see what happens on Sunday, but they are definitely different than they were the first time we faced them.”

Kingsbury, who noted three weeks ago that the Seahawks defense was improving, talked about it getting even better, especially with young players: “It’s been a continued progression, I’d say. You just saw a comfort level and guys flying around playing with confidence and they just continue to get better. Anytime you have that many young guys playing and playing in critical positions, the more time on task they get, the better and Pete’s always done a great job with those defensive groups of building throughout the season finding out what they do well and majoring in that. And you can see that’s where they’re at.”

Ertz on the “theme” this season: “We’re close, I would say, but that doesn’t matter, necessarily. But when you don’t execute properly in NFL, you’re gonna get exposed. And there have been times where we just haven’t executed our best. We had some really good drives against a really good football team in the Minnesota Vikings last week. We put up 26 points and had every opportunity to win the football game. It came down to the fourth quarter and we didn’t make enough plays. And that’s just kind of been the theme.”

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Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.